In the primary series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga we practice a couple of twists during the standing postures and a couple of seated twists. There are also plenty of not so obvious twists in other postures, like side-stretches and forward-bends e.g. in Utthita Trikonasana – the triangle posture – and in Janu Sirsasana – head to knee posture.
The thoracic spine
Twists mainly happen in the thoracic spine and much less in the lumber spine. They mainly involve the internal and external obliques in the front of the body, the multifidus, and rotatores in the back of the body, and stretch the intercostal muscles – the muscles between the ribs. The thoracic vertebrae, due to their shape, are much more capable of revolving. They are smaller than the lumbar vertebrae and gain additional stability and support from the sturdy ribcage to which they are attached. Lumbar vertebrae are bulkier and in each other’s way when we try to move into a deeper twist. These vertebrae are bigger for safety, and need to rely on additional support from our core muscles. The lumber lends itself more to forward and back-bending than twisting.
Which body parts are involved in a twist?
The major parrt of a twist will take place in your thoracic spine. But depending on the posture and also your very unique and individual build, you might have to rely on other parts of your body to contribute to the twist, also. If we look at e.g. Parvrtta Trikonasana – the revolved triangle posture – we usually encourage you to keep your hips square and level and to twist from the thoracic. But should you have vulnerable S/I joints or have had a baby recently and your ligaments are still lax, you are better off including your hips in the twist.
‘Why can’t I bind in Marichyasana C & D?’
Either Marichyasana C or D are often the seated twists students struggle with when learning the Ashtanga sequence. They are still unable to wrap their arms around the bent knee and bind behind their back. I often get asked why these postures seem so difficult to master.
For Marichyasana C, our body needs to be capable of performing three major movements. First to simply keep our trunk upright, and to not have to rely on leaning on our back-hand, we need to have flexible hamstrings in our straight legs. This prevents the pelvis from being ‘tucked under’. We need to be able to lift out of the lower back. We also have to be fairly strong in our lower back to aid in this lift so we can assume an upright posture. Secondly, our chest/spine needs to move around to the side, for which we need a soft ribcage. And lastly, our shoulders require enough flexibility to wrap the arms around the bent leg to be able to bind behind the back.
In Marichyasana D we have the additional challenge of placing the leg, which was straight in the C-variation, in half lotus. This requires flexible hips and a different kind of balance and internal strength to remain stable.
Twists in side-stretches
Fascinating also are the subtle twists which occur in postures not necessarily regarded as such. When we move into the triangle posture, the spine stretches sideways. At the same time we revolve our trunk upward to look at our thumb, which adds a whole different movement to the spine; we are now also twisting. The same occurs in Utthita Parsvakonasana – the extended triangle pose. With the added gentle twist, we open our chest and invite the breath.
Twists and backbends
Twists are an excellent preparation for backbends. Twists lengthen the intercostal muscles –the muscles in-between the ribs. One of the main limitations in back-bends is tight intercostals. There is much more ease in a backbend if these muscles have been stretched beforehand.
‘I can’t breathe in twists’
Why can it be hard to breathe in a twist? We now understand that the intercostal muscles need to lengthen when twisting. These are the same muscles which need to stretch when we breathe. When inhaling the intercostals are meant to lengthen further as the ribs expand making space for the breath. Adding to this, twists compress our abdomen, pushing more air into the chest and putting more pressure onto the already stretched intercostal muscles.
Twists involve many parts of the body
A twist can’t be looked at as an isolated movement of our spine. Depending on the posture, several other factors come into play. In a standing twist we shall remain equally stable and balanced. This requires strong legs and core muscles, and a focused mind. There is also an element of forward bending necessary, which we need to master too.
Twists and a healthy liver
Oriental medicine understands twists to be supportive of liver and gallbladder function. The liver and gallbladder meridians govern and control life energy, as well as cultivate resistance to disease. Allowing for a free and balanced energy flow in these meridians can be an effective way to balance the body’s energy as a whole. This can be assisted by the practice of twists.
This can also help with problems of congestion, digestive malfunctioning, acute muscle contraction, stiff joints, fatigue, insomnia, and tired eyes.
The liver and gallbladder meridian are also related to anger and irritability respectively. So never end a yoga practice with a twist 😉
Benefits of twists
Twists rotate the spine and stretch the muscles of the back, including the small multifidus, which are close to the spine and are usually more difficult to access. This helps to restore and retain the spine’s natural range of motion. By lengthening the spine we create space between the vertebrae, which boosts our energy. Twists work the obliques and our abdominals. They aid digestion by creating movement in and around our organs, and stimulate our organs of elimination. Twists are good counter poses after strong back bends or forward bends, as they bring the spine back to neutral.
This month… ‘let’s twist again’
OM Shanti, AngelikaYoga schedule
Maehle, Gregor (2006), Ashtanga Yoga – Practice and Philosophy, Perth, Australia,Kaivalya Publications
Maehle, Gregor (2009), Ashtanga Yoga – The Intermediate Series, Mythology, Anatomy and Practice, New World Library, Novato, California
Masunaga, Shizuto, Ohashi, Wataru (1977), Zen Shiatsu – How to Harmonize Yin and Yang for Better Health, Tokyo, Japan Publiccations
Savage, Jenny, Yoga twists – the ins and outs, EkhartYoga.com