A Fish Called Matsyendra

Exploring the spinal twist Matsyendrasana - Lord of the Fishes. By Diane Ashfield

Reading time: 5 minutes

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, Lord Shiva was on a deserted island with his lovely wife Parvati where he endeavoured to explain to her the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of yoga.  Of course, being Shiva’s wife, Parvati was already well aware of all these wonders and maybe wasn’t particularly paying attention, however, a little fish nearby listened intently to Shiva’s wisdom and remained completely motionless, enthralled in what he was hearing.  When Shiva realised that the fish had been listening to his teachings, he sprinkled water on the fish, giving him divine form as Matsyendra – Lord of the Fishes.  The seated spinal twist Matsyendrasana is dedicated to him for devoting his life to spreading Shiva’s teachings on yoga.

Although Matsyendrasana is a wonderful seated spinal twist, it can feel quite intense.  Generally, twists are practiced at the end of a yoga class when the hamstrings, shoulders and hips have sufficiently warmed up, so as always before working towards any asana, we warm up the muscles and joints required to enable us to practice safely.   Warm ups could include gentle supine spinal twists, hamstring stretches with a belt, hip opening exercises and gentle shoulder stretches with a belt or block to release any tensions or stiffness in the shoulder area.

To practice full Matsyendrasana begin seated with knees bent.  You could sit on a blanket or block to elevate the hips slightly if required.  Bring the right foot under the left leg so that the right foot nestles close to the left buttock.  Relax the right knee on the mat.  Breathe in and lift the chest.  On the next inhalation twist to the right, taking the left arm across the body so that the left shoulder blade rests on the inside of the left knee and place the left hand on the left foot.  Breathe and lift the chest again, taking the right hand behind the back as you breathe out, and wriggle the fingers towards the left thigh as you twist.  Keep the chest lifted and gaze over the right shoulder or maybe close the eyes.  Stay for a few deep, easy breaths, then slowly release and repeat on the other side.

Because of the intensity of the twist, full Matsyendrasana is classified as an advanced asana, and is not suitable for anyone experiencing any spinal or shoulder injury, pelvic or abdominal issues or pregnancy, so should anything hurt or not feel right, breathe and come out.

It’s important to listen to our body and not force ourselves into any asana, so should the full pose feel too strong, Half Lord of the Fishes – Ardha Matsyendrasana is a fantastic alternative and can also be used as a warm up to the full pose.  There are so many different variations with one leg straight or bent and with one arm either wrapped around the thigh, holding the foot or taking the arms into a bind – certainly far too many to mention, so play around with them and find the variation that works best for you.

Matsyendrasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana both have the same benefits if practiced regularly:

  • Improves digestion
  • Increases spinal flexibility
  • Tones the abdominals
  • Helps to reduce body fat
  • Relieves stress by calming the nervous system
  • Stimulates the solar plexus chakra Manipura – boosting confidence and self-acceptance
  • Said to delay the signs of ageing

Compiled over 600 years ago, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions Matsyendrasana:  “Practice of this asana increases the digestive fire to such an incredible capacity that it is the means of removing diseases and thus awakening the serpent power and bringing equilibrium in the bindu.” The ‘serpent power’ mentioned here refers to the divine energy of Kundalini, and ‘bindu’ being the point of potential energy and consciousness.

Matsyendrasana simulates a sense of movement even though the body doesn’t leave the mat - maybe this is because the legs are facing one way, while the torso and head are turning behind!  The sensation of being twisted and then slowly releasing can feel quite liberating, so Lord of the Fishes is a great posture to practice just before totally unwinding in Savasana relaxation, however remember if Matsyendrasana doesn’t work for you, there are plenty more fish in the sea!


Diane Ashfield

Diane Ashfield (aka Yoga With Dash) is a British Wheel of Yoga instructor, teaching in the London Borough of Bromley.