The sitting twist Marichyasana III has many important benefits. It tones the belly organs (such as the liver and intestines), helps relieve lower back stiffness (but only if done properly—otherwise it will increase stiffness), and keeps the intervertebral disks—those little jelly-filled "doughnuts" between your vertebrae—supple.
Like all seated twists, several elements are needed to make the exercise safe. First, even before you begin to twist, it's essential that your pelvis be in a neutral position so that your spine can fully lengthen. To do this, imagine your whole pelvis as a bowl filled with water: If the bowl of the pelvis tips too far forward or back, the water will spill. When the pelvis is in a neutral position, the top rim of the bowl will be more or less parallel to the floor, and the imaginary water will stay safely inside.
To prevent straining the lower back, twist evenly through your spine, initiating the twist from the base of the spine at the sacrum. The sacrum is shaped like an upside-down triangle. Touch your lower back and feel the two indentations on either side of your spine, just above your buttocks. These are the sacral joints that connect the spine to the back of the pelvis. You'll need to know this later.
Remember that, while you're in the twist, your belly should stay as soft as possible. Just as a dish-towel shortens and thickens when twisted, so does the belly, and that can prevent the spine from lengthening and twisting fully. Does all this seem like a tall order? It isn't really, and a few simple preparations will help you get a feel for what I'm describing. So grab your blanket and your yoga block, and let's get started.
Roll your blanket up into a thin roll and set it aside for use later on. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. On an inhalation, lift your pelvis off the floor and slide the block under your sacrum lengthwise, with the two short ends pointing toward your head and feet. Lower yourself onto the block, making sure that your tailbone, or coccyx, is supported. Bring the soles of your feet together, lay the outside edges of your feet on the floor, and draw your heels up comfortably toward your perineum. This is Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). Don't push those knees down toward the floor—let them float a little toward the ceiling—and soften and sink your groins. Feel the block pressing against your sacrum. Seesaw gently from side to side on the block.
As you rock to the right, imagine the block pressing the right half of your sacrum deeper into your pelvis; when you rock to the left, imagine the same on the other side. Visualize the two sides of your sacrum widening away from the midline. Notice that as you rock right, your torso naturally twists a bit to the left, and vice versa. That is exactly what you'll do in the pose: you'll press the left side of the sacrum in to twist right, and the right side in to twist left. Slow your seesawing until you come to a stop exactly in the middle, resting your full sacrum atop the block. Stay there for a few minutes, imagining the block pressing your sacrum deeper into your pelvis. Imagine lengthening your coccyx away from your back pelvis, toward your heels. Then push your feet into the floor, inhale and lift your pelvis, slide the block out from under you, and put it off to the side. As you exhale, lower your pelvis to the floor and hug your thighs into your belly.
Still hugging your thighs to your body, roll over onto your left side. Reach behind your back with the right arm and press the right thumb against the left half of your sacrum. This will initiate a twist in your upper torso to the right and get your spine used to twisting. Let the twist spiral up the spine from the left sacrum to your head. (As one of my revered teachers always said, the head should receive the twist, never lead it.) After a minute or so, inhale as you roll back to center and repeat on the left side.
Finally, roll onto your belly and position the blanket roll just above your hip points. Rest your head on your crossed forearms. Lie quietly for a minute, releasing your belly with each exhalation. On the next few inhalations, lift your head and upper torso off the floor, supporting yourself on your forearms while lengthening your belly so that it lifts slightly and hollows into your torso. Exhale and lower back down again, maintaining the length you've created. Throughout the movements, keep the pelvis fixed in place with the roll, and ideally you'll feel your rib cage "inch-worming" ever so slightly across the floor, drawing your belly out. Then turn off of the roll onto your back and hug your legs again.
Tell the Truth
Now for the moment of truth, or satya in Sanskrit. Remember how you want a balanced, or neutral, pelvis? Very few people can accomplish that sitting on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with their legs stretched straight in front of the torso. Try it. You'll likely notice that your tailbone sinks backward so it's closer to the floor than your pubis, and that your lower back rounds. This is a prelude to disaster for all sitting poses. If you twist or bend forward from this slumped position, you'll put pressure on your spinal disks, which could lead to injury. I recommend that you sit on a folded blanket or two, until you're positive that you're resting directly on top of your sitting bones, with your tailbone and pubis equidistant from the floor, indicating that your pelvis is neutral.
From Dandasana, bend your right knee and set your heel just in front of your right sitting bone. Keep your left leg straight and firm, pressing the thigh actively down against the floor and reaching through your left heel and the base of your big toe. Press the inner right heel and base of the big toe firmly against the floor. Remember the first block exercise? Imagine now that the left side of your sacrum is pressing into your pelvis, and twist your torso to the right. As you do so, draw your belly up and in, and lift your back ribs away from the pelvis. You'll end up more or less facing your inner right leg.
You often see pictures of the yogi's arm pressed against the outside of the bent knee. If you are new to this pose, don't do this. Most of us lack the flexibility to do this and still keep the spine long. Bringing your arm to the outside of your knee forces you to hunch over your bent leg, which immediately shortens the spine and not only obstructs the twist but can, over time, strain the lower back.
Instead, wrap your left arm around your leg, hug it into your torso, and press your right hand into the floor just behind you, pushing your torso up and forward. Pressing your inner right foot into the floor is crucial: this will help release the inner right groin. Lengthen your tailbone away from your pelvis and downward into the floor like the root of a plant. Simultaneously, just as you did with the roll under you, with each inhalation, inch your belly up along the inner right thigh, keeping the belly soft and slightly hollow. With each exhalation, twist a tad more. As in all the poses, you'll never reach the "end"; no matter how long you stay, you'll always be able to add something to your twist. Remember that every pose is a process, like a movie, rather than a state, like a still photo.
Despite your efforts, you may feel your pelvis (and torso) sink backward, away from the bent-knee leg. If so, get about a forearm's length away from a wall, and as you press your free hand to the wall, lift your torso up and forward. It's intuitive to turn your head the same direction as the torso, so that you look over your right shoulder. But you can also twist the neck and head in the opposite direction from your torso (on this side to the left) to gaze out at your left big toe. Neither way is right or wrong—just different. Continue to twist for about a minute. Then, on an exhale, straighten your right leg, square your hips, and repeat for the same length of time to the left side.
Marichyasana III is a basic sitting twist. It will get you ready for its more challenging cousins (Marichyasana I, II, and IV), as well as help relieve your back after a vigorous asana practice.
Contributing editor Richard Rosen is a yoga teacher in Northern California.