Ardha matsyendrasana, or half lord of the fishes, is an intricate pose that combines elements of twisting and hip opening. According to yogic myth, the first yoga student, Matsya, named by the first yoga teacher, Shiva, came back to Earth, reincarnated as both sage and teacher, and was embodied as half human, half fish. The movement of the torso in ardha matsyendrasana resembles the human half of Matsya, while the legs are folded to resemble his fish tail.
Different versions of ardha matsyendrasana accentuate different features of the pose, which can be tremendously helpful when it comes to creating a sequence. Understanding these differences will lead to understanding which version of the pose will be best for the sequence you’re building. Below are versions for stretching the outer hips, connecting the upper and lower body to prepare for twisted arm balances, and twisting the entire body while working toward a bind. Practice each so that you can embody the differences. As with any asymmetrical poses, make sure to do these variations on both sides.
For all of the ardha matsyendrasana variations: Start seated on the floor (if your lower back tends to round, you can sit on the edge of a folded blanket) with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Slide your right foot under your left leg and bring your right heel to the floor outside your left hip so that your right knee points straight ahead. Bring the sole of your left foot to the floor outside your right thigh so that your left toes are in line with or slightly in front of your right knee. If your left hip hikes up significantly, balance out the hips by pressing your hands or fingertips down onto the floor and lifting your hips slightly and shifting them to the right before placing them back down on the floor or your blanket.
This version of ardha matsyendrasana focuses on stretching the outer hips. Begin in the basic starting position and then wrap your right forearm around your left shin to draw the leg toward your pelvis without moving the foot, envisioning the head of your left femur (thigh bone) moving deeper into the hip socket. Place your left hand or fingertips behind your left hip on the floor or a block. On an inhalation, lengthen your spine, and on your exhalation, turn your torso and head to the left. (The twist in ardha matsyendrasana starts from the lower ribs and works its way up.) Let the twist be secondary to the stretch in the outer left hip.
Sequencing tips: This variation is beneficial for any hip-focused sequence and as a lead-in to revolved standing postures like parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle) and parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon).
Variation 2: Connecting the Upper and Lower Body
This version of the pose will help you feel more length and twist in the spine than the previous variation. From the basic starting position, take your left hand or fingertips to the floor or a block behind your sacrum, and on an inhale reach your right arm straight up toward the ceiling, lengthening your spine as you do so. Next, exhale and draw your navel toward your spine as you turn your torso to the left and bring your right elbow to the outside of your left upper thigh. Focus on the rotation of your spine and its relationship with your breath instead of using your arm to crank yourself into the pose. Use every inhalation to breathe space between the vertebrae, lengthening the spine so that with every exhalation you can deepen your twist, surrendering into the space you created on your inhale. As you inhale, you can back out of the twist a little bit, and as you exhale focus on turning behind the heart.
Sequencing tips: This variation is great for creating muscle memory in twisting sequences that move into twisted arm balances such as parsva bakasana (side crow), eka pada koundinyasana (one-legged arm balance dedicated to the sage Koundinya), and dwi pada koundinyasana (two-legged arm balance dedicated to the sage Koundinya). Since the upper arm/outer thigh connection is important in advanced poses like these, it will be useful to first practice the action of pressing the upper arm into the outer thigh in a less-demanding posture, like this variation of ardha matsyendrasana.
Variation 3: Bind Your Twist
This ultra-twisty variation of ardha matsyendrasana opens the chest and challenges shoulder mobility. Since it is the variation in which the body becomes most compressed, it requires a high degree of flexibility and core strength to keep the spine long and revolved without the support of the back hand pressing into the floor. Starting in the previous variation, slide your right arm from the outside of the left thigh through the triangle of your legs, reaching your hand toward your right hip. Then bend your left elbow, bring your left forearm to your lower back, and try to clasp your hands. You may also hold a strap between your hands.
Sequence: This variation is a great peak experience for a sequence that builds up to it. It can also work well in conjunction with other bound revolved postures such as baddha parivrtta parsvakonasana (bound revolved side angle pose), baddha parivrtta trikonasana (bound revolved triangle pose), and baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana (bound revolved half moon pose).
Practicing these variations and feeling the differences in your body in each one teaches you that you aren’t binding just to bind, or moving away from hugging the leg out of a notion that doing so is less advanced than crossing the elbow to meet the outer thigh. You also create greater variety and nuance in your practice, which may enrich your yoga experience.
The next time you’re on your mat, be like Matsya and use the wisdom of your body as both a teacher and a student by being inquisitive about your practice, understanding the purpose behind your movements, and reflecting on how your body is a mirror for your thoughts.