Parivrtta = ‘Revolved’ Prasarita = ‘Spread’, ‘Expanded’, or ‘Wide apart’ Pada = ‘Foot’ Ut = ‘Intense’ Tan = ‘To Stretch’ Asana = ‘Posture’, or ‘Seat’
This name literally translates as ‘spread out feet intense stretch’ so it does exactly what it says on the tin….
The practice of being able to breathe properly might seem like a pretty strange thing to practice, but when we feel the benefits of a full, deep, nourishing breath, we realise what we’ve been missing. As I’ve said many times before; many of us are stuck in a breathing pattern that is short, shallow, and held high up in the chest. If we’re in a habit of breathing in this way, we’re also likely to be in a habit of activating the sympathetic nervous system most of the time (the fight or flight system). If this is continued over a period of time, our health can decline rapidly. Healthline sent me this visual representation of what happens to us through chronic stress, read on to find out more about whats happens to us when we’re stressed out!
Much of a physical Yoga practice is intended to help us improve the quality of our breath in order to calm the mind and nervous system, and prepare the body for meditation. There are certain postures which are especially beneficial for opening up parts of the body that – when tense, ‘tight’ or simply under-used, could be restricting our breathing capacity.
The upper back and intercostal muscles are places we might not think of ‘breathing into’ if we’re used to breathing into the chest, but these are some of the parts of the body that – when open and relaxed – allow for a much deeper breath to take place. The intercostal muscles run between the ribs, and lengthen on an inhale, helping the ribcage expand with the movement of the lungs, while also helping to stabilise the upper body when lifting, twisting, flexing, pushing or pulling. When they’re ‘tight’ this can feel very restrictive to the breath, and will also have an impact on the skeletal system – pulling bones and joints out of healthy alignment.
Chronic poor posture can cause the intercostal muscles to become habitually contracted and therefore ‘shortened’; hunching over at a desk is possibly one of the worst causes of this, as we do it for such a long time in a work or office situation, often accompanied by stress which will also encourage a short and rapid breath…. Pretty bad news for the body…. Repeatedly coughing or sneezing over a long period of time can cause the intercostals to become short or tight too, and many weightlifters experience ‘intercostal strain’ due to over-exertion, which is a serious injury that takes quite a while to heal. This type of injury could also be caused by rapid and forceful twisting of the torso, which leads us to why it’s important to be mindful when we practice, exercise or challenge ourselves daily; your body will respond!
Twists are a popular family of postures in many Yoga classes; they can really help release tension in the spine and upper back, and many students comment on how good they feel after having practiced them – especially if they’ve been sitting hunched at a desk all day.
Most twists help to expand and open the intercostals and upper back muscles, therefore allowing for a deeper expansion of breath, so while they may seem constricting at first, eventually they lead to a sense of spaciousness within the body. However, whether it’s lack of mindfulness, an over-eagerness to look good in the posture, listening too closely to the ego, or just being unaware of what we’re actually doing to ourselves in a Yoga posture – we can tend to go a little too far sometimes…. Especially with twists.
A deeper twist is not necessarily a healthier or ‘better’ twist, and most often the healthiest twist for the spine is one which is gentle and distributed evenly along the mid and upper back. The lumbar spine has around 5 degrees of rotation and the mid-thoracic about 45, while the neck is extremely flexible, with approximately 90 degrees of rotational ability on average. The lumbar spine is created for stability – to support the rest of the body above it – so while we need to ensure it’s not stiff or rigid by opening out the muscles of that area (as we practiced last week), it doesn’t necessarily need to twist, and in fact it’s the action of twisting in the lumbar spine that can cause quite serious back pain.
With the neck already being able to twist so much – accompanied by the fact that the vertebrae of the neck have some rather important nerves extending out of them (!) – there’s not so much need to rotate the head around extensively in order to receive the benefits of a twisting asana. The mid-spine is often the place it’s healthiest to focus twisting around, but the upper thoracic spine – specifically the place that connects to the ribcage – often remains difficult to create movement in. Because this area of the spine connects to the ribs, housing the heart, lungs etc, it is intended to be less mobile in order to protect our vital organs. Due to this though, we rarely get movement into this part of the back, and therefore it’s likely to become rigid and stiff, resulting in a shallow breath, and more physical tension in the body, taking us right back to that stressed-out state of breathing and being we know so well.
This twist is one of the few postures which specifically targets a deep opening into the upper back and intercostal muscles at the same time, and while it might feel a little strange or uncomfortable at first (…. welcome to yoga…..) there’s no mistaking its ability to create a more spacious, expansive breath. I’m never sure whether this is a posture everyone loves of loathes in class, but it can also provide a huge relief to any tension in the upper back, and including the breath as part of the posture (breathing into the part of the body you’re opening up) can also make a huge difference to how we feel afterwards. The upper back is also a place in which we often store emotional stress and tension, so being able to release this means the benefits of the asana run much deeper than the gross physical level.
To prepare the body:
- Awareness: Begin by noticing how you are actually breathing before you practice. Is the breath shallow and restricted? Or is it relaxed? Are you holding parts of your body stiff or is there tension in any particular place? Then start to consciously deepen the breath so it becomes full and deep, so your inhale fills up the lungs and already starts to expand the ribcage.
- Just taking a few deeper, mindful breaths like this throughout the day can make a huge difference to how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally.
- From there, move through a few rounds of cat / cow to bring some movement into the spine; focus on releasing any held tension in the mid and upper back.
- After a few rounds, practice any of the variations of ‘thread the needle’ you’ll see firther down in THIS post to open a little deeper into the upper back. This is an especially useful posture to practice in preparation for the asana we’re looking at.
- After practicing to both sides of the body, come into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), which can be a great way to open the sides of the body and upper back. Practicing this after a long day is often all we need to ease a lot of aches and pains the accompany office jobs or long periods of time travelling.
- From there, come into uttanasana and then stand up into Tadasana (mountain pose) before practicing a few rounds of surya namaskar A (sun salutations) to warm the body and boost the circulation of blood and oxygen to the muscles we’re about to open.
- After this, practice utthita trikonasana (triangle pose) to each side of the body to lengthen the hamstrings, which will help make our final posture a little more accessible.
- Begin in prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward fold)
- From your wide-legged forward-fold, bring the hands shoulder-distance apart on the floor and walk them forwards quite a way, until you end up in a position that almost resembles adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog). Relax the head between the arms and press the fingers down and away from you while reaching the hips up and back – just as you would for downward facing dog. Stay here for a few breaths, directing the inhale into the sides of the body to open out the ribs. If the hands don’t reach the floor comfortably at the moment, use a block to rest the hands on, and bring the floor to you!
- Then move into the twist:
- Keep the [left] hand on the floor, with the fingertips reaching out, continuing the action of lengthening the side body.
- Thread the [right] arm underneath the left, and take hold of somewhere upon the [left] leg. The lower down the leg you hold, the deeper the twist will be, but whether it’s down close to the ankle or up at your thigh doesn’t matter, as the focus is upon what is right for your unique body as it is in this moment.
- Again, relax the head, and gently draw yourself around into a twist, so your gaze comes underneath the left arm. Direct the breath into the [right] side of the ribs and the upper back. Using a deeper breath here can create quite a strong sensation in the upper body, and allows the intercostal muscles to open up.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however long feels right to you.
- When you’re ready to transition out, bring the hands back to shoulder-distance apart and walk them back in towards you.
- Become aware of the effects of the asana before moving onto the other side.
- To counterpose this asana, bring yourself back upright from prasarita padottanasana and step the feet in together.
- Make your way down to the floor and sit in virasana (hero’s pose) or vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) if it’s comfortable for you. If you have any knee or ankle issues, sit in another way that feels comfortable.
- Interlace the hands behind the back and draw the arms away from you, gently squeezing the shoulder blades towards each other to counteract the deep opening of the upper back we just practiced.
- After having expanded the breathing apparatus, you’re well prepared to practice some simple pranayama, so move onto Nadi Shodhana (click here).
Smile, breathe and go slowly. ~Thích Nhất Hanh