We have in yoga a wonderful classification of asanas (poses) that are twists. These poses, when done mindfully, have a refreshing effect on the body and mind. They feel great on the tired muscles of the back, induce mobility in the spine, and have a wringing effect on the inner organs…squeezing out stagnant blood and then when you return to a neutral position, encouraging a fresh flow of blood to the area. At least that is what we say in yoga science. I’m not looking to back this claim up with scientific proof, just inviting you to give a twist a try and enjoy the effects.
However, not all twists are created equal. Each twist targets a different part of the spine, depending upon whether you are standing, seated, reclining or inverted, and requires a different action in the rest of the body to deepen it. Further, introducing a prop of some kind can greatly ease, support or challenge the twist.
Looking a bit deeper into the meaning of the twists, beyond just the physical enjoyment we derive from them, beckons us to look at their names. Many of the twists’ Sanksrit names are the names of sages…for example, Bharadvajasana I is a simple seated twist named after the sage Bharadvaja. His name is broken down into the Sanskrit “Bhara(d)” and “Vaja(m)” which together mean, “bringing about nourishment.” Well, that sounds nice! Sign me up. Another seated twist, which is actually a series of increasingly challenging twists is, Marichyasana, named after the sage Marichi. His name translated literally means a ray of light. This could be either moon or sun light. I find that, depending upon which pose of the series I’m practicing, I connect to an inner experience that is either reflective (moonlight) or a more powerful experience (sunlight). Another series of twists are those under the name of Ardha Matseyandrasana. Ardha means half and Matseyandra was yet another sage! Matsya means fish and Indra means Lord. So the full translation is half-Lord of the Fish pose. The half part of the name is referring to the physical posture being the half version and not the full version, just in case you were thinking that the lord of the fish is a half lord. Of particular interest, this sage, Matseyandra, is credited with founding the Hatha Vidya (the study of Hatha Yoga). What a rich history…there are many sages in the Hindu tradition. If you are one that enjoys lore and history, you can find much to research, but that is beyond the scope of this article. From a practical perspective, the first version of this pose challenges the joints of the toes, feet, ankles, knees and hips, yet is extremely therapeutic to those joints. This is just the set-up of the legs and lower body, before we even attempt to move the spine. Because of the slightly raised position of the pelvis on top of one foot, the twisting preparation for this pose allows for a very full twist of the spine, with one upright thigh stabilizing the torso. The final measure is to add in the bind of the arms both around one knee and behind the back. This compresses the diaphragm and chest somewhat, so breathing becomes labored. With time, one adjusts to this, but the effect after the twist is extremely refreshing, and almost euphoric. I’m not sure if this is because of the wonderful circulatory effects or personal sense of accomplishment, but in any case, this is a lovely and intense twist to wake up your spine and internal abdominal organs.
The final grouping of twists that I want to talk about are the Parivrttas, the revolving twists. Here’s where it gets really interesting for me. I love Parivrtta. Roll it around in your mouth and get a sense of the word linguistically. There is a churning action in just saying it. Imagine what it can do for the rest of your body! “Pari” translates to “around,” and vrtti” means “movement.” Typically, we translate it to flip or revolve. It doesn’t mean twist or turn in a simple way, but to take you from point A and then move you 180 degrees to point B. A revolution. This revolution takes place naturally in our bodies, but even more so in our minds. Prashant Iyengar, BKS Iyengar’s son and brilliant teacher in his own right, is quoted as saying, “The twisting of the body, untwists the mind.” I wonder if this statement is derived from his experience of an actual neurological phenomenon. A twist, in addition to being a cross-lateral movement (coordinating both sides of the body at the same time, like so many yoga poses), also often crosses the midline of the body, which is definitely the case in a parivrtta pose. Physical exercises that are cross lateral and cross the midline, stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, building a bridge between the two sides that helps us not only in physical coordination, but in cognitive coordination, by reawakening important neural pathways. This is one of the reasons why the crawling stage is so important in the cognitive and physical development of babies. As yoga practitioners, we derive the benefits of these actions to support our mental and physical health throughout our lives. Another excellent reason to practice twists!
The great reclining parivrtta, Jathara Parivartanasana, emphasizes the action of the stomach as the stage for this twist. Jathara means stomach, Parivar is the revolving aspect and Tan is the element of stretch, extend or lengthen out. There is no doubt that this requires a level of strength in the abdominal muscles, not to mention in the legs and upper body for stabilizing, but it is not a static contraction in the abdomen. Instead, as you lie on your back, arms stretched out at shoulder height, legs together, firm as one, toes hovering mere centimeters over your right fingertips, the abdomen revolves and revolves, lengthening and extending in the opposite direction of your legs. It is not a single action that is then held, but a continuous conveyer belt of revolving actions, toning the abdomen and twisting the spine. The waist narrows and the abdominal organs are treated to a deep massage.
Another inspiring yogi, teacher and writer who developed the Viniyoga style of yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar is also of a pure yogic dynasty as the son of the Krishnamacharya, who is known as the father of modern yoga. I like to actually think of Krishnamacharya as the grandfather of modern yoga, because in addition to his son, he trained both BKS Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga and my “guru” and K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga. Desikachar writes in his book The Heart of Yoga,
“Imagine you are driving a car and suddenly a tree appears right in front of you. In your mind’s eye you see what would happen if you kept driving in the same direction: you would crash into the tree. To avoid that outcome you immediately turn toward another direction. Parivrrti describes this ability to foresee what is going to happen and to redirect oneself accordingly.”
To visualize a Parivrtta pose done well is to be slightly confused at what you are seeing. The legs are going in one direction, but then the torso and face are flipped and moving in the opposite direction. Parivrtta Trikonasana (pictured), revolving triangle pose, is one such pose that we typically begin learning this action in. The legs are positioned more or less in the familiar triangle pose stance. Then you turn your body in the direction of the rotated “front” leg, as you would in such poses like Virabhadrasana I, or Parsvottanasana. Here’s where it gets interesting. Your legs stop revolving and your hips put on the brakes, stopping here and anchoring the pose with a compressive action. But your torso, your heart, your arms and your head keep going! And going. You find anchor with one hand reaching to the floor, but you continue revolving the chest and heart and gaze, up, up, up, using your other arm as leverage to move you further than you ever thought you could go. Lean a little in the back space, with faith and trust in the steady firmness of your legs, your anchor, while flying up with the soul to a new revolutionary height. Then you stop. You don’t go any further. Maybe you can’t physically go any further. But we work to achieve this line of channeling through the arms. They stack, one on top of the other, the lower, grounding you deep into the energy of the earth, while the upper reaches towards the heavens. And there you are, in your own little revolution, suspended in the middle.
Typically when our legs stop us, we stop. We are dependent upon them, as organs of action, to get us places. This revolutionary pose teaches us many things, both physically, mentally and spiritually. Sometimes, when some force (inner or outer) tells us to stop, we must stop and listen. Other times, we resist the resistance, moving forward on the path less taken in order to continue (r)evolving. To the point of Desikachar, this revolutionary tool is that it gives us the ability to see clearly the current path and know that we need a change or redirection. But not every revolution has to be a fight or a struggle. In a balanced Parivrrta Trikonasana, you feel the support of the previous path, giving you just the right amount to tension so you can continue your (r)evolution, grounding you, stabilizing you, and yet giving you the freedom and faith to fly.
Written by Sivan Goldhirsh