In cultures all over the world, you’ll find mention of the axis mundi, a representation of the connection between the sky and earth, where north, east, south and west meet. It symbolises the union between the mundane and the Divine, the material and the spiritual. You might have seen it as a tree, a cross or a column. In a seated twist like Bharadvajasana I (Bharadvaja’s Twist), the spine is like your own axis mundi. The base of your spine points toward the ground, while the rest of your spine reaches up to support your head. Being conscious of both ends of the column in the pose can help connect you to the world around you and support your quest for inner peace and tranquillity.
Bharadvajasana I also stretches the spine, shoulders and hips; massages your abdominal organs; opens the chest and relieves some types of lower backache and neck pain. Unlike some other twisting poses, such as Marichyasana III, in which your legs and upper body are bound together, Bharadvajasana I gives your whole torso freedom to turn, making it one of the only twists that can be safely performed during pregnancy.
That freedom makes it easy to get swept up in the twisting action and to tilt your axis one way or another. For example, if the base begins to shift at your hips, one side of your back will lengthen while the other side contracts and the shorter side can get compressed while you’re twisting. The resulting distortion in the spine can block the energy running along your axis mundi, which makes having an open, tall spinal channel all the more important.
Like most other asanas, Bharadvajasana I is a balancing act, one that can be mentally as well as physically centring. A few variations will help you get a feel for how to keep your hips level with the floor, both sides of your torso and back long and even and the central axis erect. From there, you can enjoy the freedom of turning from a solid foundation with a calm presence that might take you higher.
Pull Up a Chair
For the first variation, you need a folding chair. Practising the pose on a chair takes potential strain on the ankle and knee joints out of the equation, so you can focus on keeping your hips level and lifting and opening the chest while twisting. Begin by sitting sideways on the chair with the backrest to your right. Place your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other on the floor and align your knees directly above your feet.
Exhale, turn toward the back of the chair and place your hands on top of the backrest. Continue to turn, twisting from your rib cage up to the top of your chest. At this point, it’s a good idea to look down at your knees. If your left knee is jutting out in front of your right, that’s a good indicator that the left side of your pelvis is shifting forward. So you’ll need to make a little adjustment: focus on distributing your weight evenly on both of your sitting bones and bring your knees back in line with each other.
Now that your base is established, you can begin to broaden your chest. On an inhalation, lift your chest. Then exhale, seeing if you can turn a little more to the right and place your right hand on the corner of the chair seat behind you. On the next inhalation, lift through your belly to create space between your ribs and pelvis; exhale and continue to twist. Next, take your left shoulder back and open the left side of your chest. Move your shoulder blades and upper back ribs in toward your chest to support the lifting of your chest and opening of your shoulders. Check in with your base again: are you still sitting balanced on both buttocks?
Finally, lift both sides of your rib cage and chest evenly so that your collarbones are level with the floor. Keep your lower back long, pin your outer shoulders back, exhale, turn your chest one more time to the right and then let your head follow to look out toward the right. Now that you’re in the complete twist, you can hold the finished pose for 30 seconds before gently releasing on an inhalation to come back to centre. When you’re ready, sit on the other side of the chair and repeat.
You can put away the chair and grab a couple of blankets for the second variation. In this pose, you establish the alignment of your legs while placing your hand on the floor to keep your pelvis level and your torso upright. Sit on the front edge of two folded, stacked blankets in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Shift your hips to the left side of your blankets so that only your right buttock (not the thigh) is on the front corner of the stack. Bend your knees and swing your legs to the left. Lay your feet on the floor outside your left hip, with your left ankle resting in your right arch. Your knees and thighs should face straight forward. Let your left buttock drop into the space between the blankets and your feet. If having both knees on the floor is painful or if your ankles are stiff, use more blankets or continue working with the first variation.
When you’re settled, face forward and place your right hand beside your right hip. You might find yourself leaning to the right, so push off with your right hand to help you drop your left buttock and rebalance. Lift the sides of your rib cage evenly so that, from the waist up in this position, you look as though you are standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Next, cross your left hand in front of you and hold your right knee. Move your right hand behind you on the blanket.
On an inhalation, lift the sides of your chest and with an exhalation, begin to turn your chest to the right. Roll both shoulders back and broaden your chest. Continue to drop your left outer hip and buttock as the left side of your chest ascends. This will help lengthen the left side of your back. To remain grounded on the left side as you turn to the right, roll the outer edge of your left shin and little toe onto the floor. You can also push off your right hand to help you put weight on your left shin and keep your axis vertical. Roll both shoulders back and move your shoulder blades in toward your chest. Bring your upper spine, shoulder blades and back ribs forward as you exhale and turn to the right.
Turn your head, keeping it aligned with your spine so that from the crown of your head to your tailbone, your axis is vertical. With your head and spine centred, be mindful of the balance in your pelvis; although you may not feel as though you are twisting as far as possible, you will feel the centring quality of the pose. After 30 seconds, inhale and turn back to centre. Stretch your legs into Dandasana (Staff Pose), shift to the right side of your blankets and swing your feet to the right to twist to the left.
bharadvaja’s twist: bharadvajasana I
bharadvaja = a poet-sage credited with composing Vedic hymns; asana = posture
To do the classic pose, add a bind that lets you open the chest and shoulders and deepen the twist even more. Begin as you did in the second variation by sitting on the blankets with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor at your left side. Before you start the twist, bend your right elbow and reach your right forearm behind your back to clasp your left upper arm, just above your left elbow. If you are unable to reach your left arm, place a strap around your left elbow and hold the belt with your right hand.
Next, roll your right shoulder back to broaden the chest and reach in front of you with your left hand to hold on to your outer right knee. If you can’t quite reach your knee, hold your outer right thigh or the inner edge of your left leg. (Later, after you’ve come into the full twist, you may be able to crawl your left hand closer to your outer right knee.)
The bind will bring you into the first stages of a twist. But before you go further, drop your left buttock and outer hip toward the floor as you lift the left side of your chest. Without disturbing your foundation, exhale and revolve your chest from left to right. You’ll feel a stretch in the front of your right shoulder as you move it back. If you can reach your right knee, try to extend your left arm straight. It will feel as though your left arm is pulling your right shoulder back more. To further open your chest, move your shoulder blades in toward your chest and lift the left side of your chest so that the right and left sides are even.
This can be an intense stretch, but bring attention to your axis and notice if your spine is still perpendicular to the floor or if you are leaning to the right. Exhale as you release your outer left hip down toward the floor and inhale to raise the left side of your waist and ribs. Maintain an even lift along the right and left sides of your rib cage as you exhale and turn around your axis, head following last.
Slowly revolving into the pose like this takes some patience, especially if you’re feeling eager. But in the end you’ll have built a twist that is solid and divine from the earth to the sky.
Marla Apt (www.yoganga.com) is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in Los Angeles.
Pose benefits: Relieves some types of lower backache; Eases some causes of neck pain; Loosens stiff shoulders and neck. Contraindications: Eyestrain; Migraine; Knee injury.