Happy Friday! Today we’re taking a fresh look at how we’re doing twists. Twisting, or spinal rotation, shows up in a variety of yoga poses – standing, seated, and lying down. Like many yoga poses, we often approach twists with the idea that more is better. To twist more deeply, it’s often encouraged to include the gaze, reach for a target, and use your arms for leverage.
As usual, my take here is that less is more.
What about the detox?
You may have heard the conventional yoga wisdom that twists wring out and detoxify your spine and organs, and that this is a reason to twist deeply, so I wanted to address this here. There just is absolutely no evidence that this is the case on any kind of literal level.
Yes, our bodies naturally have the ability to remove toxins through processes such as breathing and urination. Yes, any kind of physical movement (not just twisting) can affect these processes, and so can our alignment and muscle function through the torso, including our abdominal wall and pelvic floor. Yes, twists should be activating our oblique muscles and can have some effect on abdominal organs.
No, we are not literally wringing blood and toxins out of our spine and organs when we twist. It would be scary if we could so easily deprive our organs of blood flow, don’t you think? We might be creating some movement and compression, but we’re not wringing things out, and there’s no reason to be trying to squish the life out of your abdominal organs. Our detoxification systems work just fine without twisting!
So why twist?
If we’re not wringing out our organs, why twist?
Twists engage (and lengthen) muscles of the back and abdomen. They’re part of the natural range of motion of the spine. They engage the center of the body, and can help us incorporate more effective movement and breath patterns. Some people find they feel really good and may be energizing or calming depending on the pose you’re doing and how you react to it. They create movement and muscular engagement in the abdomen, which may stimulate our organs (not the same as wringing them out).
Principles for Twisting
Don’t lead with the eyes.
Humans are visual creatures, and when we lead with the eyes, the gaze can draw us further into the movement than the spine is able to go on its own. Instead, draw your attention inward and move from an awareness of the rotation of the spine and rib cage, keeping the chin lined up with the chest. If you want to bring the neck into the twist, you can do that last, moving gently and easily, and keeping the chin level.
Let the lower front ribs soften down and back.
Sometimes we get a little more mobility out of the spine by back bending and thrusting the front ribs forward as we twist. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s not the same as focusing on spinal rotation. To work on spinal rotation, just rotate the spine. [Side note: some side bending occurs naturally as we twist.] Before you begin, let the lower front ribs soften down and back into the body so that the rib cage is stacked right above your pelvis, and then keep this alignment as you twist.
Find your active range of motion.
When we use our arms to leverage ourselves into the twist, we can sometimes move further. But at what cost? It’s common to introduce more compensations, or extra movements, when we twist in this way, such as hiking a shoulder up, back bending, or adding other movements in order to move further. We also have a tendency to use shoulder mobility instead of spinal mobility, or to lean back in order to twist more.
Again, these things may not necessarily be harmful, but they don’t improve our twisting ability either. Using our arms can also mean that we’re not using our core muscles effectively. Instead, trying leaving your arms out of the twist. Keep your hands at the heart or rest them softly on your lap. Visualize the spine rotating, and/or the left front ribs towards the right hip as you twist to the right. Feel the twist coming from the thoracic spine, in the upper back along the back of the rib cage.
There might be reasons why we’d play with twisting and restricting the breath, but for most of us, especially if we’re new to this process, it’s helpful to make space for the breath while twisting. Inhale gently into the whole circumference of the rib cage, expanding evenly all the way around, then initiate the twist as you exhale. Keeping that three-dimensional rib cage expansion as you begin the twist can sometimes help keep the ribs stacked over the pelvis. As you hold the twist, play with allowing space for the inhale into the ribs. If that means movement happens within the pose, make space to softly move in and out of the twist enough for the breath to move through.
Twist with Ease
Instead of trying to get somewhere else, be where you are. Don’t twist so far that you’re struggling. Maintain a sense of ease throughout the twist. It might be smaller than you’re used to – and that’s ok!
The information, instruction, and advice contained in this post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.