Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
In the Japanese practice of origami, the mundane act of folding paper becomes an art. The practice of yoga asanas is also an origami, but the medium we fold is the human body. In both arts, it’s not the mere act of folding that brings life and beauty to the work; rather, it’s the consciousness with which the folding is performed.
The origami master starts with a flat sheet, envisions the delicate final shape it will take, then applies one precise, crisp crease after another. Knowing just where to hold, bend, pull, and twist to produce flawless, expressive lines, she feels the medium yield under her touch. Completely absorbed in the process, she aims to merge herself, the piece she is creating, and the universe into an integrated harmonious whole, imbuing her artwork with a mysterious power to move those who encounter it and transforming not just the paper but herself as well.
You, the yoga master, similarly begin with your medium in its usual configuration,
envision the intended form, then carefully, consciously align and fold yourself to manifest that form. You, too, feel your medium yield as you hold, bend, pull, and twist to produce clean lines, kink-free muscles, and healing pressure.
Since your medium is your body, it’s natural for you to be transformed by your art—but your transformation is not just physical. Every movement of your body modifies the flow and intensity of consciousness; as you mindfully configure your body, the configuration also modifies your mind. When you get it just right, you feel body and mind merge blissfully with the infinite.
Shape of Things To Come
Like origami artists, yogis learn simple folds first to prepare for more difficult shapes that combine the basic actions. The forward bend Marichyasana II is a classic example of a complex asana made of several simple folds. One leg comes into a Half Lotus position; the other folds into a squat, then moves slightly aside so the trunk can bend forward. Finally, the arms form a garland, wrapping around the leg and the trunk. The full ensemble not only is beautiful to behold and peaceful to experience but also relieves tension in the back, shoulders, and hips, reaching places difficult to access in other poses.
To prepare for Marichyasana II, it helps to systematically practice each of its elementary movements in four other asanas: Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose); a variation of Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose); Marichyasana I; and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half-Bound Lotus Seated Forward Bend). Before starting this sequence, though, it’s good to perform a few standing poses followed by Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose). These preliminaries will warm your body, awaken your nervous system, and ready your hips and back for deeper movement.
As you begin your practice, keep a few general cautions in mind. The Half Lotus position and poses that prepare for it, like Baddha Konasana and Gomukhasana, can be hard on your knees. If you feel any discomfort in these poses, immediately back out until the discomfort disappears. In that position, work on strongly rotating your thighbones outward.
Also, the seated forward bending poses can be hard on your lower back and sacroiliac joints. If you are somewhat stiff in the hips and hamstrings, elevate your pelvis on one or more folded blankets. You can tell how much elevation you need by feeling your lower back with your hand while sitting in the upright phase of each pose. If your lower back curves slightly in, you are fine; otherwise, you probably need more height.
Finally, if you have significant problems in your lower back, sacroiliac joints, or knees, seek the advice of a qualified teacher before you proceed.
A Big Turnout
To place your foot in Half Lotus for Marichyasana II, you need a great deal of outward rotation of the thigh at the hip joint. Although Baddha Konasana is an apparently simple posture, it creates a surprisingly large amount of this rotation, which makes it a good place to start. As you smoothly round your trunk forward to complete the pose, you also prepare your back and neck for similar actions in Marichyasana II.
Sit on the floor (or on your folded blankets) with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your knees to bring your heels about a foot from your pelvis, place the soles of your feet together, and lower your knees to the sides. Using both hands, firmly grip your right thigh and rotate it outward as strongly as you can, then do the same with the left. Next, grasp your inner ankles and rotate them firmly away from you. Without tipping the top of your pelvis back, continue this rotation and pull your ankles toward you, sliding your heels as close as possible to your perineum.
Before bending forward, it’s important to properly position your pelvis and spine. To do this, place your hands on the floor beside your hips and press down, lifting some of your weight off your pelvis. At the same time, press your sitting bones back and roll the top rim of your pelvis forward enough to tilt your pelvis upright, draw your lower back in, and lift your spine. As you tilt and lift, allow your knees to fall farther down to the sides. (It’s fine if the inner edges of the soles of your feet move apart as you do this.) Now set the full weight of your pelvis down and grip your feet with your hands.
To bend into the full pose, tilt the top of your pelvis forward as far as it will go, allowing your spine and trunk to follow in a neutral alignment at first. When your pelvis won’t tilt any farther, allow your trunk to gradually round, first from its base, then higher and higher up, preserving some length in the front of your abdomen and chest as you progress so you create a long, smooth curve. If your head reaches the floor, rest on your forehead; if not, let your neck and head drop just far enough to form a natural continuation of the arc of your trunk. Remain there, breathing naturally, for a minute or more.
Back to the Fold
Just as an origami artist sometimes twists the paper while folding it, you will rotate your thighs outward at the hip joints while folding your hips into flexion in this next pose. The combination creates effects neither movement can do alone.
In the classic Gomukhasana, you sit atop your feet and remain upright. In our version, you’ll sit between the feet, which makes the action in the hips more like that required in Padmasana (Lotus Pose). You’ll also bend forward, which focuses the hip action on the area of the lower buttocks that must release to allow the Half Lotus forward fold of Marichyasana II.
To come into this Gomukhasana variation, sit on the floor (or on a folded blanket) with your feet in front of you. (If you are using a blanket, fold it narrower than your hips so it won’t interfere later with your foot placement.) Bending your knees, bring the soles of your feet to the floor a few inches apart and about 18 inches in front of your pelvis. Take hold of your left ankle with your right hand, drawing it toward you, across your body, under your right knee, and alongside your right hip. Place your left foot as far back as possible on the floor next to your right thigh or hip. Press through your inner left heel so your foot rests on or near its outer edge rather than on its top, and maintain this action throughout the pose.
Next, draw your right foot into a similar position alongside your left hip, bringing your right knee directly on top of your left knee (or as close to that position as is possible for you). Then turn your right foot onto its edge, pressing through the inner heel, just as you did earlier with your left foot.
As in Baddha Konasana, press your hands into the floor beside your hips to lift your spine tall and equalize the weight on your sitting bones. Then press both your hands and your sitting bones back and down to tilt the top rim of your pelvis and your trunk forward as one unit.
To allow this forward bend, the base of your outer right buttock and the adjacent area of your upper thigh have to release and lengthen. If you feel resistance there, pause and let the sensation of stretch subside before you move farther forward. When your body gives you permission, tilt your pelvis and spine forward more and bring your hands to the floor at shoulder width a bit in front of your knees. Each time you encounter resistance in your hips, pause and wait for it to dissipate before you continue. When your pelvis will tilt forward no farther, elongate the front of your body and lay it down on your right thigh. Allow your head to hang, reach your hands well forward on the floor, palms down, and release in this position for a minute or more. Then repeat the pose on the other side.
“Ye who aspire to Marichyasana II would be wise to first accomplish Marichyasana I.” OK, so the sage Marichi probably never said this, but it’s still a good idea. Marichyasana I is good preparation for Marichyasana II because it requires almost exactly the same actions of the squatting leg and the arms, trunk, neck, and head.
To come into Marichyasana I, begin with a strong Dandasana (Staff Pose). Sit on the floor (or on folded blankets) with your legs together and straight out in front of you, inner thighs pressing down. Press your hands into the floor alongside your hips, press your sitting bones down and back, and draw your lower back in. Then lift your chest, creating breadth in the shoulders and upper back, and press the crown of your head toward the sky.
Without bending your right knee or tilting your pelvis back, lift your hands from the floor and use them to help bend your left knee toward the ceiling, bringing your left shin upright so it’s perpendicular to the floor and your left heel as close as possible to your pelvis. The heel should be on—or a bit to the left of—your midline.
Return your hands to alongside your hips and press down to lift your spine. Keeping your right hand and your left sitting bone pressing down, lift your left arm high to elongate the whole left side of your body. Tilt your whole trunk forward a little and, leading with the left side of your body, twist it slightly to the right. Initiate the forward movement with your left pelvic rim, then move sequentially up to your left waist, side ribs, and armpit. During this movement, and throughout the remainder of the pose, keep your inner left thigh in contact with the left side of your body.
Next, reach your left arm forward and grasp the outer edge of your right foot with your left hand, thumb down. (If you can’t reach your foot, hold your outer ankle or shin.) As you reach, elongate the front of your body, but let your spine round enough so that your left armpit comes to just above the middle of your left shin. Pulling firmly on your right foot with your left hand, twist yourself farther to the right while bringing the left side of your body farther forward along the inner left thigh. Just as you did before, let the left side of your body lead the twist, and again move sequentially from bottom to top: Initiate your forward movement from your left pelvic rim, then work your way up to your left waist, side ribs, and armpit.
Release your left hand from your right foot and place the outer side of your left armpit on the inside of your left shin. Rotating your whole left arm inward, wrap it around your left leg and reach your hand behind you and up toward your waist. On an exhalation, use a rapid yet smooth and controlled movement to swing your right hand around behind your back, and grasp your right wrist with your left hand. (If you can’t reach the wrist, clasp your fingers; if you can’t do that, use a strap to bridge the gap between your hands.)
Now, keeping the left side of your body well forward on your inner left thigh, rotate the right side of your body forward to match it, starting the movement from your right pelvic rim and working up to your right shoulder. (Your right shoulder should end up even with your left, both in its distance from the floor and in its distance from your pelvis.) Keeping your right leg strong and straight and your right inner thigh pressing down, reach both arms back as if to straighten them behind you, elongate the front of your body, and tilt your pelvic rim and your trunk forward as far as you can. On an exhalation, round your trunk forward into a long, smooth curve without collapsing the front of your body, just as you did in Baddha Konasana. If your forehead easily reaches your right shin, rest it there, as close to your right foot as possible. If you can’t reach your shin without forcing or straining, simply bow your neck and head so they follow the curve of your spine. Remain in the pose for one minute or more, then repeat it on the other side.
Marichyasana I illustrates that in yoga, just as in origami, the success of a fold often depends on the quality of the folds that preceded it. For example, to create the handclasp, you first have to bend your knee and hip accurately, then twist your spine, and then countertwist and curve it forward to place your shoulders beyond the shin of your bent leg. If your hips, spine, or shoulders do not yet bend and twist to their full potential, you may not be able to clasp your hand to your wrist, or even fingers-to-fingers, behind your back. But you can still use the pose to increase your capacity for all the folds that eventually make the handclasp possible.
Half Lotus Link
The next posture, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, calls for a new wrinkle in your body origami. Along with another wraparound arm movement and forward fold, it incorporates the Half Lotus actions you’ll need for Marichyasana II.
As in the previous pose, start with a strong, active Dandasana. Then rotate your right thigh outward, bend your right knee slightly, and curl the first two fingers of your right hand under the tendons of the inner knee, just above the joint. Rotate your whole right arm and hand inward until you are able to grasp the lower, inner thigh between the first two fingers and the thumb, bringing your thumb just above the kneecap.
Maintaining the Dandasana position of your left leg, and keeping your right knee as close to the ground as possible, use your right hand to simultaneously rotate your right thigh outward and pull your right knee far out to your right. As you do this, draw your right foot toward you so your right leg ends up in a position similar to Baddha Konasana. Gripping your knee tendons and muscles still more firmly with your right hand, manually rotate your whole right thighbone outward around its axis as strongly as you can. For maximum effect, soften the muscles around your right hip joint to allow the head of your right thighbone to turn out.
Continue this powerful outward rotation with your right hand as you slip your left hand under your right ankle—not under your foot, which can strain the ankle ligaments. Lift your ankle up and onto your left thigh. Place the ankle well to the left and atop the thigh, not on the inner thigh, and draw it as close as possible to your left hip crease. Ideally, your right heel should press into the soft flesh just to the right of your left front hipbone. If your outer right ankle presses painfully into your upper left thigh, use your hands to push the bulkiest part of the muscles out from under the ankle, moving the flesh toward your left knee.
Bring your hands back to Dandasana position alongside your hips, pressing them down to help you lift your spine tall. As you do this, press the back of your left knee toward the floor and move your right knee down and forward toward your left knee. Although your knees should remain apart, your right knee should end up pointing more forward than out to the side.
Next, swing your right arm around behind your back, using a smooth, rapid action as you did in Marichyasana I. Try to clasp your right big toe; you may find this easier if you first twist your trunk to the right and bend forward a little. If you can’t yet reach, you can use a belt to bridge the gap between foot and hand, grab your clothing, or simply continue to reach toward your left.
Once you’ve swung the arm around behind you, lift your spine tall once more. Then, on an inhalation, reach your left arm high in the air. As you exhale, rotate your trunk to the left until your breastbone faces your left shin. Grow tall again and straighten your left knee strongly on your next inhalation. Then, as you exhale, fold forward from your hip joints, pressing both sitting bones back and bringing your pelvic rim and trunk forward. Reaching your left hand to hold the outer edge of your left foot, pull gently on the foot and move your pelvic rim and trunk forward until the pelvis stops.
Pause there and breathe naturally, waiting for the muscles of the back of your left thigh and right outer buttock to soften enough to allow your pelvis to continue its tilt. Then exhale, tilt your pelvis forward to its maximum, allow your trunk to round forward into a smooth curve, and level your shoulders. Keep your belly soft, letting your right heel press into it. As always in forward bends, apply some effort to elongate the front of your body so that, although it does shorten, it doesn’t crumple. Keep the sides of your trunk long as well. Bow your neck and head as in Marichyasana I and remain in the pose for a minute or more. Then repeat it on the other side.
Now it’s time to complete your yoga origami by combining all the folds you’ve worked on in this practice into a single posture: Marichyasana II. The assembly should be easy, because you already know all the component parts.
First, create a solid Dandasana. Then bring your right leg into Half Lotus position, just as you did in Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana. Returning your hands to Dandasana position alongside your hips, press down to lift tall. Then bend your left knee, placing your left foot just as you did in Marichyasana I. As you do this, your left sitting bone will lift high off the floor. That’s OK: This difference from Marichyasana I is one of the effects that occur when you combine various folds. In fact, the unique gift of this particular combination is that it creates positions and actions of the hip and back that can’t be found in any other pose.
Next, lift your right hip momentarily and move your right thigh and pelvis a little to the left, so that as you set them down again, you bear weight farther to the outside of the right thigh than before. Then, on an inhalation, press your right hand into the floor and reach your left arm high. As you exhale, tilt your pelvis and torso forward and reach your arm well forward on the floor.
From here on out, all the remaining movements in Marichyasana II are the same ones you used to complete Marichyasana I. Bring the left side of your trunk farther forward on your left inner thigh, wrap your arms around your leg and back, and clasp your right wrist with your left hand if possible. Turn your trunk a little to the left to bring your shoulders level. Then, as you exhale, reach your arms back, lengthen the front of your body, and round your trunk, neck, and head smoothly forward, resting your forehead on your shin if it reaches naturally. Remain in the pose, fully present, for a minute or more, then repeat it on the other side.
As you continue to practice Marichyasana II over time, experiment to discover exactly where you need to yield and where you need to pull taut in order to make crisp, clean folds at the hips and knees, smooth, gentle contours of the trunk, and a graceful sweep of the arms. You’ll probably discover that, just as in origami, it is not always easy to combine simple folds into a complex shape. The folds sometimes interact with one another in unexpected ways to create obstacles.
Part of mastering the art of yoga is to see and feel ways to allow the various folds to work harmoniously together. In Marichyasana II, for example, you’ll find that it’s one thing to practice Half Lotus and hip and trunk flexion separately, but it’s quite another to do them at the same time. To master this, you will have to learn to let go in places you may not have even been aware of before. As you subtly align yourself to investigate these new places, then consciously release them to progress in the pose, be like the origami artist and like the paper itself, mindfully folding and yielding to create and become an expression of universal beauty.
About our contributor
A research scientist and Iyengar-certified yoga teacher, Roger Cole, PhD, specializes in human anatomy and the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. For more information, see http://rogercoleyoga.com.