Align: Marichyasana III

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Marichyasana (Sage Marichi's pose) III is a seated twisting posture that is designed to place considerable pressure on the abdomen.

Function of the pose:

Twisting the spine

A twist in the spine not only stretches and strengthens the various muscles which span the back and run along the spinal column, but it also helps relieve and balance pressure on intervertebral disks.

Increased abdominal pressure

Not only does intra-abdominal pressure improve digestive function, but it also calms the body by triggering a relaxation response (lowering blood pressure and slowing heart-rate), and this relaxed state promotes homeostasis and optimal functioning of the body systems.

The increased pressure also challenges our breathing, forcing the diaphragm and accessory muscles to work a little bit harder to sustain a deep and even breathing pattern.  As with any exercise, challenging the body in a controlled and safe way will improve it's function.

Finding the Pose:

  1. Begin in a seated position with both legs extended and the spine upright.
  2. Bend your right knee and place the heel of the foot on the floor as close to your sit-bone (ischial tuberosity) as is comfortable.  The weight of your torso should be evenly distributed between both sit-bones.
  3. Bring your right hand to the floor behind you, 
  4. Inhale to feel your spine lengthening, then twist to the right as you exhale, keeping your body close to your bent leg and possibly bringing your left elbow to the outside of your right knee.  Look behind you over your right shoulder if it is comfortable for your neck.
  5. Hold for five to ten breaths, unwind, and repeat on the other side.

Tips & modifications:

  • If keeping the spine vertical is a challenge, you can sit about a foot in front of a wall and place your right hand on the wall instead of the floor, pressing into the wall as you twist to keep your torso close to the bent leg.
  • An alternative to bringing your left elbow outside the right knee is to simply hug the knee close to your chest with left arm as you twist.
  • As the pose becomes more comfortable, adding the optional arm bind can help create a deeper twist.  To bind the arms, you will bring the left arm to the outside of the right knee, then turn the arm so that you can bend the inside of the elbow in front of the left knee, so that your hand is reaching back toward the left hip.  The right hand then reaches behind your back to grasp your left fingers or wrist (or a strap).
  • Bear in mind that the one of the primary goals for this pose is to create pressure in the abdomen, and deep, diaphragmatic breathing is the most effective tool you have to increase the intensity and effectiveness of any forward bending or twisting pose.  With every inhale, imagine the spine lengthening as the pressure within your torso increases; with your exhale, you might be able to twist a little more deeply as that pressure drops.

Muscle actions:

  • The deep muscles of the erector spinae as well as the adbominus obliques are alternately strengthened and stretched.
  • The pectoralis major and rhomboid major are activated as the arm presses the body deeper in to the twist.
  • The gluteal muscles (major, medius and minimus) and external hip rotators are engaged to maintain the seated position and to press the bent knee into the arm.
  • The quadriceps of the bent leg is lengthened, and those with tight quadriceps may have difficulty bringing the heel close to the sit-bone.

Benefits:

  • Compressing and twisting the abdomen improves digestive function.  It is not uncommon to hear gastric sounds as this pose is held.
  • Compressing the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve to trigger a relaxation response, slowing the heart rate, reducing blood pressure and readying the body for rest.
  • Twisting the spine balances the tone of the superficial and deep muscles surrounding the spine, leading to improved function of the spinal nerves.

Precautions

  • During pregnancy, especially after the first trimester, deep twists are not recommended.  However, if you would like to do a less intense twist and feel no ill effects while entering the pose, you can twist in the opposite direction to avoid placing deep pressure on the abdominal-pelvic cavity.  With the right knee bent, you would bring your left hand behind you and right arm to the inside of your right leg while twisting gently to the left.
  • Some women find deep twists uncomfortable during menstruation.
  • If you often experience discomfort or instability in the sacroiliac joint or lumbar spine, seated twists may place increased pressure in these areas and exacerbate your symptoms.  Work with an experienced yoga teacher to adapt this pose to your needs, or to find substitute postures that have the same benefits.

Additional Resources

Yoga: The Iyengar Way
By Silva Mehta, Mira Mehta, Shyam Mehta