Spinal Twist, Yoga Journal Master Class
Turn it Around
Reverse the effects of aging with this twisting practice for a supple spine.
Master Class, Spinal Twist instruction by Ganga White
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 the day.
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 increasing rotation.”
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 Forward Fold
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 your reach.
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 problems.”
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 grace.”
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 variation.”
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 you experience.
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 side.
Ardaha Baddha Padma Janusirsasana - clasped Half-lotus Forward Fold
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.