Yoga postures are often named for mythological figures in the hope that practicing them might help us attain some of their heroic attributes. The story of the fish Matsyendra highlights the virtues of concentration and stillness—and offers a parable for the transformative power of yoga.
According to the ancient tale, the Hindu deity Shiva was on an island, explaining the mysteries of yoga to his consort Parvati. A fish near the shore remained motionless and listened with rapt attention. When Shiva realized that the fish had learned yoga, he blessed it as Matsyendra, Lord of the Fishes. The fish then took a divine form, came on land, and assumed a seated spinal twisting posture that allowed him to fully absorb the teachings. Yogic lore credits this twist, called Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Complete Lord of the Fishes Pose) with such important benefits that it is one of the few asanas described in a seminal 14th-century manual on yoga called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This classic guide anoints Matsyendra as the first human teacher of hatha yoga and says that the posture dedicated to him fans the gastric fire, cures all diseases, and awakens kundalini shakti, the dormant feminine energy coiled at the based of the spine in the form of a serpent. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) is a milder version of this twist.
When done correctly, this deep, seated twist has the power to transform your spine. It increases spinal rotation, boosts blood flow to the disks, and builds strength and flexibility in the erector spinae muscles, the tiny muscles that support the spine. The posture also nourishes the internal organs, because alternately compressing and stretching the torso is thought to increase circulation to those areas. In Ardha Matsyendrasana the stomach, intestines, and kidneys get a nice squeeze, stimulating digestion and elimination, while the shoulders, hips, and neck get a wonderful stretch.
- Opens the rib cage and chest
- Enhances digestion and elimination
- Stimulates the liver and kidneys
- Energizes the spine
- Stretches the shoulders, hips, back, and neck
- Spinal injury
- Back pain and/or injury
Before you attempt any twisting pose, it's essential to warm up properly: Imagine trying to wring out a dry sponge, and you'll understand why. Prepare with some gentle asanas that bring blood into the muscles that flex and extend the spine, such as Cat-Cow. It's also helpful to do some postures that release the hips, such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), and stretch the hamstrings, such as Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) and Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). A few rounds of Sun Salutations, linking movement with the breath, can also help ready body and mind.
Lengthen the Spine
To avoid compression and injury, it's important that you create length in the spine before and during the twist. Begin by practicing a modified straight-leg version of the pose (pictured above) and focus on three key actions: elongating the spine, twisting from the inside out, and breathing. Start by sitting on the floor with both legs straight, and bend your right knee, placing the sole of your right foot on the floor outside the left thigh, as close to your thigh as possible. With clasped hands, hold your right shin just below the knee.
Use that action to help lengthen the spine, extending up through the crown of your head as you simultaneously root down through your sitting bones. On an inhalation, lift up from the base of your skull, keeping the chin parallel to the floor. On an exhalation, release the weight of your hips into the earth. Take a few breaths here and imagine creating space between the vertebrae as you continue the opposing actions of lifting up and rooting down.
Twist from the Inside Out
Now place your right hand behind your right hip and hug your right knee into your chest with your left arm. Inhale and lengthen the spine, then exhale and draw your navel toward your spine as you begin twisting to the right. Start the rotation deep in your belly so that the navel turns first and the twist gradually moves up the spine. Focus on your spine as the central axis of the pose and imagine the twist spiraling evenly upward, like a barber pole. Avoid the common mistake of using your arms to "crank" your body around. Instead, initiate the twist from your core, rotating from the inside out, as you stay grounded through both sitting bones. Don't lead with the head; keep your neck in line with your spine and your chin parallel to the floor. To take yourself deeper into the pose, bring your left elbow to the outside of your right knee and press the elbow and knee against each other.
Tune in to the wave of the breath so that with each inhalation you lengthen your spine and with each exhalation you twist. Keep your shoulders relaxed and press down with your right foot as you exhale to spiral deeper. Stay here for three to five slow, deep breaths, then release slowly on an exhalation and repeat on the other side. Be sure to switch the clasp of your hands with the opposite thumb on top.
Spiral the Energy
To move into the full pose, come into the straight-leg version as described above. From here, bend your left knee and bring your left heel beside your right hip. Point your right knee toward the ceiling. Interlace your fingers and clasp your right shin just below the knee, using that action to lengthen up through the torso. In your mind's eye, picture all four sides of your rib cage—the front and back of the left and right sides—and try to lift them all evenly. It will be easier to gain length on the right side of your spine, but don't neglect the left side. Stay focused on lifting the entire circumference of the rib cage the same amount to get an even twist throughout the spine. Now anchor down through both sitting bones and lift up from the crown of your head, relaxing your shoulders down away from your ears. With the spine long, continue by breathing rhythmically and twisting from the inside out. To do this, allow the feelings in your inner body to dictate when to twist more instead of forcing your spine.
When your body has turned sufficiently, bring your left elbow outside your right thigh and use that action to encourage the spine to spiral even deeper. Stay here for three to five slow, deep breaths, then release slowly on an exhalation and repeat on the other side.
Adjust Your Imbalances
It's not uncommon to find Ardha Matsyendrasana easier on one side than the other, generally because most of us tend to favor our dominant arm, so we don't use our bodies symmetrically. This lopsidedness can be even more pronounced in people who practice one-sided twisting activities, like golf or tennis. To help even out postural imbalances, begin on the more difficult side and do the pose twice there or hold it twice as long.
Beginning students often become rigid in this pose. But a key to the asana is being able to relax into the twist. Be sure to keep your gaze soft—or even close your eyes—as you focus on your breath and feel the pose relax slightly on inhalation and deepen on exhalation. Concentrate and enjoy the deep stillness of the pose. And like the great fish Matsyendra, you may find yourself transformed.
Carol Krucoff is a registered yoga teacher and a journalist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the co-author, with her husband, Mitchell Krucoff, M.D., of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise.