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Yoga Pose: Reclined Twist

October 1, 2010
Several years ago, friends and I performed an eye-opening experiment. We painted the body’s major organs, glands, nerves and muscles onto a long, white unitard. And then my friend Martha donned the outfit and wafted through a flow of yoga postures as the rest of us watched how each movement altered the contents of the inner body. We watched the kidney area being squeezed during backbends, the stomach being gently compressed during forward bends, and the ribs and lungs being gracefully stretched during side-bending actions.

For me, watching my friend move through a series of spine-wringing twists was the most illuminating of all. These actions seemed to alternately squeeze and stretch the entire contents of the torso - muscles, nerves, glands and organs - from the pelvis all the way up through the neck.

It’s no surprise that twists are renowned for their balancing and toning powers, for their ability to cleanse the body from tip to toe. These postures are often offered as balms for sluggish digestion, low energy, stifled breathing, and a variety of muscle aches and pains. They also offer feelings of rejuvenation and revitalization. And best of all, twists feel good from inside out.

Reclining twist, or ardha jathara parivartanasana, offers a crisp and clear window into the power of wringing out the body from its core. This posture can improve breathing, ease back tension and soothe frazzled nerves. Its reclining position lets us linger in the posture’s curves and spirals, inviting the twist to penetrate deep into the spine. If you’re anything like me, this pose will leave you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and rinsed clean.

To begin, stretch out on your back with your knees bent and your feet comfortably on the floor. If your neck and shoulders feel tense - or if your chin juts upward toward the sky instead of settling comfortably toward your chest - elevate your head a few inches with a folded blanket or pillow. Let a few soft and settled breaths ripple through the body as you surrender to gravity’s embrace.

Before twisting, take a few moments to make sure the back body is long and unwrinkled. Roll gently toward your left side and slip your right shoulder blade down toward the hips to create additional space between the ear and shoulder. Repeat this action on the second side. To relax the lower back, slip the hips off the ground and gently draw the tailbone toward the heels. Maintain this length as you settle the pelvis back to earth.

With your mind’s eye, consider the sensations in your back body. If you feel at all kinked up or wrinkled, readjust until you feel like you are resting atop a well-made bed rather than a tired and lumpy mattress. Invite the skin of the back body to spread and soften, settling with ease into the earth beneath. How much can you let go of as you rest quietly here, breathing comfortably and drawing your awareness inward?

When your body feels ready, bend the left leg, grab hold of the thigh or shin with your hands, and softly squeeze the knee toward your ribs. (If you find it difficult to reach your leg comfortably, wrap a strap around the thigh, hold one end of the strap with each hand, and gently draw the knee toward you). Rock gently from side to side to massage the lower back, and invite your exhalations to lengthen.

Still nudging the left knee toward your chest, slowly straighten the right leg, slipping it toward the end of your mat. Ideally the leg will end up fully outstretched, as it would in savasana, or corpse pose. If this action causes you to wince, extend the leg only as far as is comfortable. This is a deep stretch for the inner thighs, and you want to create extension in this pose rather than strain. Linger here for just a few moments, enjoying the opportunity to soften the leg and hip muscles, while encouraging the breath to feel as free and rhythmic as possible.

Now comes the fun part. Imagine you’re lounging around in bed on a sleepy Saturday morning. Roll your body onto your right side, bringing your left knee and both arms along with you as you turn. You should end up resting on your right side from ear to ankle, with both arms and both legs resting on the floor to your right. If rolling over feels awkward or gawky, try this tip: As you begin to roll toward your right, bend your left arm so the fingertips point upward, and then press the left elbow firmly into the floor on your left side. This action will give you a little leverage to roll over toward the right without strain.

Once settled, take a moment to reassess the situation. For some, the left knee will drop easily toward the floor. For others, the floor will feel like it’s a million miles away. If this is the case for you, slip a folded blanket or bolster between the left knee and the earth. Allowing the leg to feel well-grounded in this twist is more important than forcing the leg to reach all the way to the floor.

Now that you’re settled on your right side, consider the possibility of maintaining the well-rooted feeling of the lower body - with the pelvis looking toward the right - while the upper body spins back toward the left. From the pelvis down, you would like to stay nestled on your right side in that Saturday morning sleepy pose. But from the rib cage up, you would like to end up resting on your back just as if you were in corpse pose.

To do this, first anchor the inner left knee, imagining that you’re stitching it to the ground beneath you. Press the right elbow into the floor to help you rise up lightly through the chest so that the ribs and heart can spin toward the left ever so slightly. And then reach the left arm up above the body and extend from the heart all the way through the fingertips, palm facing the same direction as the face.

To complete the twist, imagine you have eyes in the front of your heart. While resting on your right side these eyes are looking toward the right. But as you begin to revolve the upper chest toward the left, the heart spins so that its eyes can gaze upward toward the sky. This deep rotation at the body’s core will encourage the left arm and shoulder blade to sweep outward toward the floor to the left - all while the left knee remains firmly anchored on the right side of your body. Let the head follow the action of the twist so that you end up gazing toward your left hand.

It is likely that muscle tightness may prevent the left shoulder from settling onto the ground as you spin the upper body and reach the arm outward. If this is the case, don’t despair. Take one last stab at spinning your heart toward the left, deepening the twisting action to your comfortable limit, and then bend the left arm, settle the elbow onto the floor on your left side, and rest your hand on your ribs. Positioning your arm in this way is a better solution than plopping your left hand onto the ground while the shoulder still bobs in space, which risks straining the upper body.

Once you’ve settled as far into this revolved twist as your body will allow, relax and let gravity do the rest of the work. Trace a diagonal line from your left knee to your left hand and then lengthen through the torso along that line. If you feel yourself kinking up in the area of the left waist, actively extend the bent-legged thigh away from your navel and toward your feet.

Breathe fully and rhythmically, enjoying the deep spiral of the spine. Invite gravity and the twisting action to wring you out from head to toe. When you feel the urge to unwind again, release out of the posture and lie flat on your back in corpse pose.

Remain here comfortably for a few moments, noting the sensations rippling through you. After exploring this asymmetrical twist, it is likely that the two sides of your body - your shoulders, ribs, belly, hips and legs - feel like they belong to different creatures. How does your left shoulder feel compared to your right? How about your left hip? Can you detect any new pattern to your breathing after practicing just one side of reclining twist?

When you’re ready, repeat the pose on the second side. Remember, in this exploration the name of the game is to anchor the legs while revolving the spine and torso in the opposite direction, maximizing the stretch in the right side of the body.

When you’ve reached your comfortable limit - either with both shoulders on the floor and the arms outstretched, or else the right elbow on the floor and hands on the rib cage - settle in and breathe. Soften the body, relax the skin and surrender to the stretch of the twist. Observe how, breath by breath, time and gravity invite you to release deep into the pose, wringing out your spine from bottom to top.

Now sink, stretch, ooze and release. Invite the body from the bones all the way out through the skin to relinquish all grasping, so that you feel softer, warmer and stretchier. With your mind’s eye, trace the snakelike spiral of the twist that is wringing out your spine from the tail all the way to the top of your head. Linger here for a few more breaths, growing more supple and yielding with each exhalation.

When you feel fully cooked in this posture, unravel yourself onto your back. Draw both knees toward your chest, rock gently from side to side, and then settle your arms and legs away from you into corpse pose. Let your breath be full and deep, with each inhalation bringing you renewal and vitality, and each exhalation offering a sweet sigh of relief.

Breathe, relax and enjoy. Invite this newfound ease and openness to fill you with enough steadiness, clarity and delight to buoy you with happiness through the remainder of your day.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (September 2004)