How to find comfort and stability in Marichyasana D and any other asana
With continuous Yoga practice there are many asanas we can learn. And while many asanas can be learned quite easily, certain positions can pose a real challenge.
Especially in Ashtanga Yoga where you are traditionally not allowed to move ahead in the sequence until you have a certain level of proficiency in the previous asana, a challenging asana can make us feel stuck and trigger frustration with ourself. One of the main reasons for this frustration is that a challenging asana uncovers our weak points, reveals that we are not as strong, flexible, balanced or in control of our body, breath and mind as we thought we were. And luckily the Ashtanga system is very strict in this regard as the practitioners are “forced” to work on themselves if they want to continue. Without this “rule”, many of us would take the easy route of just choosing the asanas we like to do, which are most often the asanas we are good at.
Unfortunately being good at performing an asana has very limited value. In terms of Yoga it can even be counter-productive as it builds up our ego. On the other hand, the asanas that challenge us, make our mind go crazy and trigger unwanted emotions are the ones we should value as there lies the chance for growth. In my opinion, finally being able to get into an asana is not so much about the final physical result that you can see (that is you in the asana) but rather the awareness that you build on the way to mastering it.
As we work on an asana, we find ways to focus beyond our thought patterns and learn to overcome our fears. While building the required strength, flexibility, balance, focus and perseverance, we unleash a new part of our potential.
The main way to work on a challenging asana is, of course, to practice it daily. We gradually get better by approaching the asana with an open attitude and willingness to explore it deeper and deeper. Yet in this article I wanted to break it down and present 6 ways of practically learning about a particular asana.
As it’s easier to write about general ideas when applying it to a particular problem, I picked Marichyasana D for this article. A very challenging asana for many and a common roadblock for practitioners in the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga, its complexity will hopefully help me get my ideas across.
Note: for better understanding I will only talk about the right side of Marichyasana D: left leg in “lotus-position”, right leg in “marichyasana-position”, left arm wrapped around right knee, gaze over right shoulder.
1. Approach each pose from the Core and direct your body with the breath
When we see an asana on a picture, the main visible aspects that make up the asana are our limbs: Is the leg straight or bend, behind our head or in front, are the arms extended or binding around the knee etc. What we don’t see is that the core and spine are always stable and the breath deep and even. By attempting an asana with the focus on what the arms and legs are doing, we oftentimes loose stability in the core, distorting the spine and wondering why we cannot breath properly.
In Marichyasana D a common error is to compensate for the stiff hip in rounding the back too much, which lets the pelvis tilts back (1). This makes it very hard to twist in the spine without falling backwards and prevents a deep breath. And since the breath is supporting the lifting action of the whole spine , without it we sink in more and more.
So never sacrifice the breath or a stable core for getting deeper into any asana. Always listen, watch and feel your breath and use it to understand the asana better, as you can never do anything against your breath.
Especially in the twist the importance of breath lies in activating the inhalation what needs to be active, and releasing with the exhalation whatever needs to be released.
2. Focus on the body part that is most challenged and learn all about it
If a body part is not readily working as we wish, we have to study them. This includes anatomical aspects about bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles involved as well as mechanical principals, especially when movements between asanas (vinyasas) are learned. At the same time knowing the english, latin or even sanskrit term for any body part won’t help you unless you put it into practice and feel and experience the anatomy on your own body (and as teachers eventually on many other bodies).
In Marichyasana D the main area of focus is the hip-knee-ankle area. That in itself is quite complex, as it involves the whole lower body, yet it should be looked at as a unit. If the left hip is not open enough to get into a deep half lotus position, increased pressure will be on the knee (2) (inner meniscus) and on the extended ankle which tends to collapse outwards (3).
Practice easier hip openers (and the first half of Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series) to slowly open your hips, learn how to externally rotate your upper and lower leg to take pressure off the knee and take some time to build strength and stability in your ankle, not allowing it to collapse. If you work on all three parts consistently for a while, the open hip, the nicely aligned knee and the strong ankle can act as a unit.
Also explore different angles of the lotus-knee and change the height of your lotus-opposing right sit-bone (4). Then play with different positions of the marichyasana-knee, bringing it more or less in (which changes the pressure on the lotus-ankle) (5) and the foot position of the marichyasana-foot (e.g. right foot more to the side of mat, knee pushed diagonally forward to middle of mat) (6).
3. Focus on all the less obvious, yet very relevant body parts
With all attention on one area, in our example the hip-knee-ankle area, the rest of the body is oftentimes neglected.
In Marichyasana D, a big part of being able to bind the hands behind our back lies in the flexibility of the shoulders. If you can move your elbows just a bit beyond your knees, the rest is just about internally rotating your upper arm and bending the elbow to get your left hand facing towards your left kidney (7).
Another big part of this asana is the actual twist in your spine, mostly around T11/T12. It’s sometimes amazing to see how much we can move the upper body without changing anything below the naval. But as our attention often stays at the vulnerable knee and ankle, we don’t twist as much as we could. Also, the more we can move the belly past the right thigh (8) (so that most of our chest is facing the side), the easier it will be to bind, as the left shoulder gets closer to the right knee.
4. Find modifications that work on the blocked area instead of allowing you to spare it
Modifications can be great in preventing injury and slowly preparing the body for a challenge. But modifications can also prevent us from progressing if they are used as an excuse and long-term alternative to the actual asana and the challenge it contains.
I believe in offering a student a modification or preparatory pose in order to pinpoint certain aspects of a pose and to prevent injury if the student has a weak spot (e.g. the knee) that would be too exposed in the final version of the asana. I do NOT believe in modifications that are meant to be practiced for good with an attitude like: “I will never be able to do this asana anyway and therefore am perfectly happy with an easier alternative”.
As to modifying Marichyasana D, I find that if it is practiced in the traditional Ashtanga sequence, all the previous seated asanas are working on opening the body perfectly. Focusing on the weak spots of Marichyasana D and consciously opening and strengthening them in all previous asanas (especially Marichyasana B and C) will best help you to accomplish the full pose.
5. Let go of the result and just be happy in the moment
“Some beautiful things are more dazzling when they are still imperfect than when they have been too perfectly crafted.“ – La Rochefoucauld, Collected Maxims and Other Reflections
Start appreciating the imperfection of each manifestation of an asana, feel the subtle differences – every day a bit different.
Love your body for what it is, how it looks and feels in this very moment.
Laugh at the thoughts that come along with each asana, welcome arising emotions with a deep breath instead of suppressing them.
What inspiration and long-term effect can we get from an asana or anything in life that we get too easily. As we work towards overcoming a challenge, we live the very moments that can stay with us and make us trust and believe in our potential, long after we have succeeded in the asana. Therefore enjoy the moment and see the value of what your mind perceives as imperfect. It’s an illusion and the moment is indeed perfect already.
6. Find a trusted, experienced teacher that helps you go beyond your body and mind
As we should not try to climb a mountain without a guide that is familiar with the terrain and has experience, we should not attempt advanced asanas without an experienced guide. Apart from valuable tips and adjustments, a teacher can provide the needed support and direct your focus as well as help in dealing with emotional and mind stuff. Just trusting your teacher can already carry you further in your practice.
The purpose of this article is to inspire you to welcome challenging asanas and use them to explore yourself and increase your awareness while working towards mastering the asana. I did not intent to give you a detailed workshop about Marichyasana D, as a “dead” medium like a blog cannot give feedback. Please consult your teacher.
For students it’s important to learn the key principle of the asana they are stuck on and increase their awareness bit by bit. Never give up and find happiness in the path instead of hoping for a fast success as this will only lead to the next challenge. Enjoy each moment!
For teachers it’s important to be aware of the principles of the asana and have experienced and explored it from all perspectives. Then we can identify and point the student towards their blind spots and support them on their path of exploration to higher self-awareness.
To be able to do that, it’s so important for the teacher to have a consistent practice. Only teach what you know from experience and be very empathic with your students as their experience might be completely different. This might be especially challenging for rather gifted students who become teachers too fast and approach their students with an attitude of „What is so hard about this?” Everybody’s experience is different.
In the comments below share one asana you are or were stuck with and how you overcame it! I would love to hear from you.