The festivities are well and truly over and we are now deep in the throngs of over indulgence hangovers and generally feeling a bit partied-out! Whilst we frantically forge action plans to pay penance to the gluttony of the holiday Season (don’t even show me another chocolate) we can get a little carried away in penning plans of deprivation and extremities that are more like a punishment than a plan to remedy all of that partying! When we swing from one extreme to the other, our bodies become really rather confused and will very often go in to that survival mode that we hear about all too often: fight or flight. This is a natural response to sudden environmental changes that the body’s innermost workings deem to be a threat. This applies to our diet as well – the body inherently thinks that there is an environmental reason for your sudden change to sustaining it. So, what can we do to support the post-party detoxification without swinging the provision pendulum from Cheese and wine to celery sticks and apple cider vinegar shots? You guessed it – through our veritable yoga practice.
Every day we go through a natural detoxification process – in theory this completely negates the need for a food related detoxification or “cleanse” – our bodies are already doing this elimination of toxins via the liver and the excretory system (which includes perspiration and urination). When we commit ourselves to a post-party detoxification and cleanses we are seeking ways to support the body and enhance its inherent ability to evacuate substances; leaving us feeling purified and downright angelic!
In yoga, we support this process in many ways and one commonly known way is through twists – we do so much contorting and standing on our heads that we often forget about the humble twist and it’s anatomically superior benefits. This week, as we all start to re-assess our diets for the New Year, we look at supporting the body’s natural cleanse system with my all-time favourite asana: Ardha Matsyendrasana.
Sanskrit Name: Ardha Matsyendrasana
Translation: Half Lord of the Fishes (aka Seated Spinal Twist),
Before attempting any twisting pose, it is advisable to warm up properly – I usually leave seated twists until the latter part of my classes; by this time the body is warm and has built up enough energy to justify the need for elimination. If you are not attending a class and wish to run through a few asana, prior to attempting this pose, I would recommend gentle asana such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) and Cat-Cow, to mobilise the spine; as well as a few poses to open the hips: Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) is ideal, and a couple of rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) can help to focus the mind as the breath is linked with physical movement.
How to do this pose:
Sit up straight with your legs out in front of you (sitting against a wall may help you as you get used to this pose). Bend up your right knee and draw it in toward your chest as closely as you can – keeping your foot flat on the floor. Cradle the knee with your arms.
Cross the right leg over the left leg, placing the sole of the right foot on the floor outside the left thigh – have the foot as close to the thigh as comfortably possible.
Clasp the hands and hold on to the shin (just below the knee) to start with.
Take a big inhalation and lengthen up through the spine (don’t slouch or sink down into the front leg) and really plant the buttocks down – like they are roots attaching you to the Earth.
As you exhale, move the right hand off the knee and place it on the floor just behind you (near to your right buttock) – you can place your hand on a brick if this is more comfortable/you can’t quite reach the floor. Take the left arm and wrap it around your right leg, which should still be bent up. The knee should be in the crease of the arm (in front of the elbow) and the forearm wrapped and rested atop the outer edge of the thigh. Take another inhalation.
On your exhalation, begin to twist from the abdomen. Continue to inhale and as you exhale, try to twist a little more – moving up from the abdomen. Imagine you are trying to rotate your vertebrae, starting with the lumbar vertebrae one at a time.
The head should be the last thing to rotate around – we are trying to twist the spine, not merely turn the head.
Hold the pose for 6-8 breaths – eventually progressing to a length of time that suits you (personally I like to close my eyes and hang out here for a few minutes at a time – I find this helps me to connect with my body and really loosens my lumbar spine up). When you are ready to release the pose, inhale and draw the belly button in toward the spine, release the arms and return to centre.
To counteract this twist, simply leave the right leg bent and the left leg straight, then take the left arm out behind you and rest the right arm over the bent up knee and gently twist to look behind your left shoulder. This is not a twist as such, but a release for the spine.
Repeat by reversing the twist to the left and then de-rotating to the right, in your counter posture.
Please note that this asana is not recommended for those with spinal injuries or pregnant women.
My Top 5 Benefits:
1. Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate!
If you have ever been constipated, you will know how blooming miserable it can make you! We have a whole second brain in our gut (microbiome is the little environment that contains this) and if that is out of whack, well, you and your emotions will know about it. Constipation affects us all and it can rear its ugly head when we over indulge on rich (often non-fibrous) foods or suddenly change our diets (yes, even if you change to a high-fibre diet, temporary constipation can happen!). All of this waste product hanging around in the gut does not make for a happy biome and thus, makes an unhappy person. It is important to keep digestion strong and eat a variety of nutritious foods to help the microbiome flourish – minimising chances of constipation. It leaves us lethargic and with general malaise – and possibly ill tempered – but seated twists, like Ardha Matsyendrasana can help shorten the duration of a bout of constipation and help to keep things working correctly in the future. When we twist the body from the belly, we provide a lovely squeeze and massage in the abdominal cavity. The stomach, bowel, liver, spleen and kidneys all get a lovely squeeze which, when released, will get the blood pumping to them – increasing their efficiency and ability to work correctly. This squeezing action (or, “wringing out” as I like to think of it) can also encourage peristalsis (that’s the bowel pushing things through) as we are creating a compression that may lead to a more immediate movement. Don’t get me wrong, you aren’t going to be running to the loo within a few seconds of being in this pose…but you get my drift…things might be eliminated a little faster than if you hadn’t done the pose!
2. Works the kinks out of a tight spine.
I’ve been practicing yoga since the age of 13 (I’m now 32). At the age of 25 I had a pretty bad car accident that left me with some damage to a vertebra in my lower lumbar spine. I now often get that electric sciatic pain down my right glute and feel like I have a perpetual “knot” in my spine. It is really quite annoying and uncomfortable and I have had to redesign my yoga practice, over the last 7 years, around this injury – it un-did all of my development as a yoga practitioner. One posture that has remained constant throughout the 19 years of practice, the car accident, as well as the 7 years of basically having to start over is the seated spinal twist that we are talking about today. It just works. I feel so much better when I do this pose on a daily basis. I certainly know when I’ve not been doing my Ardha Matsyendrasana! Of course, I have 19 years of practice and a teaching qualification under my belt so I know that this is safe for me to practice with my spinal complaint – if you have an injury to the spine, please see your doctor before attempting this posture. However, if you are just all stiff and rigid from sitting at a desk/in a car all day; or perhaps just have bad posture, this will cure what ails you. Even if you can’t twist around very far at first, please persevere with this posture – your spine will thank you in the long run.
3. Calm down, calm down…
As with Anahatasana, which we looked at last week, the seated spinal twist is highly beneficial in soothing the nervous system. Our spinal column contains 31 pairs of nerves, which serve the limbs of our body, so it pays to keep the spine healthy. The nerve cells in the spine are mixed, which means that they provide both sensory and “motor” (action/movement) responses. Keeping the spine active will keep these nerve cells well nourished – by increasing…you guessed it…blood flow and oxygenation to the vertebrae!
4. Pump it up!
Well, I might as well mention it as one of my favourite benefits since you may have guessed, by now, that I am obsessed with circulation! This twist gets the blood pumping virtually everywhere. All of that lovely blood is carrying oxygen, nutrients and glucose to each and every cell in your body, to keep it alive, well and active; as well as carrying away toxins and waste gases (particularly carbon dioxide) – which is equally important in keeping the cells healthy. In this pose we are using the abdominal cavity, the spine, the arms, the buttocks that are supporting us…the only part that we could consider passive is the legs – everything else is getting that rich supply of blood pumping to it! Circulation is important for so many reasons – it reduces inflammation, provides nourishment to our cells, promotes immunity by boosting efficacy of the lymphatic system and is conducive in reducing waste and toxins. There is good reason behind my obsession with circulation.
5. Girl Power
Ancient yogic lore accredits this twist with awakening Kundalini Shakti – this is the dormant feminine energy located at the base of the spine and it is often depicted in the form of a serpent. Kundalini shakti which is considered the invincible power lies at the base of the spine. It is a Sanskrit term that means ‘Coiled Power’ and it is referring to that coiled up serpent that is asleep at the base of the spine. When our serpent is awoken, we have far more self-awareness and are open to spiritual development. Shakti is the energy out of which all other energies emerge – it is a feminine, creative force. Kundalini Shakti is instrumental in boosting the performance of other charkas and facilitates balance, connects us with a wider Universal consciousness, increases sense of perception and opens up the third eye chakra, promotes calm and boosts cardiovascular and respiratory function. Not too shabby, hey?
When performing Ardha Matsyendrasana, adapting a mudra can help to keep the prana flowing nicely around the body. Since we are awakening our Kundalini Shakti, it is a good idea to temporarily seal all of that energy in the body – further enhancing the experience in the posture as well as prolonging the benefits after the practice has ended. I would recommend doing this with the arm that is wrapped around your leg as the other arm is making contact with the ground, to support you, and may result in you toppling over if you don a mudra! A simple mudra to start with is Gyan Mudra. Simply touch the index finger and thumb together, whilst holding the other three fingers straight. This is probably the most familiar mudra. The intention of this mudra is to improve concentration and sharpen your memory. This is perfect for marrying with the Kundalini Shakti, which promotes intelligence and creativity.
About the Author
Katie-Marie Fuller Ma Pg Dip, Registered Yoga Teacher
Katie-Marie Fuller is a registered yoga teacher specialising in Hatha and Vinyasa yoga. Her approach to yoga is fuelled with intelligence and creativity, underpinned by ancient philosophy and spirituality. A master of the arts, Katie’s career history and education shine through in her creative, philosophically orientated classes. Currently studying for her diploma in anatomy and physiology, Katie is changing her career path with a view to practice yoga therapy full time. Residing in Staffordshire, you will hear Katie’s soft, eloquent tones reciting philosophical quotes in yoga studios around the county. Katie prides herself on her extensive education in art and Philosophy but emphasises Aristotle’s aphorism: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Katie’s classes incorporate elements of Kundalini, Hatha and Yin yoga, often bound together in a vinyasa type flow.
Follow Katie on Instagram: theia_yoga
Website coming soon!
The Asana Clinic Week One: Reground with Anahatasana