Twists Yoga Workshop December 2015
Anatomy – the Spine
There are a lot of different poses that involve twists. They can be done seated, reclined, standing, lunging, inverting, bending forward, bending backwards, bound and so on. Different twists obviously work different parts of the spine.
When we talk about twists, we’re talking about twisting the spine. So we begin our twists workshop with some details about the spine – its parts, construction and ways of moving. The spine extends from the coccyx – or tailbone – to the occipital lobe – those two little bony protuberances at the base of the skull.
The spine is composed of vertebrae, disks, and the spinal cord. It is divided into three main regions – cervical, thoracic and lumbar – plus the sacrum and the coccyx.
The ribs attach to the spine throughout the thoracic region. The cervical region is between the top rib and the skull – more commonly known as the neck. The lumbar region runs from the bottom rib to the sacrum. The pelvis (ilium) attaches at the sacrum, forming the sacroiliac joint. The coccyx is the little tail that extends below the sacrum.
The legs connect through the hips to the pelvis, which in turn connects through the sacroiliac (SI) joint to the spine. This is the path of all load-bearing from legs to spine, making the SI joint one of the most problematic for twists.
The spine can twist and flex in multiple planes and directions simultaneously. It can twist as well as flex and extend; it can flex forward and extend backward as well as side to side. The greatest range of movement is in the cervical spine, making it more vulnerable than any other part of the body. It is prone to misalignment, to injury and to numerous postural issues.
Although the spine has a ‘natural’ curvature, it varies from one individual to the next. The curvature makes twisting and flexing especially challenging, and individual differences render the experience more-or-less unique.
This twisting, flexing, curving construction of bits and pieces constitutes a sheath that protects the spinal cord. The spinal cord is in effect a part of the brain – a part that is highly vulnerable to any damage inflicted upon the spine or any of its constituent parts.
At this point in our discussion someone jumped in to tell us that about seven years ago her spine was ‘broken all over’ – along with arms and hips and legs! She says there was no surgery – “just” three years of rehab 😮 A salutary reminder – but also an uplifting example of the body’s amazing capacity for recovery and regeneration. After three years of rehab she got back on the mat, and three or four years later is relishing her yoga, continuing to get stronger and more confident.
That interjection served to segue from our prefatory anatomy lesson to the usual participants’ introductions. Each participant introduced themselves with a brief statement of intentions and / or desires for the workshop:
- I came for the sheer pleasure of it. I love twists; they give me a physical release – make me feel light and flexible. I hope to feel fantastic after this 😀
- I quite like twists, too. I particularly like reclined twists, with knees to one side and head to the other – it’s quite good for my lower back issues. But I also need to detox by Xmas ;-).
- I’m pretty tight and want to learn more about twisting.
- I like twisting depending on the posture; sometimes they make sense logically but I don’t get the relief or release.
- I have reservations about twists because of a spinal injury – usually I feel like more movement is possible than I can get by myself.
- I want to explore some of the ways to twist deeper without doing damage.
- I’m interested in the connection to the rib cage; and I’m interested in the ‘wringing out’ and the emotions that stirs.
Nina interjected here: “I’m naturally very flexible with open joints. I used to go into twists very deeply. Then I came to understand that there are a few dangers from going into them too far. ‘Going for it’ is not always the best way, because it is always the weakest point that gives. The strongest and stiffest parts simply transfer the load somewhere else, increasing a mobility that is perhaps already over-accentuated. So I backed off. Then a hamstring injury weakened other things that I could easily strain. All of this forced me to change my approach from one of exuberance and extremes to one of care and responsibility.”
Twists – their purpose and benefits
Twists serve as an excellent gauge of bhava – your present state of being; where you’re at right now. Many people’s limitations in twists have at least as much to do with the mind as the body and its history of trauma (see comment above about ‘reservations’).
Twists are good for detoxing, because they squeeze the internal organs in the abdomen. They also stretch the muscles between the ribs (the intercostals), which makes them excellent to do when you’re feeling constricted or constrained. Putting those two things together makes them excellent to do when you’re feeling a bit down, or gluggy, bloated or hungover.
It is sometimes worth using touch to gauge your alignment and degree of flexibility. Touch yourself with your hands as a way of checking in with your bhava. This advice contradicts the common directive in an asana practice to shut out the other senses and turn your focus inward, feeling a pose and your alignment, rather than using external cues. What we’re seeking is balance, and progress. Ideally we will get to a point in our practice where props and external triggers or measures are not required; but on the path to getting there, use what’s available to you. It can be very useful to use the fingers to touch yourself to gauge how far you’re twisting, how well you’re aligned in your twist, and so on.
Remain aware, though, of the difference between using touch to gauge bhava and using the hands and arms to deepen a twist. In seated twists, for example, there is a great difference between placing a hand on the floor behind you to see where it lands, or to check if you’re sitting upright, and placing it on the floor behind you to get a grip and pull yourself deeper into the twist. Using your arms to pull yourself into a twist can take away from the core engagement – in which case you’re missing one of the important points of the exercise; going for the ego boost of moving further, rather than the core strengthening that will be beneficial in the longer term.
Twists – traps and pitfalls
We started our physical practice, beginning with the cervical spine, warming up the neck. ‘Move it whichever way feels appropriate for you today’. A warm up should always also be a scanning, checking in, assessing your bhava.
One thing that we need to scan for is our release valves: how are we compensating for limitations and blockages? For example, when turning the head from side to side (twisting the neck), is the trailing shoulder trying to follow the chin around, allowing the gaze to travel further without deepening the twist of the cervical spine?
This is clearer when lying on your back. Turn your head side to side, noting what comes easily and what doesn’t. Then centre your head, and lift it. Tuck the chin, square the shoulders. Release. Repeat.
Moving to the other end of the body now, bend your knees and place your feet mat-width apart. Then move both knees over to one side – the trailing leg will come down near the other foot. In many respects this is more of a hip-opener than a twist, primarily stretching the groins and the ITB of the trailing leg, rather than twisting the spine. But it also puts a load on the sacroiliac joint, and thus serves as a good warm up for lumbar twists.
After doing that on each side a few times (exhaling as the knees drop over, inhaling as you return to the center), bring the feet together and repeat the motion. As the knees fall over (actually, lower them gently, with core control, rather than letting them flop / fall) keep the trailing shoulder on the floor. Again, scan for the release valve, and pull back rather than letting it release.
As the lower lumbar warms up, you can more easily move the knees to the side without lifting that trailing shoulder. Then lift the feet off the floor, tucking your knees towards your chest. Squeeze the knees to your chest for a couple of breaths, then release your arms back down to the floor and continue the side to side movement with your knees, controlling the descent, and continuing to breathe. If this is relatively easy, gradually straighten your legs. The further the feet are from your body, the greater the core engagement. In each of these lower lumbar twists, if you feel free enough, turn your head the opposite way of your feet/knees – so as your legs go right, your eyes look left and vice versa. This introduces a strong cervical twist in the opposite direction. All the while, keep checking that the trailing shoulder stays firmly planted.
Next, we moved into setubandha (little bridge pose). This wasn’t initially for another twist, but to work the spine in a different direction, changing the curve and extending the spine. Here it is worth experimenting with curling the tailbone up as you lift into the pose, and curling it down. Try to find a neutral position. What feels best?
For what it’s worth, while lying on your back, pull your ear toward your shoulder, keeping the eyes facing up to the ceiling so that your neck is now extended sideways. Now lift your hips into setubandha. What does that feel like? [yuck, I reckon!]
Having done our warm-ups and some gentle movement, we jumped into the complicated revolved half-moon pose bound (parivrtta baddha ardha chandrasana), then backed off a bit to explore some of the range of seated twists.
At their most basic we simply begin in dandasana (staff pose), and after a few breaths, lift our arms out to the side at shoulder height and twist from the navel. Keep the hips square to the front, and the shoulders square to the floor as you turn to look over one shoulder and then the other, turning the entire rib cage and chest. Here there’s a strong twist in the lumbar region, continued in the cervical region, but very little in the thoracic spine. It’s important though to refrain from introducing any curvature in the process – keep the spine upright, leaning neither forward nor back, nor to either side.
This is a classical pose for using touch, as discussed previously. The leading arm can be lowered to the floor behind your back, the trailing arm can reach across the opposite knee. Both arms can be used to deepen the twist. But ideally they are only used as a gauge, with all of the work being performed by the core muscles.
This is an uncomplicated pose. It’s a particular kind of twist in that one end of the spine is fixed (the sacrum) and the other is free. At its best, there is only one movement happening in the spine in this pose, a straight twist with no flexion in any direction. In order to achieve this, though, it is necessary to anchor the sitting bones (ischial tuberosity), which is greatly aided by engaging the leg muscles, pressing the heels of the feet firmly into the floor as you roll the inner thighs inward (engaging the sit bones towards one another).
What we can do to twist well
Throughout all of these poses it is worth remembering the GET principle: Ground-Extend-Twist. That is, always ensure your ground is fixed and stable, whether it is the sit bones, one foot or both feet, or lying on your back. Then extend – ensure there is as much space between the vertebrae as possible to reduce the pressure on the discs. With those two foundations well-established, then you can twist. Then while twisting, revisit the GET principles on each breath.
Vocalization can be used to enhance a twisting practice. Vocalization is vibration, and vibration can really shake things up. Making sounds moves tissues, while at the same time making you aware of your breath. As you become more aware of your breath, you can use it more powerfully and to greater effect.
To explore the effects of vibration we did a humming exercise. Sitting upright in a simple cross-legged pose or baddhakonasana, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Now simply twist back and forth, left and right, while humming a constant tone. Breathe deeply and hold the hum for as long as you can, perhaps increasing the pace of movement. Does it feel like the vibration is helping to deepen the twist? One of the advantages of this is that you will not go too far – not only because you’re reliant fully on your core engagement, but also because when the sound runs out you must back off to inhale.
This sound gauge can be applied in other ways. For one thing, in every asana posture you should be able to keep talking while you hold the pose. If you haven’t got enough air to speak, you’ve gone too far. Back off.
We’ve spoken in earlier blogs about the weight-lifter’s burst of energy through a strong exhalation. Perhaps, like the use of touch as a gauge, it is occasionally useful to reach a new level of achievement, to break open new ground. But it is not sustainable and should not be a normal practice. Break out and then back off to find a sustainable bhava.
Nina describes her approach as Tantric-Hatha, where hatha yoga means working with the breath, and tantric yoga means looking for the extent of possibilities. This means occasionally stepping beyond the limits to identify where they are, and then backing off to find a sustainable way to engage with them, and within them. Going to the edge, and then learning to sustain yourself there.
After the humming twists we moved into something more basic – a standing forward bend with a block between the feet (to ensure foot alignment and engagement) and another under the hands. Or rather, one hand on a block, located under the shoulder, and the other hand on the sacrum. The block under the hand is there to help keep the spine extended and parallel to the floor. The hand on the sacrum is there to help ensure that the lower back stays flat as you turn your head to look over that shoulder. Continue to Ground, Extend, and Twist with each breath for four or five breaths. Then change hands and do the other side.
When that is finished, spread the feet into a prasarita (wide-legged forward bend), keeping the hands as they are. Repeat the exercise. Note the difference. With the legs spread you cannot feel your sitting bones as well. To compensate, work the feet a bit harder, ensuring you have equal pressure on both the inner and outer balls of the front of the foot – that the outer edge of the foot is firmly planted and that the arch is lifting, but without losing engagement of the inner ball and inner edge of the heel. It helps to micro-bend the knees and turn them inward ever so slightly, even while rolling the thighs outwards slightly to squeeze the sit bones together.
Going the other way – back bend twists impose compound strains on your spine and can be relatively dangerous. This category includes things like a camel pose with one hand back on the heel behind and the other reaching across behind your back, grabbing the first arm by the elbow. Here, turn your head and look over your shoulder at the hand on the heel. Puff your chest out like a diva. Be sure to keep pushing your hips forward – ideally your thighs will remain vertical with your hips square and directly above your knees. You can set up facing the wall with knees and hips already aligned and pressing into the wall, maintaining that alignment throughout the pose.
A much simpler (and less dangerous) pose is an upward facing dog, looking over one shoulder to see your toes, or maybe even your hips. Again, remember the GET principle. Don’t throw your head back in upward dog, but extend the crown to the ceiling, maximizing the length of your spine before commencing the twist (all the while, keeping those hands gripping the ground like bird’s claws [see low arm balances]).
Other back-bend twists include the wild thing, which I’m not going to go into. It’s worth noting that this pose is so controversial that Yoga Journal asks whether it can ever be practised safely (find the article here).
The reverse dog is not actually a twist when you finally get into it, but you can’t get there without twisting while bending. I won’t go into it, but this image is the final in a series from a detailed discussion of how to “flip the dog” which you can find here on the Love in Motion blog.
That’s enough description of poses. On more general notes, it is worth thinking about the drishti (the visual focal point) – your body tends to turn in the direction that you are looking. Challenge yourself by looking further in the direction that you want to go. But remain aware of keeping your eyes parallel with your shoulders, to keep your torso square.
It may seem far-fetched, but you can also steer your body by pointing your tongue in the direction that you want your head to turn.
In all of these poses, the importance of engaging the bandhas cannot be emphasized enough (see bandhas workshop). When a foot is your foundation, it must be engaged. When it is in the air (when you’re standing on the other one) it must be engaged. Your hands must stay engaged, to help keep hri bandha engaged, to help keep mulabandha engaged, to keep the core charged and maximally effective.
Besides core strengthening, detoxing, loosening up, lightening up, freeing yourself from the constrictions of everyday life (because all of that isn’t enough!), twisting challenges the balance between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Twisting demands that there be lots of traffic across the hemispheres of the brain, but generating lots of traffic across the eyes even while engaging the balance receptors, moving across up / down, left / right and in / out. It moves drishti away from the comfort zone, moving the point of focus in the course of deepening the pose. In short, it is not only relaxing / refreshing / detoxing. It also stimulates a lot of mental balancing.
I think that’s enough about twisting for this blog.