In general, twisted poses can be tricky. But parivrtta anjaneyasana, a twisted lunge, comes with its own unique set of challenges. For one thing, just balancing in the pose can be quite the challenge. And even once we’ve found our balance, there’s often still confusion about how to initiate the twist. Not to mention that for a lot of people, being in the twist just tends to be uncomfortable—with the feeling of restricted breath and tightness around the rib cage. We can end up feeling stuck, which is often the result of one common mistake: backbending right before we rotate into the twist.
Thankfully, there are a few things we can do to address this error and make this twist more stable and more comfortable. The first step is to understand the various movements of the spine and what roles they play (or don’t play) in the twist. Let’s review these movements.
Spinal extension is a backbending movement.
Spinal flexion is a rounded position—the opposite of a backbend.
Axial extension is “neutral.” This is a position in which all the natural curves of the spine are present, but it’s neither a backbend nor a forward bend. You’re long in both directions—both upward and downward—and there’s space in the spine.
The ability to find and maintain axial extension is the first skill we need for parivrtta anjaneyasana. Try this: Stand tall in tadasana (mountain pose). Now, with your exhale, lengthen both up through your crown and down through your legs and feet (in the two directions). Feel the strength and the length of your spine, neither backbending nor forward bending.
The second skill one needs in order to practice parivrtta anjaneyasana is lateral flexion. That means tilting into a side bend. Try this in tadasana: Start with axial extension. On your exhale, lengthen up toward the ceiling and down through your legs. Maintain that length, and place your hands on the sides of your rib cage (or, as Anatomy Trains author Tom Myers calls it, your “rib basket”) so you can feel the way your ribs move with your spine. On your next exhale, continue lengthening upward without backbending, and then laterally flex. Then bring your right arm alongside your ear to help guide you into the side bend.
From this position, you will add rotation. Rotate from your rib basket (rotating to the left, away from your extended arm), just above your navel—rotating only your rib basket, and making sure to keep lots of breath there. Stay strong through your legs, and inhale to come up, returning to center. Exhale your arms down. Then practice these same movements on the other side.
Now let’s take this new understanding of the spine’s movements into our twisted lunge, working with them step by step.
Start in a lunge with your right leg forward and left leg back. If balance is challenging, you can keep your back knee down on the floor for now.
Step 1 (axial extension): Place your right hand on top of your head, feeling yourself grow taller as you exhale and lengthen. Keeping that length, strengthen through your legs all the way up into your center; draw in and pull up. Maintain that while stretching your right arm and then your left arm up, reaching straight up toward the sky (no backbending!).
Step 2 (lateral flexion): Take your right hand to your hip. Keeping your spine long, hinge forward halfway, moving your chest forward without backbending or forward bending. Now, laterally flex to your right just a bit.
Why the hinge? What often inhibits us from moving our rib cage and twisting fully (and can make twists uncomfortable) are tight quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles. These are the deep muscles that originate at the top of the iliac crests (pelvic bones), insert at the 12th ribs and transverse (horizontal) processes of the first four vertebrae of the lumbar spine, and are key players in lateral flexion. Tight QLs can restrict us so that we can’t get a true rotation of the rib cage. When that happens, we twist from the sacrum instead—which can be destabilizing and cheat us out of the rotation where we need it most (in the middle back). In order to prevent this, we have to stretch the QL, and the forward hinge allows for this stretch. It insures that we’re not moving into the side bend from an inhabited place, and that we can experience the twist with less discomfort and instability.
Step 3 (rotation): Now rotate your ribs to the right until your left elbow hooks on the outside of your right thigh. Bring your hands together in anjali mudra (prayer position), breathe into the back of your ribs, and twist above your navel to rotate. Maintain strength (but not rigidity!) in your legs, and allow your movement to be fluid.
Your chest is lifted because of the extension of your spine (axial extension), not because you’re backbending (you’re not!). Then turn with your breath, finding a little more rotation on the exhale.
From here, you can tuck your back toes under and lift your back knee away from the floor if you’d like.
Continue to breathe into the back of your body, keep your legs powerful and strong, and then turn your head, neck, and collarbones to the right—everything turning in the same direction.
Stay here and exhale as you reconnect to the strength in your legs by drawing the muscles of your legs up toward your pelvis (this will help you maintain axial extension). Then inhale and before you untwist, soften any tension you’ve created so that you exit with ease—almost as if you’re floating out of it.
When you’ve untwisted, bring your hands to the floor and then release from the lunge, coming into a squat and then changing sides. (Coming into a squat between sides will help you to maintain strength as you transition to the other side. Coming right into a forward bend like uttanasana after doing only one side can be too much of a contrast, as one side of your back will have more tension than the other and the stretch will be uneven).
After you repeat the pose on the other side, applying all the skills you’ve learned, you can release into a standing forward bend, allowing your spine to gently lengthen.
Click here for a video demonstration.