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Matsyendrasana Series

Seated spinal twists

BKS Iyengar - matsyendrasana 1 Completing the pose by sitting on the inside of the ankle. The ankle bone presses up into the perineum.

The asana is named after the great yogi Matsyendranath. The name comes from the Sanskrit words ardha meaning "half"- matsya meaning "fish"- eendra meaning "king", and asana (आसन ) meaning "posture" or "seat."

The Matsyendrāsana twist series allows the spine to be twisted all the way from the base of the spine to the very top. This asana tones the spinal nerves and ligaments, and improves digestion.and also improve liver and pancreas health.

This asana usually appears as a seated spinal twist with many variations. One of the biggest challenges in practising these poses is to keep the spine erect and prevent the hips from moving or distorting as one begins to twist.

In the right image, this poses sometimes referred to as Baddha Ardha Matsyendrasana which means bound as the hands join together behind the back. This is a very intense pose so take your time working towards it.

Twisting in general helps to mobilise the spine and stretches all the connective tissues along the vertebral column. But if the spine is not held erect or straight, there is risk of self injury and aggravating existing spinal problems. Therefore one should always be very careful and contemplative when approaching these exercises.

As we progress down the page, would begin with some elementary twists to suit all levels of fitness but for anyone who has difficulty sitting with a straight back and the legs extended in dandasana, it's advisable to sit on a very firm flat cushion that is broad enough that you can also rest your hand on in these exercises.

1

In all these poses, it's more helpful to focus on turning the rib cage than turning the shoulders as this makes the exercises more effective. Also note here that you are turning over the bent leg which may seem counterintuitive, but the idea is also to provide a deep abdominal massage in addition to the spinal twist.

As you see in this first image 1 left, one leg is held straight, the other is bent and the foot placed with about a 5 cm gap away from the straight leg knee.  One hand goes behind the back with the heel of the hand placed as close into the sacrum as possible.

The hand behind the back helps to support and lift the spine and the other hand can hold the knee as you focus on turning your rib cage with the support of the free arm as illustrated in image 1.

In image 2 we advance another step as by placing the elbow to the outside of the knee, a little more pressure can be applied towards turning the torso which means the hand on the floor behind must also push down more firmly to help keep the spine direct. Note here the folded blanket which helps to keep the spine more erect and the pose more comfortable.

2

I must remind you here that in performing any yoga asana, there should never be any unpleasant discomfort and everyone needs to discern the difference between a comfortable stretch and pain that is likely to cause damage.

When working in the pose as an image 2 and the following variations, the shoulder blades draw back and down to lift and turn the rib cage. But at the same time one needs to have an awareness of the sitting bones against the floor that they do not move because that will compromise the integrity of the exercise.

When you have completed twist to one side, sit for a moment the legs extended in dandasana then repeat the exercise to the other side. Most people will notice that working to one side is often much easier than the other. In this case remained in the pose to the side that's more difficult for an extra five or 10 seconds each time you practice and that will help to balance the body.

With the body twisted like this, the lungs are compressed and breathing is more difficult, so as you breathe be content wherever you're at with an awareness of your posture. Then on every third or fourth breath, you have the opportunity to adjust and deepen the pose.

Another variation from image 2 is to place the bootleg foot on the outside of the straight leg knee and to repeat the twist. An option of keeping the arm bent is demonstrated in the video below and this allows greeter exertion. This is often advisable as part of a progression towards the next step which is to hold the knee or foot:

many beginners can reach this stage

3
many beginners can reach this stage

Ardha Matsyendrasana 1

From sitting and again, a folded blanket as a cushion can be helpful. From dandasana, one leg is flexed and the foot placed outside the opposite hip.

The other foot is placed flat on the floor outside the opposite knee and torso twists toward the top leg. Again the hand behind the back should be placed as close into the sacrum as possible and not far away as illustrated by the lady in red - image 3.

As illustrated in image 3, the other foot crosses over the knee and the intermediate stage is simply to hold the knee of the lower leg but to complete the pose. When that's comfortable, that hand can reach across to hold the instep of the foot.

In image 4, the foot of the upper leg should remain much closer to the knee of the lower leg which would make it easier for this practitioner to more easily hold the instep of the foot. Before reaching your arm to the outside of the knee, raise your arm to the ceiling and stretch up to create as much length in that forward side of your body as possible and do your best to maintain that openness as you reach your arm across the outside of the knee.

4
attempting to reach around

To get the reach and join hands, in this case the left arm has to rotate so the elbow bends around behind the shin and the hands can be linked. When this occurs, the idea is to extend down into the sitting bones, blank and up through the spine and breathing deeply as described above, worked to expanding the rib cage and increasing the twist.

In all of these variations, don't be too concerned about turning your head rather let your face turn in the direction of the twist but do not force the head to turn. It's also interesting to experiment by turning the head the other way and experiencing the pose from this viewpoint.

5
See in this image how the waist has partially collapsed, in practice this needs to open.

The image at the top of the page shows the asana completed and while that can be achieved by supple people keeping the foot of the underneath leg beside the hip, it is somewhat easier to sit on the inside of the ankle, especially for those people who need to have their hips elevated.

After achieving some proximity to the pose is in images 4 and 5, there is a tendency for the hip of the upper leg to rise off the floor and for the hips to rotate decreasing the rotation of the spine.

To counter this try to extend down through your sitting bones so that the pressure against the floor is equalised and you can prevent the hips from moving. Then as in image 5, combine the extension down through the sitting bones with a forward rotation of the pelvis and lifting the rib cage up away from the abdomen. The shoulder blades also roll back and down and again in image 5, note how this young lady's head is tilted slightly back.

This is rather complex pose and as you are developing spatial awareness and the knowledge of where your body is in space (proprioception), the support and guidance of a teacher can help to prevent debilitating mistakes.

While the above variations are suited for beginners and intermediate practitioners, these continuation poses are for advanced students who have supple hips and can comfortably sit in padmasana.

Ardha Matsyendrasana II

Keeping one leg extended along the floor, bring the other foot onto the top of the straight leg as though to sit in padmasana keeping the knees as close together as possible.

Extend the arm of the bent leg as high as you can to create links in the body at the same time as extending the arm of the straight leg out behind you. Then bring the hand of the bent leg across to hold the outside of the straight leg foot while the hand of the straight leg continues around behind your back to hold onto the central shin bone of the bent leg.

From there extend down three a sitting bones lengthen up out of the waste and allow the ribcage to turn as far as it will. See page 218 in Light on Yoga.

Ardha Matsyendrasana III

Very few can do this - it's super advanced for the very flexible.

From Ardha Matsyendrasana I above, the bottom leg moves into Padmasana (Lotus Position) and the arms bind behind the back by holding either foot. See page 220 in Light on Yoga.

By NZYogi

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2 comments to Matsyendrasana Series

  • Appreciate this post, here’s a nice story.

    Shiva, the destroyer, came out of a ten thousand year meditation and decided to descend Mount Kailish to visit his beloved Parvati. Parvati had a way of knowing such things and knew that he would come on this day and put together a picnic lunch and started toward the river. Shiva arrived just after she set out.

    Shiva began to tell Parvati about the miraculous discovery he’d made during his many years of meditation – yoga! He explained that this was the ultimate path to union between the individual self and the Divine. While he went on and on about yoga, Parvati fretted about lunch. Shiva was confused by her apparently flippant attitude and asked her why she wasn’t listening. He felt he’d made the discovery of a lifetime and that she was not interested in hearing about it. Parvati told him that of course she was interested and asked that he carry on. Shiva kept on with his discovery. What he didn’t know was that Parvati already knew about yoga and in fact had been practicing for as long as she could remember. She just assumed that Shiva knew about yoga as well. She was humble, though, and let him have his moment and listened to him describe the glories of yoga.

    Meanwhile, in the river, Matsya, (sanskrit for fish) was swimming by and heard Shiva speaking. Having never heard Shiva lecture on the nature of life and the universe before, he decided to listen in. Shiva continued to speak and Matsya continued to listen. As he listened, he felt the techniques and theory of yoga take hold of his body and begin to live through him. Through his perfect listening Matsya became enlightened. It was at that moment that Shiva became the first Guru (teacher) and Matsya became the first chela (student). This is a relationship that has lived on throughout the years.

    When someone becomes enlightened they have the opportunity to come back to earth to help those of us who wish to be liberated in this way. Matsya is said to have come back as half human, half fish, and that through his wisdom the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written by the Nath Yogis. Called Matsyaendranath in this incarnation, we honor him through the pose matsyendrasana. The upright torso resembles his half human side and the folded legs are representative of his fish tail. This pose keeps us connected to the strong lineage of teachers that have either directly or indirectly influenced us. As this story shows, we all have the same roots.*

    To take matsyendrasana, start with the legs extended and then bring the right foot in so that it sits on top on the left thigh in toward the hip (in half lotus). The left foot will come over that bent leg so that the foot comes to the outer right knee. Next extend your left arm and place the right hand on the floor behind you. The left hand can extend down the leg to hold the ankle. The arm that is behind can come from the floor and hold the opposite side hip. Repeat on the other side. This is not a pose you typically see in a yoga class. Much more common is Ardha Matsyendrasana – half lord of the fishes. Neither of these poses should be practiced by those with back/spinal injuries or pain without the supervision of a qualified teacher.

    For this pose, start with both legs extended. Fold the right foot in toward the opposite hip.

    Then bend the left leg so that the foot comes to the outer right knee. The left hand comes behind the back to act as a support. How far you twist depends on you – it’s extremely important to only twist as far as feels comfortable to you. The right arm will extend toward the sky and then twist your upper body and either wrap the elbow around the left knee of bring the right elbow outside the left knee. Once again, do not over-twist! As you inhale think about making more space between each vertebrae and sitting taller; as you exhale perhaps twist a little bit deeper into this pose. Hold for about 5 long deep breaths and then repeat on the other side. Remember that if you cannot comfortably breath you are likely going too far and should back out of the pose a bit. There is also a bound version of this pose, but I’ll save that for another day.

    This pose is excellent for digestion, brings a fresh supply of blood to the internal organs and energizes the spine. Yogis believe that we are as young as our spines are flexible!

    *Story as told in Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya & Arjuna van der Kooij

  • Freida

    Hey, I tried some of your tips, really helpful and makes the pose more alive.

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