by Ganga White
Turn it Around
Reverse the effects of aging with this twisting
practice for a supple spine.
Master Class, Spinal Twist instruction by Ganga
Written by Mark Schlenz
From Yoga Journal, August, 2008
Many yogis measure aging or youthfulness by the flexibility
and health of the spine. Ganga White remembers yogis
in his early studies who would say “very young
man” when they found an older person with a pliant,
limber backbone in their classes. “Conversely,”
he recalls, “when they saw a young but stiff person,
the might say, ‘And here is an old man!'”
Normal loss of circulation and general effects of gravity
stiffen the spine with age. Veins that supply our spinal
disks atrophy as we mature. Gravity compresses the spongy,
fibrous disks that separate our spine’s vertebrae
each day of our lives as we sit, stand, or walk. Nerve
trunks from the spine to many parts of the body can
be impinged when the back is compressed or out of alignment
with worn disks and causing loss of sensation or function
in limbs and extremities. Uneven muscular development,
accumulated throughout our lives, can further aggravate
these misalignments and impingements. Spinal twists
bring circulation to aging spines by squeezing and massaging
nutrients and wastes into and from vertebral disks.
The twisting series and suggestions for practice that
White offers here can also help rebalance long-term
muscular and structural effects that accumulate when
one side of the body dominates much of our movement.
Ideally, muscle sets on both sides of the body would
develop equally for uniform support, especially along
the spinal column where uneven muscle balance can result
in serious misalignment and painful back problems. Our
habitual movement patterns, however, usually cause one
side to become so dominant it imbalances the body’s
entire structure. In the following twist sequence, become
aware of structural imbalances caused by right- or left-side
dominance in your usual posture and movement. As you
learn to rebalance strength, energy, and rotational
motion with therapeutic twisting in both directions,
you increase vital spinal flexibility, enhance circulation
to vertebral disks, and restore healthy nerve flow throughout
the entire body. Nature is full of spiraling energy
as seen in vines and whirlpools and which have been
symbolically represented in the caduceus and the winding
energy of the Ida (moon) and Pingala (sun) nadis along
the spine. Twisting the spine improves the flow of nerve
energy and lengthens the spine similarly to wringing
out a wet towel.
Notice your particular physical tendencies when you
practice these postures. Give some extra time and attention
to your weaker, stiffer sides rather than unconsciously
favoring the stronger or easier direction. Remember,
body tensions set to hold in habitual positions and
attitudes. When you start restructuring and repositioning
the body to better alignments, you may initially feel
awkward and experience some muscle resistance until
the dynamics reset to hold at new levels of balance.
Go slowly. Use twists as tools to restore alignment
and become more aware of balanced biomechanics throughout
Before you begin these twists, loosen shoulders and
hips and awaken your spine with gentle sun salutations.
Between twists, add symmetrical poses that emphasize
spinal flexion, extension, and side stretching—such
as seated staff pose and reverse staff pose, forward
folds, squats, toe balances with lifted arms, and gentle
backbends such as cobra—to complement your practice.
Notice how energy flows through the spine before and
after every pose. End with a thorough Savasana to observe
and absorb even muscular relaxation along both sides
of the spine.
Lying Spinal Twist
This first pose develops awareness
and helps you establish “baseline” observations
of spinal balance and health. Pay close attention to
impingements that restrict sensation, activation, and
movement on one side or the other. Which side does your
body consistently favor?
Prepare for Lying Twist by relaxing in Savasana. Become
sensitive to the connection of your back with the floor.
Do muscles on both sides of the spine connect evenly
with the floor through relaxation? Can you release stored
tensions created by habitual dominance of one side your
body? Listen carefully so you can make comparisons with
changes that may occur as you return here between poses.
Then, with inhalation, place your right foot just above
the left knee. You may adjust your left hip slightly
to the right so the left leg extends in alignment with
your spine when you twist. Reach your arms to either
side with palms contacting the floor. Exhale and carefully
lower your right knee to the left. Let your left hand
rest upon it for ballast. Prop the right knee from the
floor with a blanket or block if the opposite shoulder
begins to lift or if tension in the hips prevents relaxation.
Hold the twist anywhere from five to fifteen breaths;
then return to center and take several breaths in Savasana
before repeating on the opposite side
In the twists, sense the floor supporting your entire
body, and feel gravity drawing your knee earthward.
Surrender the relaxed weight of your hand and arm resting
on the knee to gravitational pull. Relax completely
and explore passive approaches to the pose that will
cultivate deeper sensitivity and awareness. Notice how
the twist and other stretches in the pose increase as
you consciously bring relaxation to different body areas.
Emphasize relaxation in your shoulders—imagine
tension melting from them through your mat into the
floor—and observe energy flows or blockages in
other body areas. Observe shifts in sensation and intensity
when you emphasize relaxation in your hips. Experiment
with different combinations of conscious relaxation
in both the upper and lower body until you experience
greatest overall ease and energetic opening throughout
the pose. In passive twists, facets of the lumbar vertebrae
align with one another to create a natural lengthening
effect as they turn. When you return to Savasana, notice
how the gentle “wringing” you give your
spine in this way releases compression and opens space.
The gentlest Lying Twist has profound benefits to practitioners
at any level who, listening deeply, relax tensions that
accumulate daily around the spine from gravitational
pulls and habitual body movements. Fully extend both
arms and also the crossing leg for stronger stretches
in the lower back and hamstrings and for deeper shoulder
opening, You can also experiment with activating, instead
of relaxing, upper and lower body areas to create dynamic
leverages through your contacts with the floor. Notice,
though, whether these expressions of the pose focus
tensions in particular areas. If so, you may gain more
long-term progress toward more challenging postures—and
achieve greater healing insight—by returning to
the place where you can be most sensitive and aware
throughout your body.
Easy Seated Twist - Sukhasana
Use some version of Sukhasana,
Easy Seated Twist, just about any time or anywhere to
relieve spinal tensions. It is both accessible and beneficial
to all levels of practitioners. In this pose, you can
activate leverages with one part of the body working
with or against another—your front hand on the
front knee—and by working energetically against
external surfaces—the hand behind you pressing
into the floor.
Come to an easy, comfortable sitting position. Start
with simple crossed legs, or you may prefer crossed-ankles
in Siddasana, a half-lotus, or even full lotus—as
long as you can sit comfortably! Notice which leg you
have crossed in front of the other here and start paying
attention over time to how habitual this movement pattern
is for you in daily life. Change the pattern back and
forth a couple of times and note differences in fluidity,
ease, and comfort with the movements and positions.
At first, you may even find that while you instinctively
cross your legs easily on one side, you must use assistance
from the hands to cross the other way. You should also
notice which knee typically hovers higher from the floor
and slowly work to balance both sides.
Some traditions may dictate specific sequences of patterns
and directions for poses, always placing the right foot
on top or twisting first to the right for instance.
Instead of following external dictates, White encourages
students to develop their personal inner-guidance. He
advises students to rebalance effects of their side-dominance
by occasionally beginning poses with their less habitual
and less accessible— their “off side”—pattern
or direction. Unconsciously, we tend to work more attentively
and even hold poses longer with fresher energy and interest
on the first side we practice. Therefore, White cautions,
“if you always begin with your ‘on side,’
you may even be discouraged or impatient with limitations
of the ‘off side’ and just keep playing
to your strengths.” And why be limited to even-numbered
repetitions? “Begin on your ‘off side’
with your best intention,” White suggests, “and
then you can even do a third repetition of the ‘off
side’ for further rebalancing.”
Inhale and lengthen your spine to prepare for the twist.
Make even contact through both sitting bones into the
floor, then exhale and rotate from your abdomen. Build
rotation from the waist up through the thorax. Then
gently turn the neck to gaze over the back shoulder.
Support spinal extension when you come into the twist
by placing the hand behind you into the floor and pointing
your fingers in the direction of the rotation to open
the shoulder as you lift the chest. Pulling the chest
up with an arching lumbar causes hyperextension and
compromises healthy twisting, so White suggests using
long inhalation to lift your body’s central axis
evenly along the front, back, and both sides of the
spine to facilitate rotation. “Inhale, lift and
lengthen: exhale, rotate,” he says: “Whether
you hold this pose at the edge of your external mobility
or back off a bit for more internal inquiry, you can
regulate this pulsing breath to maintain energetic stability.”
White notices many people tend to pull and tug their
knee with the front hand to twist deeper. Instead, he
recommends you “create internal leverage through
the front arm by both pressing and pulling with the
hand on the knee. At the same time, create external
leverage by pressing the hand behind you into the floor.
Integrating leverages from these combined actions helps
you to lift and extend the front of the spine while
Initially twisting for five breaths on each side may
be sufficient; you can also work up to ten to fifteen
breaths or more as you become comfortable with the poses.
Experiment also with turning the head and gazing over
the forward shoulder as well as over the rear shoulder
for even counts of breaths; observe the differing stretches
and releases in the upper shoulders and neck. Compare
openings and energy flows in every variation you experience.
“Students frequently ask which way to turn with
legs crossed one way or the other and they especially
seem to think there’s a particular right way to
do the Lotus,” White observes: “But it’s
important as you eventually move into more challenging
sitting bases, and especially in Full Lotus, that you
keep experimenting with twists in both directions and
with legs crossed in both patterns.
Wheel of Life Pose/Ayurchakrasana
The Wheel of Life pose teaches
you to coordinate complex alignments. Experimenting
with this surprisingly sophisticated pose can show you
how to use external leverages in opposition as you press
parts of both the upper and lower body into the floor.
It also lets you experience effects of deep core body
twisting deep from a very different physical orientation
and perspective. Strong openings in the hip sockets
will prepare you for Purna Matsyendrasana.
To move into the Wheel of Life from sitting, bend the
right knee to 90 degrees and align the shin parallel
with the front end of your mat. Bend the left knee to
90 degrees and swing the hip back to align the shin
parallel with the left side of the mat. Use hands pressing
into the floor to lift and extend the spine as you rotate
to the right. Experiment with leverages here by pushing
and pulling on the floor with your hands and legs, noting
how these actions change the openings, articulations,
and releases of tensions in the joints and musculature.
Work with this version of the pose for a while to open
the hips before bringing the chest and shoulders to
the floor. As you lower, use your right hand into the
floor and bend the elbow to regulate progress as you
slide your left arm along the floor with the elbow at
90 degrees and forearm parallel with the front of mat.
Place your head on the floor gazing right. If you feel
comfortable here, slide the right hand away from the
body and extend the entire arm.
Complex angles and leverages of your limbs connecting
with the floor in Ayurchakrasana generate strong torque
along the entire spinal column in the core body. Start
with five or six breaths; work up to longer holds slowly.
It may take some practice to become comfortable with
the basic shape of the pose. Once you do, experiment
with different leverages created first by pressing the
lower body and then by pressing the upper body into
the floor. Then explore combinations of upper and lower
body activations to create the most balanced and dynamic
experience. Reverse movements one at time carefully
to return to sitting. Pause sitting straight for several
breaths before twisting on the other side.
Ardha Baddha Padma Janusirsasana - Clasped Half-Lotus
This Clasped Half-Lotus Forward
Fold involves all your limbs in sophisticated patterns
of pulling and pushing actions, leverages and tractions
that can produces strong torques in the lower back and
hip sockets. It develops deep core engagement you will
need comfortable balance in Purna Matsyendrasana, the
Full Twist. Use this pose to strengthen your awareness
of subtle biomechanical effects.
“Avoid overexertion,” White reminds students,
“you’re working with powerful internal forces
here. Taken all together, these twists should feel good.
They should create length and release tightness and
impingements along the spinal column. Once you hold
the posture comfortably with good alignment, experiment
consciously with various uses of leverage, traction,
and torque to seek your optimal experience. Become sensitive
to feedback from your balance, breath, and nervous system
as you adjust subtle biomechanics and fine-tune precise
articulations of joints and muscles. Follow these inner-guidance
feedback systems toward alignments and toward accessible
variations within poses that open shoulders and hips
and relieve compression of the spine as they build strength.”
From Janusirsasana, place the left foot into the fold
between your upper left thigh and torso. Keep energies
activated in the foot and through the leg to protect
your bent knee. Exhaling, fold and rotate the torso,
reach the left hand to take the outer right foot, and
wrap the right arm behind the lower back. You can clasp
the shin or inner thigh of the bent leg—or hold
a belt strapped around the bent ankle—to increase
Use your left hand to pull against your foot extended
in front of you. At the same time the right hand wrapping
from behind strengthens rotation by pulling the clasped
the shin, thigh, or belt around the bent leg. Together
these actions will help you to elongate your spine.
Work with this leveraging extension of the entire spine
to create a unique, beneficial opening through the lumbar.
Pull the front ankle and toes backward while simultaneously
pressing with the foot into the clasping hand. Lift
the chest. As you increase leverage, increase awareness
of sensations deep in the spine. The articulations of
the joints should feel healthy and tension releasing.
Be especially sensitive if you have sacro-iliac or
lumbar pain. “Sometimes if there’s a pinch
or a block or tightness, you may have to go gently into
the pain a little bit to release it,” White says;
“This is something you learn subjectively. Go
slowly, though. Twisting carefully with therapeutic
intention can help heal back injuries and restore mobility,
but unconscious or aggressive twisting will aggravate
After five or six breaths, inhale, lift, and unwind
from the pose. Exhale to extend the right leg. Sit in
Dandasana for a few breaths feeling the effects of the
twist. Then repeat on the opposite side. Compare qualities
of your experiences on each side.
Purna Matsyendrasana - Full Twist
White’s version of Full
Spinal Twist puts some interesting spins on a classic
asana. Like the previous pose, Purna Matsyendrasana
involves strong leverages. Watch how leverage from your
front elbow pressing into the top of the thigh lifts
and expands your chest. See how leverage from your lifting
chest enhances rotation as the hand noosed behind you
pulls back on the front ankle. Remember, benefits will
come without straining either knees or spine. As White
explains, “Asanas are very potent forms. With
relatively short holds, of seconds or minutes, asanas
can counteract hours of bad posture and misaligned carriage.
Keep your poses within the range of structural integrity
and make movements that serve and enhance well-being.
Learning proper alignment and asana kinesiology while
maintaining a softer context that allows some latitude
in the way the pose is held is an intelligent approach.
Being too rigid about alignment sacrifices flow and
Cross your legs as you would for a basic seated spinal
twist. Instead of sitting on the floor though, flex
the foot of your lower leg at a right angle and sit
up on it. Depending on the structure of your pelvis,
one sitting bone may rest on the metatarsal and the
other on the heel. The main thing is to get balanced
and comfortable. This elevation of the sitting bones
gives an advantageous leveling to the pelvic alignment
and produces more balanced rotation up the spine. You
can accomplish the same thing by using a blanket or
a pad if necessary. Sitting on the foot may not be comfortable
at first and sometimes it feels a little off balance,
but quickly becomes more familiar with a little time
and practice. In White’s experience “most
people who can do this comfortably find it a more effective
Place the foot of the upper-crossed leg flat on the
floor in close and parallel with the lower leg and keep
its femur as vertical as possible. This vertical alignment
may require time as your hips open. Rotate your torso
toward the upper-crossed leg, place fingertips of one
hand into the floor at the back of the spine, and reach
the other elbow around the front knee. The front elbow
bent as pictured may seem less dynamic than some binding
variations, but actually it’s quite effective
for all levels of students as you can use leverage from
the back of the arm to press, lift, and rotate. Practice
the pose here, or move on to clasping the front foot
from behind the back for deeper therapeutic lumbar opening.
If clasping with the hand makes you slouch, use a strap
wrapped around the ankle from behind.
As you clasp, experiment also with different biomechanics
in your arms, hands, and feet. Press the front foot
into the floor and create traction by drawing it back.
Flexing the toes back of the foot you are sitting on
creates spiraling counter rotations at the base of the
posture in opposition to the turning of the torso and
brings a whole dimension of beneficial effects. These
combined actions enhance spinal decompression, especially
in the lumbar. “Feel rotation and counter rotations
spiraling up from the base of the spine to the brain,”
White says: “Twisting in this way creates spirals
of energy and integrates energies in the upper and lower
body with the seat of consciousness.”
As you experiment with internal forces in these twists,
remember to observe changes to symmetry and alignment
in your body that your inner-guidance and practice bring
you. Then, White says, “bring awareness of posture
and biomechanics from yoga practice back to daily life.
Notice when you hold tension in the muscles. Watch patterns
of sitting, walking, lying, and picking up and carrying
things as you move through the day. Develop a practice
of continual experimentation to use and balance both
sides of the body in all your activities."
Creates space in spine
Relieves vertebral compression
Improves nerve flow in and from the spine
Improves lumbar mobility
Keeps entire spinal column flexibility
Refines diaphragmatic control
Shoulder cuff injuries
Arthritic or injured hip or S-I joint
Lying Spinal Twist
Start in Savasana. With inhalation,
place your right foot just above the left knee. Adjust
your left hip slightly to the right so the extended
left leg aligns with the spine when you twist. Reach
arms to either side with palms contacting the floor.
Exhale and carefully lower your right knee to the left
and let your left hand rest on it. Prop the right knee
from the floor with a blanket or block to relieve tension.
Hold five to fifteen breaths; return to center, take
several breaths in Savasana, repeat on opposite side.
Easy Seated Twist - Sukhasana
From an easy, comfortable sitting
position, twist and place the hand behind you into the
floor. Fingers point in the direction of the rotation
to open the shoulder as you lift the chest. Push and
pull the hand on the front knee and press the rear hand
into the floor. Lift the spine evenly with inhalation
and increase rotation with exhalation. Begin with five
breaths and work up to ten to fifteen breaths. Try gazing
over the forward shoulder as well as over the rear shoulder.
Twists both directions with legs crossed in both patterns.
Compare openings and energy flows in every variation
Ayurchakrasana - wheel Of Life Pose
From sitting, bend the right
knee 90 degrees to align the shin parallel with the
front of the mat. Bend the left knee and align the shin
with the side of the mat. Press into the floor to extend
the spine and rotate to the right. Press your right
hand against the floor to lower the torso carefully.
Gaze right with the head on the floor. You may also
extend the right arm away from the body along the floor.
Take five or six breaths; then reverse movements and
sit up straight a few breaths. Repeat on the opposite
Ardaha Baddha Padma Janusirsasana - clasped Half-lotus
From Janusirsasana, place the
left foot into the fold between your upper left thigh
and torso. Exhale, reach and turn the torso to take
the front foot with your left hand. Reach the right
hand from behind the back to clasp the shin or inner
thigh of the left leg. You may use a strap. Increase
awareness as you increase leverage. Hold for five or
six breaths. Compare experiences on both sides.
Purna Matsyendrasana - Full Twist
Cross your legs as in basic
spinal twist, but sit up on top of your rear foot. Take
some time to become balanced and comfortable with this
variation. Use a blanket or block to prop the sitting
bones if necessary. Press the front foot into the floor
close and parallel to the lower leg. Work for vertical
alignment of the femur. Bend the right elbow across
the left knee and press to create lifting rotation.
Press fingers of the left hand into the floor or clasp
the left heel. Experiment with different activations
of leverages, tractions, and torques to release spinal
compressions. You may gaze over the back and front shoulders
for an even number (five or six) breaths.
Mark Schlenz is a freelance writer who practices, teaches
and offers personal yoga coaching from his home in the
mountains of the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Ganga White is author of Yoga Beyond Belief - Insights
to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice and co-director of
White Lotus Yoga Foundation retreat.