Twists unwind the spine, awaken the core, and release tension from the outer hips and shoulders. They also tend to get less attention than their glamorous cousins—backbends and arm-balances—when it comes time for instructions. Here’s a step-by-step guide that will ensure you and your students maximize the benefits of these sublime postures.
- Initiate the postures by rotating your pelvis
It’s essential for your pelvis and spine to move congruously in all postures. Losing a balanced, integrated relationship between the pelvis and spine often leads to back strain. In order to keep your pelvis and spine synchronized in twists, initiate the rotation of your spine by first rotating your pelvis slightly in the direction of the twist. For example, if you’re doing revolved triangle pose with your right foot forward, it’s a good idea to slightly rotate the pelvis to the right before you encourage the spine to continue into the twist.
- Lengthen your spine
Lengthening your spine decompresses the intervertebral disks and provides you with greater range of motion. It also provides you with a good baseline postural position for your muscles to work efficiently. Remember that in seated twists, the pelvis needs to be positioned to allow for the lumbar to be in it’s natural curve in order to lengthen the spine. If you or your students have tighter hips and hamstrings, this may mean sitting on a block.
- Engage your abdominals and lift from your navel (internal lever)
Poses can be practiced different ways at different times for different reasons. And, in fact, you can choose to twist without engaging your abdominals. However, your default setting in twists should include engaging your abdominals. By gently recruiting the abdominal muscles you will help maintain the natural curves of the spine and gain greater leverage in the twist. In addition to facilitating stability and rotation, these actions help wring out tension from the abdominal region and may help stimulate digestion.
- Broaden the back-body
One of the great benefits of twisting is that it alleviates general back discomfort. Emphasizing the broadness of the back-body does just this by releasing deep-seated tension in the muscles of your back. For example, if you’re doing a seated twist to the right, bring your direct your awareness and breath into the left side of your back. The left side of your back will lengthen, widen, and receive an opening stretch. This will lead to greater depth in your twist and relief in your back.
- Use your arms and legs
The majority of the rotation that occurs in twists is produced from pressing your arm or hand against the opposite leg.
You can think of this connection as your external lever. As with all force applied to the body, it is essential that this leverage is moderate and does not over-ride the reasonable twisting capacity of your spine. In short, remember that the connection between the arm and opposite leg has incredible potential and that you should use this leverage responsibly.
- Rotate your spine congruously
Each region of your spine has a different degree of potential rotation based on its anatomy. The neck has the greatest potential for rotation, while the thoracic spine has only a modest ability to turn and the lower-back has very little twisting capacity. However, the feeling of rotation in your spine should be congruous. Twists should feel like spiral staircases look—like there is a central plumb-line and each vertebrae is rotating the exact same degree. Of course, this is not anatomically accurate since the various vertebrae are rotating differently according to their structural disposition. But the sensation of rotation should be even from top to bottom.
Jason Crandell was recently named one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Jason’s steady pace, creative sequencing, and attention to detail encourage students to move slowly, deeply, and mindfully into their bodies. Jason credits his primary teacher, Rodney Yee, teachers in the Iyengar Yoga tradition such as Ramanand Patel, and ongoing studies in Eastern and Western philosophy for inspiring to him bring greater alignment and mindfulness to Vinyasa Yoga.
Jason is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website – many of which have been translated internationally (including Japan, China, Italy and Brazil). His integrative and accessible teachings support students of every background and lineage, helping them to find greater depth, awareness, and well-being in their practice – and in their lives. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.