Find stability and freedom in vishvamitrasana by embracing the inherent unity at the heart of opposition.
By Christina Sell
As inspiring and lofty as yoga teachings can be, fundamentally yoga is a practical path that is applicable to the here and now. Our pursuit of the higher aims of yoga exists in relationship to our skillful participation in life as it is. Our longing for the Divine lives in relationship with the sometimes petty desires and insecurities of our personality. Our aspirations to be of service to others live in relationship with our personal wants, needs, and preferences.
Rather than placing these domains of practice at odds with one another, we can approach life’s contrasting forces as a rich field for practice, learning to inhabit the dynamic tension of the sacred and the mundane in a manner that is meaningful, rewarding, and joyful. In this way, yoga is a path of both transcendence and engagement—one that invites us to explore our spirituality through our human experience, and uplift our humanity through our spiritual practice. My teacher Lee Lozowick called this approach to sadhana “enlightened duality.”
Our asana practice offers us myriad opportunities to consciously embody contrast and opposition in order to access the unity that is at the heart of duality. Vishvamitrasana is one such opportunity—a challenging pose that calls us to skillfully engage pairs of opposites. The asana is named after the Vedic sage Vishvamitra, whose name literally means “friend of the universe.” The very form of vishvamitrasana invites us to make friends with contrast, challenge, and the universe that exists inside and outside of us.
Duality in Action
According to the Anusara Yoga system, the main set of contrasts to explore in any pose is the opposing actions of drawing in and extending out. As you draw in, you cultivate strength, integration in the joints, and increased kinesthetic awareness. As you extend out, you create space for expansion both physically and attitudinally.
A secondary set of contrasts we will examine in the vishvamitrasana sequence below is known as Inner Spiral and Outer Spiral in the vernacular of Anusara Yoga. These energetic actions create an optimal relationship between freedom and stability in the legs and pelvis by first opening the back body and expanding the space inside the pelvis, and then stabilizing that opening to anchor the posture fully.
Before beginning your practice, take a few moments to center yourself in inner awareness. Consciously embrace all of the opposites within you. As you move through the sequence, remember you are practicing to expand yourself through skillful engagement, not to force yourself into a posture. Stay in each pose between 5 and 15 full breath cycles. Challenge yourself with compassion, and pay attention to the wisdom of your body.
1. Standing Crescent
This pose stretches the sides of the torso and provides a great opportunity to practice the primary set of opposing energetic actions: drawing in and extending out.
Stand with your legs together and stretch your arms overhead in urdhva namaskarasana (upward prayer pose). On your next inhalation, firm your legs—squeezing them together—and draw energy up from your feet into your pelvis as though you are putting on stockings of energy. As you exhale, root the bones of your legs down into the earth and tilt to your right side until you feel a stretch along the left side of your torso.
Inhale, draw in with your legs. Exhale, push down through your left foot, and tilt further. Keep your legs and your arms straight. Move the sides of the rib cage back and anchor your tailbone.
When you are ready, inhale, come up to standing and repeat on the other side.
2. Parshvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) Variation
A great hip-opener, this pose gives you a chance to practice working your front knee and arm against each other—an important pair of contrasts that will come into play in vishvamitrasana.
Step or jump your feet wide so that your feet are under your wrists. Inhale, and turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Exhale, and soften your face while rooting your legs into the earth. Inhale, and firm your legs. Exhale, and bend your right leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Place your right hand on the floor on the inside of your right foot. Stretch your left arm over your head so that your upper arm is in line with your ear, palm facing the floor.
Push your right inner knee against your right shoulder. Then oppose that action by pushing your shoulder back against your inner knee. You will feel a deeper sensation in your inner right groin and gain some leverage for bringing the outside edge of your front thigh parallel with the side edge of your sticky mat—this indicates that you have sufficiently externally rotated your front leg.
As you inhale, draw in with your legs and continue to push your knee against your shoulder. As you exhale, scoop your tailbone and draw the flesh of your buttocks away from your waistline, continuing to push your shoulder against your knee. Extend out through your legs and stretch fully through your top arm.
When you are ready, inhale, push down through your legs, and come up to standing. Repeat on the other side.
3. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Trikonasana prepares the hamstrings for the peak pose and gives you a chance to practice Inner Spiral and Outer Spiral.
Step or jump your feet wide. Like you did in parshvakonasana, turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Inhale, and draw in with your legs until your chest lifts. Keeping that strength, exhale, and place your right hand down on the floor to the outside of your right foot.
With your next inhalation, turn your upper inner thighs in, reach the inside edges of your legs back, and widen your thighs and pelvis away from the midline until a small curve comes to your lumbar spine. From the inside edges of your big toes, stretch back to your inner heels. From the inner edges of your pubic bone, reach back to the inner edges of your sitting bones. Lift the inner thigh of the back leg away from the heel of your front foot, toward the seam between the wall and the ceiling behind you. This is Inner Spiral, which creates space in your pelvis.
To anchor and stabilize the space, you’ll need to engage Outer Spiral. Keeping your upper inner thighs back and apart energetically, scoop your tailbone into your body, then turn your front leg out until your kneecap points straight up to the sky. Keep the mound of your big toe planted. Now move your tailbone forward and draw your hips together until they feel compact and steady.
Breathe deeply. When you are ready, inhale, root down through your legs, and come up to standing. Repeat on the other side.
4. Vasishthasana (Pose of Sage Vasishtha, or Side Plank)
Vasishthasana is a great pose to test arm strength and gain the confidence necessary for the more advanced arm balance. There are two main forms of this pose: one with the hips in line with the torso and the other with the hips elevated. Because it is easy to drop the hips in the final form of vishvamitrasana, we’ll practice the more buoyant variation of vasishthasana here.
From adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog pose) roll to the outside edge of your right foot and stack your feet on top of each other. Then lift your left arm off the floor and stretch it to the sky.
Inhale, tone the muscles of your legs and arms as though you are giving yourself a friendly embrace. Exhale, push down and forward into the floor with your right hand until your hips lift and gain a little buoyancy.
Hold for several breaths. Repeat on the other side.
5. Shalabhasana (Locust Pose) Variation
This pose opens the shoulders and trains the arm position that is essential for safe integration of the bottom shoulder in vishvamitrasana. In this variation, we are focusing on the work of the shoulder blades and arm bones, so keep both feet on the floor and press them down firmly to help you gain greater access to the lift of your chest.
Lying on your belly, interlace your hands behind your back. As you inhale, broaden your elbows away from one another to create spaciousness inside. Exhale.
With your next inhalation, engage “shalabhasana arms”: draw your shoulder blades onto your back and take the tops of your arm bones back. On the same inhale, lift your torso up off the floor. Pause here, exhaling. Inhale, firm your legs strongly, press your feet into the floor, and lift your chest even higher. When you are ready, exhale and slowly lower down.
6. Deep Lunge Variation
This pose grants deep access to the hips and gives you a chance to practice the entry used later in the peak pose.
From adho mukha shvanasana, step your right foot to the outside of your right hand. Spin your left foot to the floor like you did in parshvakonasana. Take your right hand underneath your right calf muscle and place your thumb on the flesh of your right calf. Use your thumb to roll the meaty part of your calf muscle in toward your ear. This will move it out of the way and make it easier for you to get your shoulder underneath your leg.
Firm your legs and draw in. Now engage Inner Spiral: turn your legs in, reach the inner edges back, and widen your legs and pelvis apart. With the space you have created, place your shoulder underneath your leg. Repeat these two steps; then place your right hand on the floor outside your right foot.
Now, engage “shalabhasana arms” by bringing your arm bones back. Press the right arm bone against your front leg while pressing your leg against your arm. These actions together will stabilize your arm bone in the shoulder socket and help you engage the strength of your inner thighs. With that strength established, widen your thighs out and apart once more with Inner Spiral and then add the complementary opposition of Outer Spiral in your front leg: come up onto the ball of your left foot and, keeping your right foot where it is, turn your right leg out in the socket, move your tailbone forward, and draw your hips together.
Breathe deeply. Release when you are ready and repeat on the other side.
7. Supta Padangusthasana 2 (Reclining Big Toe Pose 2) Variation
This pose stretches the hamstrings in preparation for vishvamitrasana and gives you a chance to practice staying steady in your bottom leg, which is necessary in order to achieve the final pose.
Lie on your back, and place your left leg to the outside edge of your sticky mat. This wider-than-usual placement of the bottom leg more accurately simulates, and more effectively prepares, your legs for the final pose, where an extreme stretch of the hamstrings is required. Keep the left inner thigh strong and don’t allow the bottom leg to externally rotate. Bend your right knee to your chest. Bring your right arm to the inside of your leg and grab hold of the outside of your right foot with your right hand. Bring your knee toward the right armpit until you feel a slight stretch in your inner right groin. Straighten your right leg out to the side. Draw the outside edge of your right foot toward the floor.
Inhale, firm your legs and draw in energetically. Exhale, extend out through your legs, keeping your hips even. Without moving your left foot, draw your left leg toward the midline of your body until you feel a tone in your inner left thigh. Breathe deeply. Release and repeat on the other side.
8. Parighasana (Gate Pose) Variation
This posture offers a tremendous side stretch and hip opening. It also gives you the opportunity to learn the work for the front foot and top arm of vishvamitrasana without being in a weight-bearing position.
From seated, fold your left leg back in virasana (hero’s pose). Extend your right leg out to the side. Place your hands on the floor by the insides of your knees and squeeze your legs toward the midline. This activates the muscles of your inner thighs and helps you effectively draw in. Keeping your legs strong, lift your hips up a bit, and take your right hand underneath your left leg to grab your left heel; then, sit your hips back down on the floor. Take your left arm over your head, place your left thumb on the inside of the arch of your right foot, and wrap your left fingers around the outside of your right foot. The pinky side of your hand will be facing up and the thumb side will be facing the floor.
While this initial set up may seem a bit unusual, this grip provides a great access point for a final set of contrasting actions we need for the peak pose: working your hand and foot against each other. Turn your left hand and arm out by turning from your thumb to your pinky finger, away from the midline, like you are turning a doorknob. Simultaneously turn your right foot against that action by moving your foot laterally, like a karate chop, from your big toe to your pinky toe. This dynamic work will help you get your left shoulder blade secure on your back and give you the stability you need in your shoulder to further turn the belly and chest toward the sky.
Repeat on the second side when you are ready.
9. Vishvamitrasana (Pose of Sage Vishvamitra)
Knee-Down Modified Form
This pose gives you a chance to practice the component parts of vishvamitrasana without the intense weight-bearing of the classical form.
From a deep lunge on the right side, exhale and soften. Lower your left knee to the floor, bend at the knee, and turn your lower leg so that your left shin is parallel to the short edge of your sticky mat. Just as you did earlier in deep lunge variation, place your right thumb on your right calf and move the flesh of your calf in toward your ear to allow more space for your shoulder. Inhale and draw in with your legs; use Inner Spiral to create space in your hips. Place your right shoulder as far underneath your right leg as you can; place your right hand on the floor a few inches to the outside of your right foot.
Lean into your right arm and, pushing your shoulder and leg against each other, sweep your right foot off the floor without using your left arm to pick your foot up. This important stage tells you that your legs are properly engaged. Place your left arm over your head and grab hold of your foot, like you did in the parighasana variation.
With your next inhalation, strongly firm your legs and use that strength to turn them in, move the inner thighs back, and widen them apart. Straighten your right leg; if it is not quite straight, draw it in again and engage more Inner Spiral. This will activate and stabilize the hamstring muscles, increasing your ability to stretch them safely and effectively. Then add the contrasting action of Outer Spiral: turn your right kneecap straight up to the sky, move your tailbone deeper into your body, and tone your hips.
Now work your foot and your arm together as you did in the parighasana variation: karate chop your foot to the right, and turn your hand to the left in opposition. This will allow you to further release your left shoulder blade onto your back and turn your belly and chest more to the sky.
Hold for several breaths. Release and repeat on the other side.
The final pose adds a greater degree of challenge—but your hips, legs, shoulders, and torso are now well equipped to greet the challenge.
From a lunge on the right side, spin your left heel to the floor. Work your right shoulder under your leg, and place your right hand on the floor. Now tone your shoulder and leg against each other, sweep your right foot off the floor, and place your left hand around your right foot. Strongly engage Inner Spiral in your legs to straighten your right leg. Then add Outer Spiral, working your hand and foot together with the doorknob and karate chop actions. Keep your left leg firm. Draw your left shoulder onto your back, and turn your belly and chest to the sky. Feel the freedom that comes from skillfully engaging opposition.
When you feel complete, release and repeat on the second side.
Conclude the sequence with uttanasana (standing forward bend), adho mukha shvanasana, balasana (child’s pose), and an inversion like sarvangasana (shoulderstand). Finally, settle into a deep shavasana (corpse pose), and sense into the spaciousness that lies beyond duality.
Christina Sell is a certified Anusara Yoga instructor and author of Yoga from the Inside Out and My Body Is a Temple.