Behold, the mighty twist: a series of poses so diverse you can do them sitting, standing, lying down or even on your head. Some yogis refer to them as “smart poses” as they return the body to homeostasis, a state of equilibrium or balance. Twists are cooling and soothing after backbends and are stimulating after forward bends. And that’s just the start of it. The benefits of twisting are just about as varied as the poses themselves. Let’s take a look at the effect yoga’s twisting poses can have on the body and the best practices when putting them into action.
The satisfying twist
A number of different studies over the years have shown that we spend as much as 80 per cent of our working days being sedentary. It’s no surprise that a similar percentage of Australians experience back pain.
Although it seems like a bit of a contradiction, twisting up into a pretzel in yoga offers a great release and can bring a number of benefits when it comes to improving spinal health and increasing our awareness of the body.
Nothing feels better than releasing tension with a deep twist. Twists are refreshing, rejuvenating and satisfying. Many of us even twist naturally after sitting down for long periods of time. For instance, you’ll often see moviegoers stand up, have a good stretch and twist from side to side before leaving the cinema. Some of us even use the arm rest and back of our office chairs to twist when we’ve been hunching over the computer for too long. Although these may not exactly be yoga asanas (postures), it goes to show that a twist just feels right and is something our bodies crave when it comes to releasing built-up tension.
Twisting is good medicine for the spine. Incorporating a twisting sequence into your yoga practice will help maintain the length and suppleness of the spine’s soft tissues, the vertebral discs and facet joints, which can degenerate with age, lack of physical activity, poor postural habits and stress-related tension in the body.
Twists stretch and strengthen the back muscles, rotate the spine and improve its range of motion. Loss of range of motion in the spine often comes from the shortening of soft tissues. Lengthening the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues in the spine through yoga can help safeguard against this to prevent degeneration and improve joint mobility.
By subtly realigning the spine, twists also work to relieve pressure on the discs and the nerves in the spinal cord, creating a relaxing effect. Twists also work to open the chest, shoulders and hips. The front and sides of the abdominals get a good stretch and tension is released in the chest, ribs and shoulders during a twist. You’ll often find physical tension, especially in the neck, shoulders and back, often comes from a deep-seated source. Twists work to release this tightness and can often help us let go of the anxiety, anger, stress and worries behind the tension.
Twisting on a deeper level
Twists are so well known for their effects on the spine that we often don’t hear as much about what happens on a deeper level. During a twist, there is a lot going on internally which also helps to explain why these poses have such an invigorating and refreshing effect on the body and mind.
Our circulatory, digestive and lymphatic systems are crucial in the elimination of waste from the body. In yoga, every part of the body is stretched, compressed, twisted and even turned upside down. In terms of the circulatory, digestive and lymph systems, yoga helps facilitate the removal of waste products and has a detoxifying effect.
Yoga master BKS Iyengar describes this as a squeeze-and-soak action. In a twist, the general effect is that our organs and glands get a gentle massage or squeeze. The compressing action that occurs in a twist flushes out “old blood”, fluid and toxins from the organs and glands. When we release the twist, the soaking part comes into play. This allows for replenished, freshly oxygenated blood to re-enter and circulate. This helps ensure the smooth functioning of the bodily systems and is beneficial for tissue healing. The increased flow of blood also creates an energising, relaxing and hydrating effect on the body.
Keep the inner fire burning
When it comes to the inner workings of the body, twisting also stimulates agni — our digestive fire centred around the stomach and small intestine. Stimulating the abdominal region in a twist helps to strengthen agni and aid digestion by ensuring the foods we eat are processed and eliminated with minimal toxic residues or by-products. Twists as well as core and abdominal strengthening exercises stoke that inner fire to help break down and digest our food. This is particularly beneficial for those who experience constipation, gas and bloating.
To help you get the most out of a twist, there are a few things to be mindful of in your practice. Before entering a twist, familiarise yourself with some of the following tips so you can truly reap the benefits of the pose.
Remember your foundations
Teachers often tell us to “root and extend” or root down when guiding us through a twist, but what does this exactly mean? To see what this action is all about, simply try sitting in a cross-legged position. Now, root down through your sitting bones and pelvis. Connect with the root chakra, your base. Feel that connection to the Earth. Let your roots ground you and keep you stable.
This action will now allow you to create space in the body. Maintain your roots and start to extend and lift up through the crown of your head. Feel like you are lengthening your spine and trunk up to the sky. Familiarising yourself with these motions before you actually enter a pose sets your foundations and stops you collapsing your chest and compressing the lungs. This awareness should be brought to any twist, whether sitting, standing and lying down.
Adding the breath
Once you are familiar with the root-and-extend action, you can start to integrate and maintain awareness on the breath. On your inhale, focus on opening the chest and lengthening the trunk up. Then, with a deep exhalation, soften and relax the muscles. Relaxing the muscles around the waist will prepare you to receive the twist. If you are too tense here, your range of motion in the twist will be limited.
When you are ready to actually twist, continue the lengthening action on the inhalation and slowly add the twist on the exhalation. Maintain the same patterns and actions throughout to help you go deeper into the pose. As twists open up your chest, use this as an opportunity to take advantage of the space created and breathe fully and deeply. Once you have gone as far as you can, hold the twist for few breath counts and then slowly release.
Remember to even out your twist and complete the pose on both sides. Many of us often find we are more flexible on one side than the other. If you find one side of your body is considerably tighter, think about twisting twice on that side. Remember, twisting does create strain on the back, so it’s important not to overdo a pose. Listen to your body and know your limits. If you have any spinal problems, consult a practitioner before attempting any twists.
Let’s keep these principles in mind as we get into some twists. The following are a combination of seated and standing twists. Some are more soothing, while others are more dynamic. They offer a snapshot of just how varied twisting poses can be.
Half lord of the fishes pose (ardha matsyendrasana)
Begin in dandasana, with your legs extended in front of you. Bend the right knee and step it over the left leg. Then bend the left knee and bring the foot close to the right hip. Keep the right hand behind the right hip. Bend the left elbow, bring it over the right leg and place it on the outer side of the knee. This motion initiates the start of the twist. Let the knee and elbow press against each other but ensure they are steady. To enter the complete pose, inhale, lengthen and soften and twist as you exhale. Rotate the head to look over the right shoulder. Hold for several breath counts and slowly release.
Revolved side angle pose (parivrtta parsvakonasana)
Begin standing on your mat with a fair amount of distance between the feet. Rotate your right foot out to the side. Allow the left foot to come in slightly. Extend both arms out to the side and bend the right knee and bring it in line with the ankle. Keep the left leg straight. Prepare for the twist as you helicopter and revolve the arms around so the left arm comes in front. Then, bring the arm over the right knee, placing the hand on the floor. A block can also be used for support. The left arm and right knee should gently press against each other so you can open the chest. Allow the right arm hand to extend up, straight past the ear. Continue to lift and twist through the trunk as you rotate the head and focus your gaze up to the ceiling.
Reclining spinal twist (jathara parivartanasana)
Lie on your back with your feet extended in front of you. Bend the knees and bring the thighs over the abdomen. Extend both hands out to the side. The lower back and shoulder blades should be flat on the mat. Keep the knees bent, and twist and bring them over to the right side. Turn your head in the opposite direction. The knees should remain stacked on top of each other. Return the knees to centre and complete on the opposite side. For a more advanced pose, extend both legs up to the ceiling and twist and lower them to the side. Let both legs hover above the mat.
Revolved chair pose (parivrtta utkatasana)
Begin standing with your feet together, spine long and shoulder blades gently peeled back. Slowly enter utkatasana, by lifting your arms above your head, bending at the knees and coming into a high squat. Bring the hands in prayer position at the heart centre. Twist and bring the right elbow to the outside of the left knee. Maintain that contact and further peel the chest and shoulders back. Rotate the head and look over the left shoulder.
Plough twist (parsva halasana)
Lie flat on your back and enter sarvangasana (shoulder stand). Keep your arms beside you. Inhale, bend the knees over the abdomen and lift the hips off the mat. Support your upper back with both hands. Continue to straighten the legs up to the ceiling. Once upright, bend from the hips, lower your feet to the floor. Keep both legs together and walk the feet over to the right side and hold the pose. Walk your feet to the opposite side and twist. In this pose, ensure your tailbone is directly above the base of your neck and keep the head and shoulders completely still. To come out of the pose, bring your feet back to centre. Release your hands, bend your knees and slowly roll down onto your back.
Head of the knee pose (janu sirsasana)
Sit with your feet extended in front of you. Bend the right knee and touch the sole of the foot to the inner left thigh. Grab hold of the left toe with the left hand and rotate so the underside of the arm faces upward. Extend the right arm up and exhale, slowly bringing it over past the ear. Bend the elbow and continue to bring the hand closer to the left foot. If you can, grab hold of it. Now, twist and lift the chest up to the ceiling. If you can’t reach the foot, keep the hand reaching toward it and maintain the twisting action.
Veronica Joseph is a yoga teacher and writer based in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Australia. E: firstname.lastname@example.org