For me, the word “TWIST” brings up beautifully, unusual images of body parts in places you would not expect them. In reality the definition is pretty simple: a deliberate change in direction. From a more physical perspective, a twist can be defined as a bend so that the original shape is changed. An easily understood definition but a deep and transformational action. I was taught that every yoga class should ensure that the spine is moved in six different directions: spinal extension, spinal flexion, lateral side bending right, lateral side bending left, and of course the twists right and left. The twists are integral to complete the spinal exercises.
Why is twisting so important? One reason is the effect twists have in maintaining our spine’s natural range of motion. Twists allow for the decompression of vertebrae and the hydration of the space between the discs. Many times our lifestyles include a great deal of sitting in front of a desk or staring at our screens. Little time is spent extending the muscles to their full length which can cause a fusing or hardening of our joints. Daily twists can help us retain or even restore the range of motion simply through the act of lengthening. Lengthening creates space and that space allows for an ease of energy flow creating an energy lift. This is also seen as a positive energy release.
Another reason is the aid in digestion caused by the detoxification of the internal organs. Sometimes referred to as “wringing out” the organs, twists stimulate circulation and even release tension in our spinal muscles allowing the other organs to work more productively. Organs known for elimination such as kidneys and liver, benefit from a stimulated metabolism and can create a more completion elimination of toxins.
My most favorite reason to twist is to gain a new perspective, much like an inversion. Your twist has you facing on direction but looking to another. It is as if I am unable to move forward without looking back or to go higher without grounding down.
Whether embarking on twists that focus on seated or standing postures, it is important to be safe. And once again the breath comes into play. You will notice that the inhale works on setting the pose, stabilizing and lengthening the spine, whereas the exhale is the movement of the twist. Ensure that you inhale and exhale on the appropriate movements to get the most of your posture as well as to keep you safe.
You should also bring attention to the mobility of different parts of the spine. The cervical spine has the greatest range of motion, followed by the thoracic spine and then the lumbar spine which has the least. When attempting a twist, focus on the lower part of the spine and work up the body. This will help you become more aware of the basis of the twist and also prevent you from focusing all movement on the neck or cervical spine.
Beware that twists are powerful and therefore there are times when you should not practice twisting. If you experience SI joint dysfunction, chronic digestive issues, or any spinal disc injury be sure to see a doctor before embarking on your twisting sequence. Also do not twist in pregnancy unless working with an experienced yoga parent.
It is not difficult to find twists in all levels of your asana practice, as most twists are variations on traditional standing and seated postures. Binds are the advanced form of a twist and can be extremely energizing while clearly your head. One of the first things I do when I wake is sit up, twist right then left and hydrate my spine. One of the last things I do before I go to bed is breath into a twist on each side ensuring that my body is clearing away for a rested evening.