Keep the back heel on the ground.
This simple instruction adds an incredible layer of complexity to the twist in Parivritta Parsvakonasana. The pose looks almost benign at first sight, with both legs and one arm as the supporting pillars of balance. It is more challenging than a simple spinal twist, yet definitely less intimidating and more manageable than, say, inversions. At first sight.
Getting into the posture
The initial steps of getting into the posture are simple enough. From tadasana, abduct both legs from the hips to widen feet 1.2m to 1.5m apart. Rotate right hip joint and right ankle outwards so that the right foot points 90 degrees to the right. Rotate left hip joint and left ankle inwards slightly.
Next, rotate the hips further clockwise to bring the shoulders and torso to face the right side, making sure that the hips are squared to the breadth of the mat. At exhalation, bend the right knee such that the right thigh is parallel to the floor. To maintain alignment, lift the left heel off the floor at the same time and spin on the ball of the foot until the inner left foot is parallel to the inner right foot. Firm the sartorius muscles to turn the right thigh outward, so that the center of the kneecap is in line with the center of the right ankle。
The challenge begins as one turn to the right from the lumbar region on exhalation to bring the left elbow over the right knee, and extend the arm to place the left palm by the side of the right little toe. After painstakingly bringing the left armpit in contact with the right knee, the right hip may have swung out to compensate for the lack of twist in the thoracic vertebrae, shifting the body out of alignment towards the left, taking the back leg and foot along with it.
To focus first on getting one elbow deeper on the outside edge of the other shin, one can start by practicing with the back knee on the floor to take out any balance element at this point. Once there is good contact between the knee and armpit, the arm and leg can be pressed into each other to create pressure to bring the torso deeper into the twist. This pressure also serves to manage one’s balance when the back knee is off the mat, during which, one needs to contract the gluteus muscles to square the hips, consciously tighten quadriceps, straighten the back leg and push against the left sole to maintain balance and alignment.
Next, rotate the right shoulder outward and open the chest to deepen the twist, and extend the right arm overhead. Turn the head to look at the upper thumb. With every inhalation, lift a little more through the sternum, pushing the fingers against the floor to help. Twist a little more with every exhalation.
Now, rotate the left heel slightly inward, and press it to the ground.
The right hip immediately swings out again, and one loses balance easily. The mind loses focus as it tries to keep the right arm extended overhead, left palm on the floor, torso twisted, back leg straight, and back heel pushed against the floor all at the same time, somehow forgetting that the hips also need to remain squared. The pose has become one wobbly, uncomfortably twisted figure as a result of simply adding one extra step of grounding the back heel.
Learning is continuous
Repeated failures in performing this Parivritta Parsvakonasana correctly may build up frustration within oneself, because even though each individual aspect of the pose is manageable, combining them to form a stable, aligned posture somehow remains beyond reach for many. Not to mention staying there for five breaths.
The first mental approach is to understand that this is not one asana you could immediately get into. It takes patience and lots of practice to build up strength and flexibility in the relevant body parts.
Next, understand that students with different body conditions and thus limitations have their own reasons on why this posture is not yet achievable. To twist with more ease, one could gain some proficiency in Marichyasana C and Parivritta Trikonasana first to increase flexibility in the thoracic region. Lack of thoracic flexibility causes the hips to go out of alignment when one focuses too much on bringing the left armpit over the right knee without twisting enough of the spine.
Beginners may be unable to reach the floor with their palms. The student can first either rest the forearm on top of the bent-knee thigh, or use a block outside of the front foot to support the hand, for the student to benefit from the twist.
Thirdly, the student needs to be constantly aware of the position of the hips, and alignment of the back leg. It does not seem difficult to tighten the gluteus muscles to keep the hips squared, nor to pull through the knee caps and quadriceps upward towards the pelvis. Yet, it requires energy and focus to twist, tighten, straighten, balance and maintain all at the same time.
Finally, to practice pressing the back heel down, one could do the posture by bracing the back heel against a wall first. As one bends the front knee and then lower the torso to the side, you can imagine that you are pushing the wall away from you. Press the head of the back femur bone deep into its socket and lift the inner back groin deep into the leg.
Benefits of Parivritta Parsvakonasana
This asana greatly increases the flexibility in the hips and lower back. It also lengthens the leg and back muscles. The twisting action opens the chest, groin, hip flexors, and legs, as well as strengthens the shoulders, spine and surrounding muscles. It stimulates peristalsis in the intestines, improving digestion. It also tones and massages the pancreas and liver, and stretches the kidneys. Blood is sent to the spinal discs and other deep tissues, and the abdomen is compressed to release unwanted gas out of the body. When done correctly, this posture articulates the spine, and aids in correcting scoliosis.
As one of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, asana requires constant practice to build up the body’s health and strength. One does not need to be demoralized by not getting the posture right in the initial stage. The solution is a holistic one, involving a healthy lifestyle, a positive mind, and practice, practice, practice. Clear the mind with the help of pranayama, and focus. Steady the mind and you steady the body.
Keep the back heel on the ground.