When you take Ardha Matsyendrasana toward the end of a challenging sequence, it can be tempting to relax and use the twist as a way to wind down. But don't let yourself zone out, or you'll miss the gifts this pose has to offer. The real essence of a twist is not the shape of the pose, which can seem fairly easy to assume. It's the action of twisting that brings benefits—the contracting of your torso muscles, the elongating and rotating of your spine, the deepening of your breath.
If you work consciously step by step, you'll get many benefits from Ardha Matsyendrasana. It will stretch your outer hips and thighs and open the front of your shoulders and chest while building up strength in your upper-back muscles. It will teach you to lengthen your spine and build strength along the sides of the body. Twisting poses are thought to help keep your spine healthy by squeezing and rehydrating the spongy disks between the vertebrae, which tend to get compressed with age.
You may find yourself slumping when twisting in a pose like Ardha Matsyendrasana. But if you slump, you limit the degree of spinal rotation possible for you. To twist deeply, you have to first lengthen your spine, making space between your vertebrae, before you start to twist. Go slowly, and work with your breath. On your inhalations, find length in the spine; on your exhalations, turn deeper. Imagine your spine is a spiral staircase, and go up one step at a time, starting with the bottom step, or your lower back. As you inhale, ground evenly through your sitting bones and lift through your spine. As you exhale, turn farther into the twist. Make more space between the vertebrae as you inhale; twist farther as you exhale. Gradually step your way up the staircase with each breath, making space and turning.
As you move deeper into Ardha Matsyendrasana, you may discover that your pelvis and legs tend to follow the spine into the twist. If you let this happen, you might feel that you are twisting more deeply, but in fact you are just turning to the side rather than truly twisting around your midline. Instead, learn to twist yourself in two directions at once to wring out the entire torso.
To practice this kind of twisting, work from both ends of your spine: Resist in one direction with the thighs and hips at the bottom, and turn in the other direction with your upper chest at the top. As you twist your spine to the right, pull your left thigh back into its hip socket. You'll feel your pelvis draw back on that side, and your hips will square off again. However, if your lower back is tender or often painful, skip this countermove and allow your pelvis to simply follow in the direction of the twist. Either way, practice consciously, and you'll experience a deep and satisfying twist that will leave you feeling longer and lighter.
When practiced with dedication, a deep, seated twisting pose such as Ardha Matsyendrasana can bring you face to face with what's really going on—in your spine, your hips, and even your mind. The act of twisting, of literally turning your torso around itself, quickly brings your attention to how your body feels, whether your stomach is bloated, your breathing constricted, or your muscles stiff. Deep twists insist that we observe what is present, whether difficult or sweet, and make a clear and conscious choice to create change or to make peace.
Take several breaths going into this demanding twist, and take a few more breaths to go deeper. After you release the tight grip of the twist, pause to feel the effects. You'll probably find that you're more aware of how you feel, physically and emotionally.
Step One: Get Grounded as You Twist
Practice stabilizing the pelvis in Easy Twist.
Set It Up:
1. Sit cross-legged (with your right leg in front of the left) with your hips on a folded blanket.
2. Sit upright on your sitting bones, so you don't collapse backward.
3. Place your left hand on the outer right knee, and place the fingertips of your right hand on the floor behind your right hip.
4. Ground down into your seat, lift your spine as tall as you can, and begin to twist to the right.
Refine: With each inhalation, lengthen your spine, and with each exhalation, find a little more twist. Pull with your left hand to help bring your torso around, and press into your right fingertips to keep your spine upright. Focusing on your waist, inhale as you lift your ribs off your hips, and exhale as you twist your waist to the right. Continue lifting your ribs as high as you can as you inhale and turning them as you exhale. Then, when you can't twist your middle spine any more, turn your top chest and shoulders to the right. Finally, gently turn your neck and head.
Finish: After you've deepened your twist, pause and notice whether your left hip has moved forward along with your spine. Draw your left thigh back, squaring your hips to the front. (If you have a tender lower back, skip this part.) You'll feel a true twist: Your hips pull slightly back to your left while your torso turns around to your right. Exhale to unwind. Change the cross of your legs, and repeat on the left.
Step Two: Create Length as You Twist
Learn to open your chest and shoulders in Marichyasana III.
Set It Up:
1. Sit on a folded blanket with both legs straight in Dandasana (Staff Pose).
2. Bend your knee, draw your right foot in, and place it on the floor a few inches in front of your sitting bone.
3. Hold your right knee with your left hand, placing your right hand on the floor behind your right hip.
4. Lift your left arm high. Twist and draw your elbow down on the outside of your right thigh.
Refine: Stay upright on the center of your sitting bones, keeping your left leg straight and grounded. Push your elbow and thigh together for stability. Ground down into your hips and inhale as you lengthen your spine. Exhale and twist from your core. Gradually work your way up your spine, using your breath to create space and deepen your twist. When you reach the top of your chest, take another breath to open your shoulders: Roll your right shoulder back and down, breathing into your right chest. Then, as you exhale, try to press your left shoulder blade into your back to push the left side of your chest forward into the twist. Allow your neck and head to float up and turn gently.
Finish: Once you are in your twist, sense whether your hips are still square or if your left leg and hip have followed into the twist. If the latter, try gently pulling your left thigh straight back to square the hips. Continue that action as you open your upper body to the right. Take in a last breath, and exhale to unwind. Change your legs, and repeat on the second side.
Final Pose: Ardha Matsyendrasana
Set It Up:
1. Sit with both legs straight in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Adjust your legs so that you can sit evenly on your sitting bones. If your back is rounding, sit on a folded blanket.
2. Cross your right foot over your left thigh and place it on the floor outside your left knee.
3. Fold your left leg in, with your foot outside your right hip.
4. Hold your right knee with your left hand, and place your right hand on the floor diagonally behind you.
5. Lift your left arm high. Twist the torso as you draw your elbow down on the outside of your right thigh.
Refine: Square your hips to the front edge of your mat, and sit upright, centering your weight on your sitting bones. Try to keep the hips squared and the right knee pointing straight up. As you twist, see if you can balance the actions of twisting to the right in the upper body and pulling to the left in the lower body. Focus on each section of your back; lengthen and turn through the waist, ribs, shoulders, neck, and head. Keep trying to square your hips by pulling your left thigh back just the right amount. (If you have a tender lower back, let your hips move into the twist.) Keep pressing your right foot and right hip down.
Finish: Patiently explore this pose, mindfully adjusting with each breath. Take several deep breaths. Slowly unwind on an exhalation, and try your second side.
Try adjustments to optimize the twists in this sequence for your body:
Back pain: If you have lower-back pain, do not try to square your hips. Let the back hip follow the spine in the direction of the twist.
Constricted breath:If you're struggling to breathe deeply, back out of the twist a bit and try to slow your breath down.
Tight hips: If your hips are tight, practice sitting on a folded blanket or more, or practice Easy Twist instead of the full pose.
Tight shoulders: In Step 2 and the final pose, instead of pressing the elbow against the lifted knee, hold the knee with your hand.
Elements of Practice
One of the great lessons of twists is learning how to penetrate the layers of yourself, to steadily go deeper. In twisting poses, you begin by using your arms as levers, and then you learn to turn using your abdominals and then smaller, more intrinsic muscles. You may even feel that you're turning your organs. Going deeper, you might become aware of the breath creating space in your spine and the energy coursing through your body. Over time, through steady attention, the practice reveals your inner self. This awareness can lead to a state of profound acceptance and serenity as outer distractions and challenges fall away.
Watch a video demonstration of this pose.
Annie Carpenter teaches yoga classes and leads teacher trainings at the Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.