I know, I know. Twists can be challenging enough as it is. Why on earth would we want to add a bind?
Truthfully? You don’t have to bind a twist. Like, ever. You can have a rich and complete “yoga life,” full of diverse and fascinating asanas and movements, without ever linking your hands or clasping a strap in a twist. But if you’re feeling pretty comfortable in your twists and shoulder-opening asanas (meaning they feel stable, you’re not experiencing any pain, and you can breathe comfortably), binding can be a fun challenge to try. Binding a twist is key when it comes to certain challenging balance poses—like revolved bound half moon pose (baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana) and revolved bird of paradise pose (parivrtta svarga dvidasana). And if you like to explore fun shapes and are fascinated by the myriad ways your body can arrange itself, you might find that exploring bound twists makes an especially rewarding addition to your asana practice.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll first explore binding in the context of a revolved lunge, which can be a little more accessible than a bound revolved side angle pose, where the back foot is grounded as in warrior I. (This is particularly true for those of us with tight calves, which can make the grounded back foot feel especially restrictive and may cause us to inadvertently compromise the safety of the twist and bind.) Then we’ll explore taking it into a bound revolved half moon and a revolved bird of paradise.
Important reminder before we begin: Don’t ever force a twist or a bind. Make sure you’re able to breathe smoothly and comfortably as you work into the twist/bind. If you cannot, back out of the pose.
And remember: A yoga strap/belt is an awesome “arm lengthener” and a great tool to have in hand when practicing twisted binds.
Preparations (Plus a Little Anatomy Lesson!)
First, let’s look at some important key actions, preps, and prerequisites for bound revolved asanas. Remember that bound revolved poses are deep poses, should be done in the context of a complete asana practice, and should be avoided if you are practicing with a shoulder injury. They require plenty of shoulder openers along with simpler twists and binds as preparation.
That said, here are some specifics to consider.
Because twisted binds are complex, they can often seem confusing or even impossible (“You want me to reach around where exactly? I’m pretty sure my arms don’t bend that way.”). That’s why it can be helpful to first figure out the biomechanics of the pose, which will provide a sense of what the shoulders are actually doing in a bind. Then we can explore these same actions in simpler asanas first, and then practice our twisted binds as safely and mindfully as possible.
With that in mind, I asked my favorite anatomy expert, Jenni Rawlings, to weigh in:
“When it comes to the shoulders and binds,” she explained, “I find that shoulder movement is sometimes oversimplified in the yoga world. The direction of movement for the shoulders in most of these binds—a bound twisted lunge or a revolved bird of paradise, for example—is generally internal rotation and adduction. What’s often overlooked is that we’re looking for internal rotation specifically at the glenohumeral joint, which is where the upper arm bone meets the scapula at the glenoid fossa/shoulder socket. BUT many, many people lack range of motion in shoulder internal rotation, and so instead of moving at the glenohumeral joint in these binds, they unknowingly move at the scapulothoracic joint instead (where the shoulder blade meets the rib cage). What this looks like is the shoulder blade winging off the back, the whole shoulder complex rounding forward, and the chest collapsing.”
Rawlings invites us to explore this for ourselves by bringing one arm into the bottom half of gomukhasana (cow face pose) arms, and then looking at the upper back in the mirror to see if that shoulder blade is winging off the back. “Winging” is when the medial (inner) border of the shoulder blade is lifted off of the back—and according to Rawlings, that’s what happens for most of us when we practice gomukhasana.
“Shoulder blade winging is not necessarily injurious,” she explains, “but it’s not what we want if we’re looking for true internal rotation of the shoulder joint. And it’s not a stable position for the shoulder, meaning that if we were to load the shoulder in this position—maybe by lifting a bound leg up in revolved bird of paradise, for example—that could potentially be injurious.”
Before working with bound twists, Rawlings recommends working on true internal rotation of the shoulder by coming into gomukhasana arms, but bringing the bottom arm into the pose only as deeply as your body will allow before the shoulder blade starts winging. “This means that the bottom hand will be lower than it usually is, and that most of us will need to use a strap to bind. In fact, for many people, the hands will be more than a foot apart,” she says.
“Once you have this, then work the action of energetically pulling your hands apart on the strap, which will put load into both shoulder joints and help adapt them to these ranges,” preparing you to approach a bound twist with more shoulder girdle stability.
Be sure to repeat on both sides.
Exploring the Dynamics of a Healthy Twist
Rawlings continued: “While shoulder mobility is the main requirement of binds like these, to successfully make your way into one of these twisting binds, you also need to have a good amount of spinal mobility in the direction of rotation.” She also stressed the importance of thoracic (mid back) spinal extension, and—depending on the particular variation of the twisted bind—hip mobility, which is, again, why adequately warming up is so important!
It’s a good idea to first practice a few non-bound revolved lunges, such as a gentle twist toward the bent-leg side of the body (with the bottom hand on the floor directly beneath the shoulder, and the top arm extended upward); a “balancing twist” with both arms extended like a “T”; and a prayer twist, which is also the pose you’ll use to enter the bound twisted lunge.
When it comes to a revolved prayer lunge (which is, in my opinion, one of the “easier” twists to bind), yoga teacher Annie Adamson does a wonderful job in this short article (which I highly encourage you to read!) of explaining the biomechanics involved and addressing how to twist safely and effectively.
Here are some tips, based upon Adamson’s advice, for finding a safe and effective twisted lunge:
Begin in a high lunge, with your left foot forward and your arms extended up alongside your ears. Lengthen your spine without arching back. (You are not doing a backbend. Coming into the twist from a backbend is not only destabilizing, but it can make the twist feel restricted and uncomfortable!)
From there, bring your left hand to your hip and hinge forward about halfway, keeping your spine long.
Maintaining that long spine, laterally flex (side bend) to the left (still without backbending).
Then, begin to rotate your rib cage to the left, eventually hooking your right elbow onto the outside of your left knee, and coming into a prayer twist.
Practicing this way will bring you into a twist that’s primarily in your middle back (as opposed to twisting mostly in the pelvis).
Don’t go for your deepest twist right away. Instead of immediately sliding your right (bottom) arm as far down your thigh as you can, stay a little more upright and breathe into the twist.
Keep your back thigh pressing up, lift your chest toward your thumbs, and lengthen through your crown. You can turn your head to look up if that feels comfortable.
Stay for a few breaths before releasing. (I like to release on an inhale, but see what feels best for you.)
Repeat on the second side and then return to this variation on the first side to prepare for the bind.
Working Toward the Bind
Tip: If balance feels tricky here, try lowering your back knee down to the floor for stability before you start to bind, or try wiggling your left foot to the left to widen your hip stance.
From your stable, comfortable revolved prayer lunge with your left foot forward, begin to work your outer-right (bottom) upper arm down your outer thigh, bringing the armpit against the outer thigh. (As I do this, I like to bring my left hand to my outer thigh for stability.)
An “intermediate” step that some people enjoy is to bring the fingertips of the bottom hand either to the floor or to a block outside of the front foot, and to extend the top arm straight up or alongside the ear (think revolved side angle, but with the back heel lifted away from the floor).
To move into the bind, spin your left (top) palm to face the wall behind you, bend your elbow, and reach back, bringing your left hand to the right side of your back-waist. From here, you can then turn your right (bottom) palm to face the wall behind you, and reach your right hand underneath your thigh to bind around your left thigh, clasping your left hand or grabbing hold of a strap between your two hands.
Note that this will be easier if you have longer arms. The size of your rib cage, torso, and chest, for example, can play a role as well. As a shorter-armed person, I tend to want all the help I can get in this pose. Sometimes, when I’m trying to bind my twist, it seems as if my hands are flailing in space, trying in vain to connect with each other. That’s why, as I reach my right arm under my thigh, instead of keeping my left hand at my waist (as my longer-armed friends do), I often find it helpful to bring my left/top arm out of the bind and use my left hand on my right forearm to gently guide my right hand to where it will be more easily able to connect with my other hand or strap (for me, that’s under my thigh, resting near the right side of my waist; your own “sweet spot” may be slightly different)—without forcing it, of course, and while keeping my chest open and broad—and then reaching my left arm back around to meet my right hand or strap.
Once in the pose, Rawlings stresses the importance of moving the shoulder blade (specifically the bottom shoulder blade, as the bottom arm is more internally rotated, and the shoulder blade on that side is more likely to wing off the back) in toward the spine, and pressing it forward into the chest, which will help to pull the head of the upper arm bone back while drawing the bottom tip of the shoulder forward. “All of this should set up the shoulder in a more stable position, guiding the head of the humerus posterior (back) in the joint, and keeping the shoulder blade connected to the rib cage,” she explained. “When viewed from the front, the chest will look broad and open, not rounded and collapsed forward.”
If you feel steady in your bind, you might then lift your back knee off the floor (if it’s down), pressing your back inner thigh up toward the sky, and keeping your back leg straight and strong. Stay for a few comfortable breaths before releasing and repeating on the second side.
Do remember that it’s super super important to take your time coming into and out of the pose, to never force anything, and to avoid rounding or collapsing forward in order to bind. And just because you were able to clasp your hands comfortably yesterday doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a strap today. Nor does going less “deep” today mean that you won’t ever be able to go “deeper” in the future. Rawlings also raised the excellent point that just because your arms may be long enough to bind easily doesn’t necessarily mean that your shoulder girdle is in a stable position—you may still find greater stability from working with a strap.
Once you feel comfortable and confident in your bound twisted lunge, you can explore some fun balance-challenging variations. You can do these with or without a strap. Most important is not whether or not you’re practicing with a strap, but that your shoulder girdle is stable, your chest broad, and your breath smooth before moving on.
Revolved Bird of Paradise
If you normally come into bird of paradise by stepping forward from a bound side angle, this transition will likely feel familiar—just a little, well, twistier!
From bound revolved lunge with your left foot forward, gaze down toward your left foot; then, while keeping your bind, step your right foot forward beside the left. Shift your weight into your right foot and recruit your core strength as you lift your left foot and rise to standing (I find that actively spreading the toes of my left foot helps a lot with stability).
Once you’re upright, stand tall. Press the top of your standing leg thigh back. If your standing leg is straight and strong, and you draw your left shoulder back so that your chest remains broad, you can begin to extend your lifted leg. Continue to lengthen through your spine as you twist. Gaze straight ahead, or if your balance feels steady, turn your head to the left, allowing it to follow the direction of the twist.
When you’re ready to come out of the pose, you can simply release your bind and lower your left foot to meet your right foot in tadasana (mountain pose). Or for an added challenge, come out of the pose the way you came into it, but in reverse. Rebend your left knee and hinge forward, lowering your left foot to the floor with control. Then step your right foot back into a lunge, release the bind, and transition to the second side.
Revolved Bound Half Moon
When first attempting this pose, I thought it would be fairly “easy” since I felt comfortable with my revolved bind and with balancing in both half moon pose (ardha chandrasana) and revolved half moon pose (parivrtta ardha chandrasana). But let me tell you, it turned out to be way more of a balance challenge than I’d bargained for! Unlike revolved bird of paradise, the bound leg in revolved bound half moon is your standing leg—which can make negotiating your balance trickier since a) your center of gravity has shifted substantially, and b) your hands aren’t there to catch you. Nonetheless, it can be a fun challenge!
To give it a try, begin once again in your bound revolved lunge, with the left foot forward. (Remember to use a strap if it makes the bind more accessible.) Gaze down toward your left foot, reminding yourself that your left leg will be your standing leg. Then gradually start to shift forward—as you would to come into a warrior III (though you’ll likely find that you need to take your time with it, gradually moving your right foot forward, drawing your left leg toward straight, and lightening your right toes off the floor). A priority here is to keep your right triceps glued to your outer left thigh, which for most people means keeping a slight bend in your standing leg. When your right toes lift off the floor completely, actively spread them to aid with balance, and float your right heel up to hip height, keeping all your right toes facing down toward the floor. Your gaze can remain downward as you work to find your balance. When you decide to release, lower the ball of your right foot back to the floor as softly as possible, returning to a lunge and then releasing your bind. Repeat on the second side.
Revolved standing balancing poses require serious focus and technique. If adding a bind to your standing balance feels precarious (or simply unnecessary!), then skip it. There are plenty of alternative asanas that will allow you or your students to remain in a deep practice without adding all the flair. For example, a great alternative to bound revolved bird of paradise is parivrtta hasta padangusthasana (revolved hand to foot pose). And an alternative for bound revolved half moon is to simply lose the bind and stick with revolved half moon.
As you explore binding, keep in mind that there are many variables to your bind-ability, and these change from day to day. Having alternative asanas in your back pocket will help you to ultimately find depth in your practice.