Yogis love to twist. Lying, seated, standing and even upside down, there are a seemingly limitless number of twists. The term “twist” is used to encompass any pose in which the shoulder girdle is turned to face in the opposing direction of the hips. There are plenty of reasons why they have such a special place in yoga.
Twists primarily impact our axis, restoring and maintaining range of motion in and around the spine. It’s all too easy to overlook the importance of spine mobility until dysfunction, discomfort and pain arise to give us a not-so-gentle reminder. Don’t wait until it’s too late – read on to discover the key benefits of delicious twists, from aiding digestion to energising the body and mind.
Spine Mobility and Back Health
The sedentary lifestyle we lead these days puts our poor spines in danger. Slouching and slumping at desks and behind steering wheels, long hours spent in chairs with poor back support, hunching over smartphones… sound familiar? Of course it does! Most of us are guilty of committing these posture crimes on a daily basis. Over time these little habits can cause big trouble, sparking decreased mobility, discomfort and even severe back pain.
Without making the most of our natural range of motion, not only will muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (connective tissue) gradually shorten and become stiff over time, but we run the risk of joints hardening and fusing. In the spine’s case, the limited mobility this causes can affect the hips, abdomen, and ribcage, leading to dysfunction that extends way beyond the axis we are most familiar with.
Twists help to maintain the length and resilience of the soft tissues surrounding the spine, as well as preserving the mobility of the spinal muscles. In turn, this keeps discs and joints happy and healthy. By lengthening and strengthening the back muscles, twists can also provide sweet relief from back pain. (Learn more in 10 Ways to Ease Back Pain Through Alignment, Asana and Ayurveda.)
Digest & Detox
Alongside all the healthy benefits for your back body, twists have a big impact up front too. Twisting releases tension in the abdominal muscles, aids gastrointestinal tract movement and stimulates the organs of elimination – not forgetting that it helps stagnant gas to pass! Twists also encourage optimal functioning of the digestive system by creating intra-abdominal compression. When a twist is released, the digestive organs receive fresh blood flow; oxygen rich and packed full of nutrients.
B.K.S. Iyengar coined the "squeeze-and-soak” principle to describe this blood flow stimulation. He claimed that twists help to cleanse and detoxify the internal organs, in much the same way that dirty water squeezed from a sponge makes way for absorption of fresh water. The idea suggests that organ compression squeezes out toxin filled blood, whilst release of the twist soaks the organs in freshly oxygenated blood. Whilst there is healthy debate on Iyengar’s theory, twists undoubtedly encourage motility (movement within organs), in turn stimulating metabolism and promoting healthy digestion.
Release Stuck Energy
Have you ever noticed that twisting leaves you feeling both energised and relaxed? The physiological impact of twisting has a curious knock-on effect for the mind. By creating inter-vertebral space and decompression in the spine, twists take care of spinal nerve health, boosting the nervous system to function effectively. Lack of space between the vertebrae leaves us with that feeling that we tend to call a slump; energy gets stuck and tension builds, leading to a sense of lethargy. Lengthening the spine creates space not only for the vertebrae, but for energy to flow more freely, thus giving you an instant lift.
What’s more, twists generally facilitate an opening across the shoulders and chest, areas of the body prone to manifesting stress as tension and tightness. Twisting significantly releases tension stored in these areas, in turn easing the feeling of anxiety that all too often goes hand in hand with it. To foster an even deeper impact on the nervous system, twists coupled with slow, rhythmic breath will soothe even the most frazzled body and mind.
Happy, Healthy Spine
The best way to understand the extensive benefits twists can offer is to go ahead and give them a try! Follow these simple guidelines for safe twists and a happy, healthy spine:
- Ground Down - in seated twists, always ground the sitting bones before coming into the twist. In supine twists, choose either the shoulders or knees to ground. Each option offers a slightly different stretch, so you can enjoy playing around to find what’s right for you.
- Avoid Rounding - if you feel any rounding of the spine during a seated twist, try placing the back hand on a block, close to the sacrum. This will help to maintain the spine’s natural length and curvature.
- Inhale, Lengthen. Exhale, Twist – this little trick should be applied to all seated and standing twists. Inhale and lengthen the spine first, before exhaling into the twist.
- Pause & Breathe - pausing in seated and supine twists will help to release tension around the spine and lower back. Even as you pause, continue this pattern with the breath and movement; inhale to lengthen more, exhale to twist deeper.
- Twist from the bottom up –the lumbar spine (lower back region) has significantly less mobility than the cervical spine (neck). To be sure that you are twisting across the entire length of the spine, always start from the bottom and work your way up, turning the neck last. This is most noticeable in standing twists, but be sure that the twist is coming from the spine, not from the hips!
- Contraindications – certain twists should be avoided if you are pregnant or suffering from spinal disc injuries, chronic inflammatory digestive issues or SI joint dysfunction. If in doubt - don’t. It’s always best to consult an experienced yoga teacher, doctor or physical therapist for peace of mind.