the spinal twist : ardha matsyendrasa

mixing it up with ardha matsyendrasana and finding nothing in its usual place

photo by derek shapton

A postcard of an art opening is inspiring my thoughts on the Twist. A moonlike yellow face with baby round arms twist in one direction and round legs in another – all very smooth, integrated and mixed up. Is it moon or baby? Are those arms or legs?

When I first started yoga and tried the Twist, I experienced the same feeling. What’s going on? What goes where? I see it, too, when new teachers attempt to lead students into the Twist. “Left” and “right” lose meaning and mix up. The teachers, scrambling for words, think they are making a mistake. But perhaps not.

I find the Twist gives an unpredictable, fun and fresh perspective. The movement – a disorderly order – is not random or chaotic but a graceful arrangement of the usual two sides into new places.

What are right and left, anyway? In Hatha, we are working with two energies – ha being sun, warm, positively charged; tha being moon, cool, negatively charged. Our bodies are described in Kundalini Yoga as having subtle currents or nadis – the left side being ida, (moon, cool, receptive), the right side being pingala (warm, sun, active). The two nadis run parallel to the central channel, sushumna, and finally culminate in union at the ajna cakra, or third eye point.

This symbolic interaction reminds me that each of us has a dual nature that is ultimately whole. We may seek partners of the opposite or same sex as a mirror for ourselves or as a need to be complete. But really we are already complete. Even biologically we carry both male and female chromosomes and hormones. Maybe we are just mixed up!

By intentionally working with the Twist and the two sides of our body, we can also learn about the two sides of the mind being parts of a whole. As we twist in one direction and then the other, we gain an almost 360-degree view of the world around us. Symbolically we can exercise both our masculine and feminine aspects. What would it mean to develop both sides of ourselves equally? Can we then expand our vision to see more holistically who we are and where we are?

Yoga is about this kind of union – integrating the left and the right, the sun and the moon, the intuitive and the intellectual, the internal and the external. As we twist, we interconnect the subtle energies in the body in a new way. We also temporarily lose the security of knowing “what is what.” But isn’t that a false security anyway, which we can renounce to gain a world of expanded possibilities?

Ardha Matsyendrasa is named after the great sage, Matsyendra, who started out as a fish. While swimming near an island in the ocean, this small, fortunate fish overheard Siva passing on the teachings to Parvati. Leaping out of the water, the little fish twisted alertly and held perfect silence to listen. Absorbing the divine words with such attention, the fish was transformed into an immortal sage who continues to pass along the teachings to this day, especially through this pose.

Ardha means “half.” Does it mean that if we attain even half of Matsyendra’s knowledge, we will be wise? Or, perhaps in our human form, we can twist only half as well as a fish, but even a half-twist can shake us awake? Or could it imply that we are half male and half female, like Siva in his ardhanaresvara aspect?

Even if you have worked with the Twist for years, try coming back to a newness with it. How do your left and right sides intertwine? How does left become right and right become left? When we are twisted, nothing is in its usual place. What happens in your mind when things are out of place?

How to do the twist

1. Come to a sitting position with your legs outstretched. Keep the right leg on the floor, bending the knee and sliding the foot under the left thigh to rest outside of your left hip. If this position feels too cramped, an option is to keep your right leg stretched out.
2. Then bend the left leg, so the knee is in an upright position, and cross it over the right thigh, bringing your foot flat on the floor.
3. Lengthen up through the spine. Create a balanced base, feeling both sitting bones connecting with the floor.
4. You will twist (to the left) toward the up knee. Place your right elbow on your left thigh with the arm at a 90-degree angle and forearm up, or hug your arm around the knee.
5. Stretch out your left arm at shoulder height and twist from the base of the spine upward through your whole spine, turning your head as your eyes follow the direction of the arm. Visualize the movement of the spine as an upward spiral.
6. Place the hand on the floor behind you, or bring the hand around the waist.
7. Hold the pose.
8. Untwist with the same awareness, lifting the arm and unwinding, then relaxing the legs.
9. Repeat to the other side.

When you hold the Twist on each side, repeat a mantra an equal number of times as a way to balance the two sides.


When you do the Twist, observe the two sides and the differences. Ask: What would it mean to develop both the masculine and feminine sides of yourself equally?

As you twist in each direction, think about expanding your vision to see more holistically. Who are you? Where are you?

Can you be aware of realigning yourself and interconnecting the subtle energies of your body in a new way as you twist? What is the effect?

Swami Lalitananda's latest book,The Inner Life of Asanas,is a collection of her hidden language hatha yoga columns, from timeless books . She is a resident teacher and part of the collective at radha yoga & eatery - a yoga centre, cafe, arts and events venue at 728 Main Street in Vancouver, BC. Contact her at .

   read more of swami lalitananda's past columns

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