subtle body hawaii

a practice, a space to activate, align and integrate

Recipe for a Healthy Twist

You may have heard or experienced somewhere along your movement journey that twists are 'detoxifying' or that twists are dangerous, or twists are both.  Maybe you've run into trouble after deep twisting of some sort.  It's definitely possible to harm yourself twisting, just as it is with other movements if done forcefully or incorrectly.  But there are so many healthy benefits from integrated and organized twists that it would be a shame to leave them out forever.  Spinal twists can get some very needed movement through the mid-section of the body, easing tension north and south from there.  Twists encourage blood flow and lymph flow, taking a load off the vascular system while stimulating digestion and elimination.  Twists can also invite a quieting and soothing of the nervous system while keeping the body bright, they create a nice balance of internal and external awareness.

Healthy twists require a few key ingredients, and it is their absence which opens the door to dysfunction.  Unfortunately, the SI joint/twisting conundrum has caused teachers to offer more compensations to compensate for students' existing compensations.  Meaning, instead of addressing the root of the problems, little exits are offered in hopes of eliminating discomfort and risk.  This misunderstanding inspired me to look for answers and seek greater understanding outside of the yoga world.  (We share the same blind spots and misunderstandings when we operate in a bubble.)  Along the way, the following recipe became more clear:


Healthy Twists Ingredients

  • A true neutral spine / healthy pelvis ribcage relationship
  • A well-functioning, active foundation (hello LEGS and GLUTES)
  • Two sets of innervated oblique muscles


A neutral spine is set up by the relationship of the pelvis to the ribcage to the skull.  We'll focus in on the pelvis/ribcage couple.  Even lying down, many people have a difficult time establishing a neutral position.  If there is a lot of tension in the front body, the lower thoracic and/or lumbar spine may be pulled into extension.  If someone holds lots of tension in the core, often the instinct is to flatten the lumbar spine towards the floor.  These tension patterns take time to dissipate, but neutral is a prerequisite for optimal twisting.  An understanding of neutral can be introduced through practices like shant sarovasana (constructive rest) along with clear alignment cues.  A neutral pelvis and ribcage will put the bottom most ribs, the ASIS and the pubic symphisis on the same line.

In standing work, a good foundation requires legs which are working well.  Simply contracting quadriceps does not equal good function. Hamstrings, glutes (lateral and posterior) and adductors need to be online and participating.  The pelvic bowl needs to be in neutral relative to the ribcage. While I won't try to argue whether yoga tradition implies that the tail be tucked (lumbar spine flexion) in a pose like revolved triangle, I would certainly suggest questioning why, and if it's best for your health.  Do you really want the mechanical load on your lumbar region, or would it be better to wake up your glutes and hamstrings by coming out of a tucked pelvis.  Likewise, seated practices are optimal when the pelvic floor faces the floor, the sitting bones have a deep and firm descent, while the ASIS and pubic bone are dwelling on the same plane (Nobody out in front please).

Obliques and arms are different things.  Finally, check out if your twists are driven primarily by your ams or your abdominal oblique muscles.  The obliques need to be able to contract and yield in coordination.  Sometimes the waist region is already a little dull to begin with, and then we go powering poses from the arms.   Try no arms for a while and explore what kind of function you can cultivate in the waist.

Simple twist preparation practice:  Lay on the back with the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the ground (foot width can be varied).  Open the arms out wide at shoulder level.  Feel a gentle reach down through the sitting bones towards the heels, and take some time to let the bottom ribcage release into gravity.  Slowly lower the legs to one side, leaving the feet in place while letting them roll towards the inner and outer edges.  Try not to drop the legs.  Instead slowly lower and slowly bring them back up, while maintaining true control throughout the practice.  The head may roll opposite the pelvis but don't make it happen, just allow it.   Take your time and truly connect internally to the muscles of the waist lengthening and contracting.  Enjoy each twist!

The Rat and the Mongoose, the Ribcage and Pelvis

The mongoose was introduced in Hawaii at the end of the 1800's under the pretense it would manage invasive rat populations on sugar plantations. The mongoose is quite a predator, and at the time farmers in the Carribean felt successful with the approach.  But the rat and the mongoose are on different schedules, one working the night shift and the other the day.  So while a mongoose may not mind a rat snack now and again, birds and their eggs are the real feast, including the endangered native birds.  Now, Hawaii has a rat problem and it has a mongoose problem and another threat to native species.

Strange as it sounds, I sometimes see an unhealthy and dysfunctioning pelvis/ribcage relationship in a similar way... which end is the original problem depends on the population.  Often the tucked pelvis is the rat, and the swung forward ribcage plays the mongoose.  But sometimes the swung forward ribcage inspires the introduction of the tucked mongoosy pelvis.

Why the posterior pelvis?  Decades of tail tucking exercise classes - from sweaty gyms to glitzy studios.  Lots of sitting.   Lady training.  Dance training.  Man chairs.  Driving.  Shoes.  Runways.  Shame. Withdrawal Reflex.  Psoas tension.  Weak legs.  Stress.  Tight hips.  Maybe just a deep tension at the very core of the body.  Not necessarily the muscular core so marketed these days, but the midline, the nervous system core.

Why the swung up, forward thrusted ribcage.  The desire to feel uplifted.  The desire to look uplifted.  Yoga ideals.  Beauty.  Performance.  Power.  Psoas tension.  Work.  A deep tension at the midline of the body, at the diaphragm, in the nervous system.

Which arises first may be individual, but the result is the same.  It's a pattern Thomas Hanna called the 'dark vice', stuck in green light reflex (action) and stuck in red light reflex (withdrawal).  No matter what you call it, it has the potential to be pain-making at the SI joints, the hips and knees, the low back, even the neck.  And it's certainly freedom limiting.

In yoga practice, this pattern shows up for a few common reasons.  Modern hips sit a lot and are often tight, so the tendency to roll back toward the tailbone, passively posteriorly tucking the pelvis, is strong (even in hyper mobile folks), especially while seated on the ground. Add to that mix : cues to lift the chest or tuck the tailbone, or just the desire to feel more uplifted, and you may now have a lot of unnecessary tension in the deep channels along the spine.

And our nervous systems are sometimes just wired, exhausted, busted.  Bringing the center channel of the body and the relationship of pelvis and ribcage back into harmony requires something other than stretching and other than 'core' exercises.  Many somatic methods are helpful.  But if that's not your jam you could also try the following asana..

Shant Sarovasana,the pose of a peaceful lake.  Lying down on the back, with knees bent and the feet about pelvis width distance apart, sense the weight of the pelvis, sacrum resting on the ground.  Sense the weight of the back bottom ribs (TLJ) releasing towards ground.  Sense the shoulders, skull, arms and feet resting into the ground. You may find the tail tucking, the back waist flattening and/or the bottom ribs lifted up off the floor for a while, if that's what your system knows best.  Stay and breathe gently, letting both ends to gradually release into gravity as you allow the contents of the abdomen to soften and descend.  Eventually, the lumbar curve is restored but the ribcage releases to gravity.  Sense the ease, peace and tranquility available in the depth of the lake of the abdomen.  If the legs fall apart, belt the thighs at pelvis width.  If they fall together, place a light block, ball or rolled towel between the knees.  Sometimes the legs shimmy and shake in this foreign territory.  The props will help let go during initial stages.  Stay for a few minutes if possible, gradually increasing duration with practice. This un-work will serve you, especially if you are super active in the world.

Yoga is Different than Exercise, Asana is Different than Stretching

Yoga is a process of integration.  For some it is a sacred practice, for others a useful tool on a quest for health.  A practice of finding balance, stability, ease. To reduce yoga to exercise is to lose a great deal of its purpose and meaning.  To reduce it to stretching is to miss out on physical benefit and even to risk injury.  To discuss asana only in terms of alignment may also be misleading - a challenging thought for those of us that practice 'alignment-based yoga'.  While yoga inspired work has infiltrated gyms, studios and on-line exercise portals, bringing asana into the exercise science realm brings with it some particular problems.

The aim of a particular asana (lets use the ever popular uttanasana) is rarely just to stretch or strengthen one particular section of the body.  A pose may be utilized to bring the nervous system into a particular state, to calm the mind, assist digestion, to prepare for pranayama or meditation, to affect the vayu, nadis or marma, to soothe or stimulate, inspire or ground the practitioner.  Uttanasana opens the entire back body, ideally in an integrated way, it quiets the mind, strengthens the legs, assists the exhale and may serve as a transitional pose. Iyengar suggests that 'the spine is given a deliberate and intense stretch' in uttanasana.  A similar looking exercise is a standing forward folding hamstring stretch, which requires the pelvis to rotate anteriorly at the hips and the spine to remain neutral, rather than to move into flexion.  It's an important skill, but these are not the same thing.  One action is about isolation of an area, the other is about integration.  So while it's important to understand how the body works from the anatomical perspective, and to understand how to hone in on hamstrings for example, it doesn't mean a yoga pose exists for the purpose that a similar looking exercise does.  Similar shapes, different aims.

Lengthening the hamstrings is a worthy endeavor, much needed in certain populations, quite over-done in others.  What is optimal length and what are the best practices to achieve optimal hamstring length is another discussion, one sure to get many worked up over!