May—a time for spring cleaning. Whether it’s attic clutter or closet chaos that’s weighing us down, many of us develop the itch to clear our living space after the long, closed-in, cold season. Spring is also a great time to cleanse our bodies, from the inside out.
According to Chinese medicine, spring supports detoxifying and tonifying the liver and gall bladder, our internal storage sheds for wintertime refuse. Spring is associated with the element of wood, and green is the color of the season—think trees and their burgeoning foliage.
In the Chinese medical model, the liver controls the muscles and tendons of the body, so the squeezing and stretching actions of many yoga poses can help tonify the liver. But for direct action on the liver, nothing beats twists and backbends. Twists and backbends squeeze the liver, releasing toxins into your bloodstream.
This month’s pose is chosen from among many yogic twists because of its name. The Roman epic poet Ovid named May for “maiores,” the Latin word for elders. Elders are often associated with wisdom (especially by those of us who are approaching or fully entrenched in eldership). This month’s pose, Marichyasana, is named for the sage Marichi, who Yoga Journal calls “the great-grandfather of Manu (‘man, thinking, intelligent’), the Vedic Adam, and the ‘father’ of humanity.” Elder, indeed.
Marichyasana has many variations; some involve spinal twisting and others do not. This month’s pose is a variation of Marichyasana III. Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Place a few fingers on your lumbar spine. If you feel the spinous process poking out like knobs in your lower back, place a folded blanket under your hips so that your hips are higher than your legs. Again feel your spine. Keep elevating your hips until your low back no longer feels knobby. (When the spinous processes are poking out, your lumbar is in flexion. This is not a healthy position from which to twist your spine.)
Let the weight of your torso release into your sit bones. Ground the back of your right leg and bend your left knee, drawing the foot back toward your left sit bone. Place the sole of your left foot on the floor so that the inside of your foot is about four inches from the inside of your right thigh. Scoot your right sit bone forward and your left sit bone back a bit, so that your sit bones are on a diagonal. (Some yoga methods will tell you to keep the sit bones aligned, but I’ve found that this can, over time, create instability in the sacroiliac joint. Take it from a yoga elder with an unstable sacroiliac joint!)
Ground both sit bones and rotate your torso toward your left knee, sliding your right leg forward even more as you turn. Either hook your right arm around your left knee, or place your right elbow on the outside of the thigh. Place your left hand on the floor behind your left hip. Press the left hand into the floor to help lengthen your spine upward. Relax your shoulders. Make sure you are not using your right arm to force yourself into the twist.
Don’t go to your maximum twist. Breathe deeply, and as you inhale feel how your torso wants to rotate slightly out of the twist. As you exhale, feel how your torso moves back into the twist. Relax into these oscillations. When you suppress these movements, you suppress your breath—not the best way to detoxify your liver and restore your energy. Because the liver is associated with anger and aggression, balancing your liver requires that you approach asana practice with gentleness.
Take five to ten deep, nourishing breaths, letting your torso unwind into the rotation. Feel your abdominal organs, especially your liver, stomach and spleen, and allow them to settle into the twist along with your rib cage, spine and core muscles. After five or ten breaths, rotate back to center and stretch your left leg out onto the floor. Sit for a few breaths and be present with what you feel in your body. Relax. Repeat on the second side.
It is common to feel thirsty after practicing twists (and backbends) because of their liver-squeezing actions. Be sure to drink lots of water after practicing them. Twist wisely, without force or aggression, with the patience of the elders. Let Marichyasana renew your liver and your life.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, writer and musician who has taught yoga since 1986. She is the author of the book, Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, published by Rodmell Press.