This asana is named after the great Yogi Matsyendranath
Ardha Matsyendrasana is a pretty deep spinal twist in its full expression, but it’s how we approach and prepare for the posture that really makes the difference in how we feel in it….
Although we’re advised to leave our ego at the door when entering a Yoga class, it often inevitably joins us on the mat about half way though when we’re facing a challenge…. It’s just these moments of pushing just a little bit too far though, that cause injury and discomfort…. But of course it takes time to truly listen to the body instead of the mind…. Is it even important how many asanas we can squeeze ourselves into?
As with most things in life, what we do on the mat is not about what we do, but the way we do it…. A physical practice doesn’t have to be about ‘how deep can I go into a posture’, but rather ‘how deeply can I experience the posture I’m in….’ and this posture could be savasana, virabhadrasana 2, adho mkha vrksasana (handstand) or indeed ardha matsyendrasana. Whether a posture looks ‘impressive’ from the outside does not define a yoga practice, what defines the practice is the amount of awareness you bring to it.
Twists create space in the body: This may seem counter-intuitive since they can appear (and feel) as though they’re all about squeezing and scrunching ourselves into an uncomfortable position, but it’s after the posture that the effects are felt. Yes, at the time they can feel a little challenging, but twists offer an amazing sense of openness and spaciousness afterwards if we take the time to feel the effects of the asana rather than rushing on to the next one….
But they also require space in order to be practiced in a healthy way: Tension in the hips and lower back can feel very restricting to the body, and general twisting movements in daily life can often contribute to back pain or injury if these areas are tight. Opening the hips and lower spine prior to twisting will really help make any twists more accessible and comfortable.
Opening the sides of the body will help create space in the intercostal muscles when moving towards the twist, and space in the lower back and hips makes twists remarkably ‘easier’ (and safer) to move into.
Find your foundations first: The ability to find a sense of grounding and stability will help any asana feel more accessible. Feeling stable and ‘safe’ really creates the ability to lengthen and open; when the body feels grounded it begins to let go of tension and the breath flows more freely. Try this particularly in parivrtta trikonasana, which really requires us to ground through both feet – especially the back heel – in order for the upper body to twist with ease.
Connecting to the earth with whatever our foundations are – whether it be the hands, feet, head or sitting bones – helps in finding more healthy alignment of the bones, and a connection to the core, instead of relying on muscular ‘gripping’ to get us through the asana.
Maintain length in the spine: In order to twist with ease, we need space between the vertebrae of the spine. Throughout the day, the spine becomes a little compressed and loses fluidity simply because of the downward pull of gravity, but also because of slumping and hunching in the back. This all leads to low energy levels, which is why twists (when practiced in a healthy way) and backbends – are known to be particularly energising.
From a more esoteric aspect, the practice of Yoga looks to raise the Kundalini energy from its coiled position at the bottom of the spine, through to the crown of the head in order to reach a form of bliss or transformation. This energy is potential energy that is awoken through various Yoga practices which ‘un-block’ pathways in the body until there’s enough openness for energy to flow freely. Whether you adhere to this concept or not, we all know how much more energised we feel after releasing stagnant energy and tense, stiff muscles.
It’s a natural length that is the most important to maintain though – the curves of the spine are there for a reason – so rather than thinking about pushing to the furthest point, think about finding a healthy, sustainable, natural range of motion for the body as it is today.
Twist from the core: Leading with the head and neck is a common habit in twisting postures, because a lot of our time is spent in the head, so it’s where our awareness goes to first….
Twisting from the neck and head gives the illusion that the twist is deep.
Without pushing, the cervical spine has a natural rotation of about 50 degrees, while the thoracic allows for 35, and the lumbar only 5, since it’s main priority is providing support and stability for the rest of the body above. Although sometimes the ego gets the better of us and we obsess over getting deeper and further into postures, a far healthier twist maintains balance throughout the spine, and a twist which is beneficial to us doesn’t actually need to be very deep at all.
Using the abdominal muscles and breath to rotate the body around the spine helps create an even twist while also creating deeper core strength. It may not look from the outside as though you’re going as deep into the posture as before, but it will ultimately serve the body a lot better over time.
Breathing into the twist can make the posture even more powerful, but breathing in general is something to be particularly aware of here, as twists often encourage a shallow or held breath.
To prepare the body:
- From a supine position, bring the soles of the feet to the floor hip – distance apart. Begin by making space in the hips, lower back and sacrum by gently windshield-wiper-ing the legs from side to side. Taking the knees to the right then the left
- Bring the knees into the chest and roll up to a sitting position.
- From a seated position, begin to take some gentle side bends through the body to create space in the intercostal muscles.
- From there, come onto hands and knees and practice ‘thread the needle’, in which one arm is threadedunderneath the other, and the shoulders and head are relaxed onto the floor. This will help to open up the muscles of the upper back and side body. You can also go a little deeper here by lengthening the top arm along-side the top ear in order to open further through the side of the body.
- After a few breaths on each side, make your way into Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) and focus on lengthening the spine.
- Walk towards the front of the mat, and slowly rise into Tadasana (mountain pose)
- Become aware of the foundations of Tadasana – the feet – andfind length through the spine again.
- Move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A in order to stimulate the breath and blood flow, which will always help make a posture more accessible.
- After 3-5 rounds, return toTadasana and step back to a wide-legged position. From here, practice Trikonasana (triangle pose) but choose a variation with the top arm lengthened along-side the ear. This will help to lengthen the muscles of the outer hip and side body, which is likely to make a different in how accessible the seated twist will be. Practice to both sides of the
body, staying for 5-10 breaths on each side.
- Return to Tadasana to practice the last preparation postures. Step back to aashta chandrasana (or a ‘high lunge’) to practice THIS variation of a twisted lunge, and then parivrtta ashta chandrasana (revolved creascent moon pose) to move deeper towards twisting.
- When you’ve practiced these to each side of the body, step back to Tadasana and then make your way into dandasana (a seated position in which the legs are lengthened out in front of you).
- From Dansasana or ‘staff pose’, begin by establishing a firm connection to the sitting bones, your foundation. You may need to sit on a block or rolled blanket in order to maintain length in the spine if the lower back is rounding.
- Bend the right leg and bring the sole of the foot to the outside of the [left] thigh. From there, bend the [left] leg and bring the heel around to the outside of the [right] hip. If this isn’t suitable due to knee issues, then leave the leg straight.
- Begin to re-establish connection to the foundations, which are now the sitting bones, and the sole of the [right] foot. From there, begin to lengthen the spine – not over-doing it, but finding a natural and comfortable length.
- Wrap the [left] arm around the [right] leg and bring the [right] hand back behind the tailbone on the floor. Ensure you don’t lean into the back hand and take power away from the core, instead just have it lightly touching the floor, as though it’s reminding you to stay tall through the spine.
- As you inhale, lengthen through the whole of the spine, and exhale to twist to the right. Think about leading with the belly button and chest – not the neck or head.
- Once you’ve found a comfortable twist, check for any tension around the jaw or shoulders, and continue to use the inhale to gently lengthen, and the exhale to twist.
- If you’re able to go deeper into the twist, the front elbow can be hooked over the [right] leg.
- To transition out of the asana, inhale to unravel the body and bring yourself back to centre.
- Un-cross the legs and return to dandasana. Become aware of the effects of the asana (remember, the effects of twists happen after we practice them) and the move onto the other side of the body.
- To counter-pose this asana, lie on the floor and practice a gentle bridge pose, followed by the windshield-wiper movements of the legs.
The real benefits of Yoga lie way beyond what the eye can see. Beneath the skin, in the deepest depths of the mind, is where true transformation takes place if we allow it to….