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!