Ardha Matsyendrasana: Seated Spinal Twist

Ardha Matsyendrasana
Seated Spinal Twist

Yogis knew that keeping the spine healthy is the key to staying alert and energetic in later years. For the yogis, a healthy spine was not only desirable, it was a most valuable instrument on their journey to enlightenment. This is why almost the entire repertoire of yoga asanas is devoted to keeping the spine healthy.

Ardha Matsyendrasana, or the “Lord of the fish pose”, is a wonderful rejuvenator of the spine and abdominal organs. Its refreshing effect can be felt almost immediately, and it does not require much space to do, making this a very “portable” asana indeed!
Instructions for Ardha Matsyendrasana

  1. Sit with the left knee bent and on the floor, aligning it with the left hip.
  2. Cross the right foot over the right thigh, placing the sole of the foot flat on the floor.
  3. Now check the position of your hips. Are both sitting bones firmly in contact with the floor? If the right hip is floating off the floor, you may extend the left leg in front of you.You should now be able to get both sit bones on the floor. If you do this, be sure to keep the extended leg actively engaged.
  4. Pressing your right knee toward your breastbone with both your hands, take a deep inhalation and extend the spine. Grounding the sitting bones, elongate the spine through the back of your neck.
  5. On the exhale, revolve the torso to the right, while guiding the right knee toward your left armpit. You can place your right fingertips on the floor behind your tailbone, and pressing down, use it help support the lift of the spine.
  6. There are several variations for the position of the left arm:
    1. Wrap the elbow around the right knee, hugging it toward you.
    2. For a deeper twist, take the elbow in front of the right knee, applying gentle leverage against the right knee to move deeper into the twist.
    3. In baddha ardha matsendrasana(bound seated twist), the left arm is inserted in between the right thigh and knee. The right hand catches the left wrist or hand.Note: Avoid this variation if you have dislocated shoulders.
      1. This binding action can cause the chest and ribcage to collapse, so extra attention should be given to lengthening between the navel and the chest.
      2. By actively drawing the shoulder blades down the back and engaging the upper arm muscles in an outward rotation, more space is created across the chest. This makes breathing in this posture much easier!
  1. Allow the head to turn to the right, in the direction of the twist.
  2. Keeping the breath full, hold for 15-30 seconds for beginners, longer for experienced practitioners.
  3. Repeat to the left side.
  • Builds strength and flexibility in the deep and superficial spinal and abdominal muscles.
  • Maintains elasticity of the intervertebral discs and ligaments. Helps to prevent slipped disc.
  • Alternately compresses and stretches each side of the chest, stimulating respiratory function.
  • Alternately compresses and stretches the abdominal region, detoxifying and bringing fresh blood supply to the visceral organs such as the liver, spleen, pancreas, stomach, small and large intestines, and the kidneys.
  • Aids digestion, absorption, and elimination.
  • Opens and releases tension from the outer hips, preventing sciatica and lower back problems.
  • Adjusts the relationship between the shoulders, hips and the spine. Helps to correct structural asymmetry in these areas.
  • As with most yoga asanas, it is best to wait at least four hours after a large meal and two after a light snack. Twisting postures should especially be done on an empty stomach.
  • Pregnant women in the first trimester should approach this asana with caution, and women in the second or third trimester should avoid deep twists which put undue pressure on the abdominal area. Gentler adaptations can be done from the sitting posture on a chair.
  • Deep twists are best avoided during the first three days of the menstrual period.
Important Actions:
  • Keep the breath deep and full throughout the holding of the posture, using the inhale to extend the spine and the exhale to deepen the twist.
  • Keep the sitting bones anchored and the torso lifting.
  • Initiate the twist from the base of the posture, spiraling upward around the core axis.
  • Start the rotation on the side from which you are turning. For example, if you are twisting to the right, initiate from the left side of the torso.
  • Turn primarily from the inner body – the abdominal muscles, rather than the force of leverage from the arms or legs.
The Spine in Relation to the Twisting Action
Let’s take a closer look at what we commonly call “the spine”. It is composed of several distinct tissue structures:
The most obvious structure is the bony structure called vertebral column or the “back bone”, made of 26 irregular bones. Although we commonly hear the expression “sit straight”, the anatomical truth is that the healthy spine has built into it four curvatures that give it an S-like shape! They are:
    • The cervical & lumbar curvatures, which are concave posteriorly.
    • The thoracic & sacral curvatures, which are convex posteriorly.
When performing any asana which involves twisting the torso, it is very helpful to keep in mind the natural curvatures of the spine, especially the lumber and cervical curvatures, so that the alignment integrity of the spine is maintained.For example, if you have a deep lumbar curve (lordosis), it is important to engage the lower abdominal muscles to maximize the vertical extension of the spine and to support the lower back.
  • The intevertebral discs are an important component of the vertebral column, particularly from a health point of view. Each disc is made of an outer strong ring of fibrocartilage, which encapsulates a pulpy, highly elastic gel-like substance.
Because twisting creates a rotating action between the vertebral bodies of the spine, they help to maintain the elasticity of the intervertebral discs by promoting ease of movement and increasing the circulation to the surrounding structures They help prevent slipped discs by building strength in the deep and superficial spinal and abdominal muscles which support and maintain the structural symmetry of the spine.
  • The spinal cord is made of nervous tissue. It provides a two-way “highway” for nerve impulses to be transmitted to and from the brain. The nerves entering and exiting the spinal cord carry sensory and motor impulses from the skin, skeletal muscles, the visceral organs, blood vessels and glands. Virtually every system in the body relies on the spinal cord conduction system to maintain homeostasis.
The spinal cord is protected by the bony framework of the vertebral column, the meninges, or fibrous coverings, and cerebrospinal fluid(CSF). The CSF is a liquid medium which serves as a source of nourishment, and site of waste drainage for the nerve cells, as well as a shock-absorber.Although twisting asanas do not directly affect the spinal cord, it indirectly enhances its health by toning the superficial and deeper spinal and abdominal muscles that help to maintain correct alignment of the spine. Otherwise, uneven compression of the intervertebral discs may result in herniated or slipped disc, which can press on the spinal cord or on the spinal nerves exiting from the cord.
Yogic Symbolism of Ardha Matsyendrasana
Matsyendra literally means “Lord of the Fish”. Ardha simply means “half”, because this is a half-way step towards purna, or “full”, Matsyendrasana, in which is a more advanced posture. (In Purna Matsyendrasana, the right foot is placed at the root of the left thigh, much like Half Lotus, when twisting to the left.)One of the incarnations of the Vishnu, the Sustainer of the Universe, was a great fish, who rescued humanity from the Great Flood. It is said that Vishnu takes on a physical form whenever dharmaon the earth is threatened, to preserve life and to guide it towards the righteous path.The symbolism of water, is a universal one, used to express the unfathomable mysteries of Creation and the subconscious mind, the seat of secret desires, imagination and fantasy, as well as intuitive knowledge and wisdom.The fish, who swims swiftly and gracefully through the deep waters, symbolizes this power of the unconscious, both negative and positive. “The Lord of the Fish”, therefore, may indicate the one who has mastered the ability to harness this great power for a higher purpose.In the posture Ardha Matsyendrasana, the crossed legs represent the fin and tail of the fish, still immersed in the deep waters of the unconscious. The spine, in Yogic lore, is called meru dandha, “the primordial pillar”, the pillar which upholds all of Creation.The image evoked is that of a being emerging out of the deep sea of the subconscious, drawn upward with the tremendous, universal power of the Primordial Pillar, which represents the awakened spiritual energy. The journey is not a straight line, but rather a cyclical, ascending spiral.Only purified energy will rise upwards. Therefore, the awakened yogi must harness the reservoir of power lying dormant in the subconscious, and gradually purify it through steadfast practice of Yoga, so that it can uplift him and take him to his ultimate goal of moksha, or Liberation.Modern psychologists also agree that the conscious mind, however intelligent and useful, represents only a small fraction of the totality of human consciousness. Yogis, thousands of years ago, recognized the tremendous power of the subconscious over human behavior, and devoted themselves to the task of rising above it. This asana is a tribute to these ancient psychologists, who were truly masters of their own being.Contemplating the hidden meaning in the yoga asanas can inspire you to approach each asana with a new understanding and take you deeper into the experience of Yoga, union with your true Self within.


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