When life conspires to keep me from my yoga practice for more than a few days, I eagerly anticipate my first morning back on the mat. I shift and shimmy in utter delight, nearly flinging myself into the arms of my favorite asanas. With every pose, I am reminded of how happy my body is to be stretched and swirled through its full range of motion.
I linger in every sensation, enjoying the resistance and then release of tight hamstrings, stuck shoulders, and creaky bones. I begin to feel as if my inner doors and windows have been thrown wide open and fresh spring breezes are wafting through, carrying away cobwebs and debris. After an hour or so of practice, I feel open and spacious and at home in the world. During these happy returns, I inevitably find myself drawn as if by a magnet to the deep and soul-drenching twist of Marichyasana III (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi III). One of the most exquisite and refreshing of all yoga postures, Marichyasana III serves as a balm for tight shoulders, achy backs, sluggish digestion, and stifled breathing. It leaves us balanced, rejuvenated, and ready for the day ahead.
Start by sitting on the edge of a folded blanket in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with the pelvis balanced evenly on the two sitting bones (at the base of the pelvis), the spine long, and the legs straight. If the spine is well aligned in a neutral position, your sitting bones will nestle into the ground, your lower back will sweep gracefully inward, and your head will hover lightly above your hips.
If you find yourself sitting on the tailbone instead, with your lower back sagging and your head thrusting in front of your shoulders, prop yourself up on a few additional blankets so you can rest firmly on your sitting bones.
Let the legs grow long and straight, with the knees facing the sky and the heels reaching enthusiastically toward the wall in front of you. As you settle firmly onto your sitting bones, invite a sense of ease and spaciousness to bubble up from the base of the spine to the crown of your head. To heighten this sense of lightness and length, imagine there are little pockets of blue sky between each vertebra in your spine. Create length first and then revolve out of that extension--this is a fundamental principle that can be applied to all twists.
As you breathe steadily and comfortably, envision your spine within you; drop your awareness into your tailbone and then slowly, breath by breath, begin sweeping upward, paying attention to sensations in the sacrum, the waist, the upper back, the neck, and finally the skull. Enjoy this process of introspection, honing your sensitivity to the feelings passing through you deep inside.
When you're ready to move into the pose, bend your right leg and place your heel on the floor next to your inner left knee. Position the right knee so that it is in line with the right hip, neither leaning inward toward the opposite leg nor splaying outward toward the floor. Keep the right foot parallel to the left leg.
Spiral the Spine
Pause for a moment and ask yourself if in repositioning your leg, you have inadvertently shifted the hips, rounding the lower back and compressing the right side waist in the process. If so, recommit to length and balance in the torso by rooting down evenly through the sitting bones, nudging the lower back inward and upward and lengthening through the spine. At the same time, release the outer right thigh down to counter the tendency of the right hip to hike upward. Remember: Though you're creating asymmetry in the lower body, you still want to maintain balance and length through your core.
When you feel balanced in the hips and long in the spine, interlace your fingers and place your hands atop your right knee, letting your elbows hang to the sides while your shoulder blades release toward the floor; allow the weight of your arms to encourage your right footprint to deepen. Notice how the downward release of energy creates a rebound effect up through your spine. Keep the back of the neck long by imagining that the crown of your head is being pulled toward the sky.
Inhale as you elongate your spine, then exhale as you slowly spin your belly toward the bent leg. Begin the revolution deep in your body, keeping the cradle of the pelvis still as you revolve the contents of your belly. Let your breath guide the movement, creating length as you inhale and helping you rotate further into the twist as you exhale.
Repeat this rhythmic action several times--inhaling to lengthen and exhaling to revolve--slowly breathing your way into the twist without sacrificing liveliness or length. Take your time with this exploration, enjoying the many colorful sensations kindled by the deep spiraling of the spine.
Deepen the Stretch
It's likely that at some point along the way, you'll feel the urge to use your hands to help you twist farther. When this happens, reach the right arm to the floor behind your right hip. (If this causes your spine to buckle backward, prop the right hand on a block.) At the same time, wrap the left hand around the outer right knee, with your palm resting above the shin. Use the leverage of the two hands to gently guide your torso just a little deeper into the twist. As you do this, anchor the right knee firmly in space so it doesn't slip to the left as the hand presses against it.
This may be as far as your spine would like to twist in Marichyasana III for now. If, however, this action feels comfortable and your spine begs you to crank around a little farther, inhale as you lift your left arm and exhale as you place the outer left elbow at the outside of the right knee. With your forearm perpendicular to the floor, extend your left fingertips toward the sky. Inhale again to lengthen your spine and then exhale as you revolve even further into the twist. Let the heart, shoulders, neck, and nose follow the graceful sweep of your spiraling spine, leading your eyes to gaze over your right shoulder.
Now take a moment to assess your status. As you've rotated, have you shifted the weight of your body onto the left side of your pelvis? If so, reroot through your sitting bones and deepen the crease of your outer right hip to re-create stability at the base. Has the juice drained out of your left leg, causing it to flop sloppily to the left? Reach firmly through the inner heel and reenergize the entire leg, turning the top of the left knee up toward the ceiling. Have your lower ribs sagged toward the right arm, turning the spine into a banana? Press the right hand firmly into the floor while gently drawing the floating ribs toward the left until the two sides of your waist feel equally long.
When you feel that your body has recovered its composure and graceful alignment, you may decide to inhale to lengthen and exhale to revolve just a few more times, milking the twist for all that it's worth. Let the breath massage your abdominal organs as you do this, inviting your inner body to soften and surrender. Let Marichyasana III wring everything that is inessential out of you.
When you've had enough, slowly unravel yourself from the pose with fluidity and finesse. Enjoy the effortless release of your spine as it slips out of the twist. Straighten your right leg, close your eyes, and observe how Marichyasana III has changed you. As you rest here, enjoy the delicious feeling of being filled with fresh, clear breath and renewed vitality.
When your body signals that it is ready to twist to the left, repeat the same movements on the opposite side, maintaining a quiet and receptive attitude all the while. Avoid the tendency to hustle through the second half of the pose just to check it off your to-do list. Instead, move slowly and with patience, observing each passing sensation and breath.
Once you've settled into your deepest twist on the second side, imagine a swirling ribbon of satin beautifully winding its way around your spine. With your mind's eye, trace that silky spiral from your tailbone all the way up into the sky so that your spine feels evenly stretched from bottom to top. Breathe gently, soften the inner organs, and enjoy the juicy vibrancy that Marichyasana III offers.
For Beginners columnist Claudia Cummins is a yoga teacher who lives and writes from her home in Mansfield, Ohio.