Twists are an important part of yoga asana practice. Ideally, our bodies move in all directions, including rotation. We actually rotate both our lower and upper body even when we do a seemingly simple movement like walking. Twisting definitely happens when we do more complex actions like dancing, pitching a baseball, or serving a tennis ball. So, our yoga practice is a good place to keep ourselves mobile and to maintain our range of motion in the horizontal plane. In this article, we’ll use the example of learning to bind Marichyasana C to explore this idea.
Why do binding twists?
Just to keep things interesting in yoga, categories of postures offer different types of challenges. One option in our yoga practice is to explore deepening poses that we feel comfortable with after we’ve established a foundation in the basics. In the category of twists, binding is one way to deepen the pose. When we bind a twist, like Marichyasana C for example, we assemble multiple pieces of a pose into something more complex.
What is binding?
Binding is what we’re doing when we reach an arm around our leg, torso, or another body part, and then connect our hand back to our body somewhere else. A common example is the bind in Marichyasana C. In the bound version of this pose, if our right leg is bent, then we reach our left arm around the outside of our right leg, and our right arm behind our back to meet and clasp our left hand.
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What happens when we bind?
If we add a bind to our twist we have resistance to twist against. That deepens our spinal twist. It also challenges our breathing. When we twist we lengthen one side of our intercostals and shorten the other side (even if we have an intention to lengthen both sides). So working to breathe against this resistance both lengthens and strengthens some of the muscles we use in breathing. It also functions as a mental challenge when we have to be more intentional about relaxing in order to breathe.
If we think about the anatomy of binding twists generally, we have a base of some kind created by our lower body, and we have the twist happening in our upper body. Specifically, in our example of the bind in Marichyasana C, we have one leg bent with the knee up toward the ceiling and the other leg straight out in front of us in a seated position. If our right leg is bent, then we are twisting toward that leg, with ultimately the left arm wrapping around the knee and the right arm reaching behind our back. Then our hands, or hand and wrist, meet behind our back to complete the bind in that version of Marichyasana C.
To make that shape, our hamstrings, especially on the left side, lengthen to allow our pelvis to sit in neutral or even a little bit of an anterior tilt. Next our right hip and knee both flex. That means both the quadriceps and hamstrings have to cooperate to allow that movement to happen. Then we twist through our torso to the right. So our right erector spinae muscles are concentrically contracting and our left erector muscles are lengthened. We also have deeper spinal muscles, the rotatores and multifidus, that assist with rotational movements of the spine. Additionally, our right external obliques are lengthening while our right side internal obliques are contracting. Finally, we add the shoulder and arm piece, the bind. We need to internally rotate both shoulders, but especially the left, to reach the arm around our leg and eventually meet our right hand behind our back.
Techniques to bind Marichyasana C
Although there are many twists that have the option to bind some part of the body, let’s continue with Marichyasana C as an example of how to break down the pieces of a bound twist. So often when I see students who tell me that they’ve been struggling to bind Marichyasana C, I see that they’re starting with the last piece of the puzzle first. All of their attention is on their hand/forearm and maybe their shoulder and they feel stuck. The first thing I do is take their pose apart and help them set it up from the ground up, one step at a time.
First, establish the base
It’s important to start by establishing a stable base. In order for the pose to happen, we have to start from the base and build the twist on top of it. The hamstrings have to lengthen enough to allow a neutral pelvis. If the hamstrings are tight they can prevent you from sitting upright. The rest of the pose is kind of a mess if you don’t get the base right to begin with. If the hamstrings are tight and pulling your pelvis under, consider sitting up on a block to get your pelvis in a more neutral position.
Then, get your torso to your knee
The next step is to get your torso close to the knee that you want to bind around. If you have a habit of leaning your weight on the back hand, in this case, the right one reaching behind you, then notice how far that takes your torso away from your knee. Instead of leaning on that hand, go forward with your torso. Lean toward your knee and use that right hand to help hold your torso to your knee once you’ve leaned in. The closer you get your torso to your knee, the closer your shoulder is to your knee. When you have too much space between the torso and the knee, your shoulder will have to rotate more than if your torso were right up against your knee.
Lastly, assemble the bind
Now you can assemble the binding part of the pose. Curl your left shoulder around your right knee. Then, let go with your right hand and reach that right hand around behind your back to meet the left. Finally, add your torso into the twisting action and follow that by looking over your right shoulder.