This month’s free yoga podcast is all about twisting.
You can listen to the podcast here
Or download and save this 20 minute discussion here, or read the transcript below:
I got a great question recently from a yoga teacher who was inquiring about twists, and her question (like so many of our questions as yoga teachers) had two parts: what’s best for me, with my body, and my practice, and, what’s safest for teaching a diverse group of people in a class environment.
As always my first answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s right for your body, and I don’t know the ‘right’ way to twist that is safest for everyone. Firstly, I’m a yoga teacher, not a doctor or physio or physical therapist, so my scope of practice here is limited. Secondly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to movement, and I can’t say what’s the right approach for anyone or everyone, except the usual approach of don’t do stuff that hurts.
If you have acute back pain, osteoporosis, or spinal injuries/issues, see your doctor, physio, etc., to be assessed and provided with some movements to do and some guidelines about what not to do. If you have a student who has the above conditions, or who experiences pain or discomfort in twisting, refer them to their health care practitioner to get clearance and guidance before attending your class.
Back to this particular student’s question, one part of it was that a bodyworker gave the instruction to not do rotations at all. And, that may be correct for this particular student at this time, but, I’m always a bit concerned when someone says that they were told not to do (insert movement type here), especially when it’s a key movement that we need to perform every day. Twists, or rotation of the spine, is something we need to do in our everyday activities (just try to clean the house or drive the car without any rotation), so maintaining healthy rotation in the spine, which includes both mobility and stability, is key to our movement health and active, independent living.
What range of motion does the spine have in twists?
- Cervical Spine: 0-80 degrees
- Thoracic Spine: 0-30 degrees
- Lumbar Spine: 0-18 degrees
Let’s start by talking about how the spine twists, and where. There are some variations in the available information on average regional rotation of the spine, but according to the ACSM the cervical spine (your neck) has quite a bit of range of motion in rotation, averaging at around 80 degrees, test it out by looking over each shoulder to explore how your neck rotates. The thoracic spine (your mid to upper back) has varying degrees of rotation depending on which vertebrae, but overall has about 30 degrees on average of rotation – test it out by turning your chest to the right and left to explore how your thoracic spine rotates. Your lower back, or lumbar spine, has less rotation than your cervical and thoracic spine, between 5 and 18 degrees, that’s not a lot, so it’s safe to say that this area of the spine is really inclined towards stability rather than mobility in the transverse plane, or rotational plane.
Why do we need to rotate?
Well, here are my theories. Start by imagining what your body is designed for – and how our bodies are designed to meet our biological needs for food, safety, and procreation/childcare. Turning our head (which is cervical rotation) helps us to see our prey, or what might be preying on us, and helps us to keep track of others in our social group, and communicate effectively – these are all key for meeting our biological needs. Being able to rotate the upper back helps us to facilitate the movements of the arms (think; reaching, pushing, pulling and complex actions like running, throwing or carrying a baby). Our lower back does need some rotation to transfer power from the legs into the upper body in walking, running etc., and to follow the rotations of the thoracic spine, but overall this is a place where we need the least rotation and the most stability – it is carrying the weight of the whole of the upper body, after all. So, my question is, in yoga, why would we want to over-rotate an area that needs more stability?
Twisting History in Modern Yoga
In my own yoga journey I was taught (and taught, for many years) the ‘lift and twist’ kind of rotation. The idea being, first to lift would bring the spine to neutral, and then we would twist. Unfortunately, that’s not what I see in my classes, or in my own practice.
Rounding spines – for those who find they are behind the sitbones or whose backs are rounding when they sit, it can take a lot of effort and a lot of tension to ‘lift’ and get to neutral spine. Then adding a twist to that effort may not be the most appropriate way to come into the movement, and may result not just in a lot of tension, but a reduced capacity to breath steadily and easily as well. And, current research suggests that while flexion and rotation might not be as risky as we once thought, it does reduce the amount of rotation that we are able to do.
Arching spines – for those who have a tendency to be in front of the sitbones, arching their backs, or for those who have been ‘lifting and twisting’ for years and years, the sense of neutral may have gotten a bit confused. In my own practice, I find that when I ‘lift’, rather than a subtle axial extension (lengthening the spine) I enter into spinal extension (arching the back), adding a twist to this movement creates a kind of ‘catching’ in my back, a tension, that over the years I’ve learned to associate with twisting. So, for me, twisting feels like tension, gripping, and then a hard edge. A twist doesn’t have to feel like this.
Crossed Legs Twists – in some of our yoga poses, our legs are crossed or we are sitting in an asymmetrical position, which, if your sitbones aren’t equally grounded, could mean that you are in lateral flexion (side-bending) along with rotation. Like with rounding and arching, this complicates the rotation, could result in strain, excess tension, and reduces your ability to explore your range of motion in rotation.
Now, add to these common issues that we are leveraging with our arms and ‘pulling’ the body deeper into a twist, and we could be compounding the problems and creating strain in the spine and sacro-iliac joints, while not really moving through our full range of motion in rotation.
In your own practice, and for those of you who teach movement, there are a few things that I’ve been playing with in my own practice and teaching that you might like to experiment with:
Play with limiting your twist to what you can do with your core muscles (not by leveraging with your arms), an example is a seated rotation with your fingertips behind your ears, using your core muscles to create a rotation, without using your arms to assist.
Try it: sitting comfortably with a neutral spine, take your arms up and place your fingertips behind your ears. On an exhale, from your core, rotate to the right as far as you comfortably can, notice the sensations in your abdominals and back, notice what muscles you are using to twist, and notice the sensation and movement in the spine. Inhale and return to the centre, and then exhale to rotate to the left side. Explore this a few times, adding new areas of twist by drawing the elbow you are twisting towards back, play with activating the muscles around the ribs/armpits, upper back, and neck, and then rest for a few moments and tune in to the sensations in the body after a few core-driven twists.
Neutral Spine Twists
For safe rotations, twisting from a neutral spine ie: not rounding, not arching, not side-bending could be key. For students who have more ‘posterior’ posture ie: back is rounding, particularly in seated postures, and who find it hard to reach neutral spine in sitting, props are an important tool. As I mentioned before, for years, my teachers and I were cuing twists with an ‘inhale to lift/lengthen, exhale to twist’ kind of cuing flow, and I guess the idea behind this was to help those students with rounding spines to come to neutral first, then twist. However, I wonder if muscular effort and/or the tension it takes for someone who’s spine is in flexion (rounding) to first come to neutral, and then twist, is helpful. Perhaps it’s beneficial to bring the spine to neutral by sitting up on a prop, finding neutral spine without effort/tension, and then twisting from there.
Try it: If you are one of the many students who find sitting up on the sit bones a challenge, (safely) try the Core-Driven Twist without a prop, notice how that feels, then put folded blankets or cushions under your seat until you can feel the sit bones grounding, the spine neutral without using your back muscles, core or hip flexors to stay upright, and try the Core-Driven Twist from there. What feels more easeful? How does your breath feel in both variations? Is there a difference in your mobility between the two variations?
For students who are a bit more ‘anterior’ and/or have been ‘lifting and twisting’ for a long time, what I see is a tendency to be in spinal extension (arching the back) prior to a twist, and this can be really hard on the spine and surrounding tissues. One thing to experiment with is to find neutral in sitting, without creating curves in your spine. For most of us, neutral in standing has more curves than sitting, so your back is relatively flat in seated neutral. So, notice if you are ‘lifting’ or lengthening your spine prior to a twist, and if so, can you maintain neutral without that lift? If so, relax into your neutral and twist. If not, prop up until you can sit comfortably in neutral without effort, then twist from there.
Try it: If you have a mirror (or friend) handy, sit sideways so you can look at your spine. Note: yes, we want to know our body from the inside-out, but (in my experience) after years of ‘lifting the heart’ etc in seated postures, my perception of neutral is a bit skewed, and my habit of arching the back in seated postures is still pretty ingrained, so being able to see where neutral is in a mirror has been helpful.
First, use the posture that you are accustomed to, look at that posture and notice the shape of the spine. Try the Core-Driven Twist, and notice what shape your spine takes, particularly at the end of the twist, do you have a habit of ‘arching’ into the last part of the twist, and if so, what does that feel like? Then, try it again with a sense of maintaining neutral throughout the twist either by softening into it, or propping up to it. What does that feel like?
Neutral Pelvis Twist
One of the cues that we use often in our rotations/twists is to ‘keep the pelvis neutral’, and this has a few different interpretations:
Neutral might mean, keeping the pelvis square to the front, eg, in a seated twist, hip-bones remain square to the front, or short, end of the mat, without one side moving forward.
Neutral might also mean keeping your pelvis neutral re: anterior tilt, posterior tilt, lateral tilt. If there is a posterior pelvic tilt ie: your pelvis is tipping backwards, this is where a prop is helpful. If there is anterior pelvic tilt ie: your pelvis is tipping forward, soften or prop until you can sit easily on your sit bones. If there is a lateral pelvic tilt your pelvis is tipping to one side, so you might feel one sit bone is heavier than the other. This often shows up in asymmetrical poses like Half Spinal Twist where one leg is crossed over the other, and in this case can you adjust your position or prop it up to find both sides of the pelvis even.
With ‘square to the front’ alignment cues, something to think about is if we reach the end of what our spine can safely do and still maintain the ‘square’ neutral pelvis and then add the arms to deepen the twist, this is where low back and/or SI joints could be put at risk of overleveraging. Think of how your body ‘unsquares’ the hips acting like a pressure valve, if the twist gets too deep for the spine, the hips follow, which means that any sense of going deeper is actually not a spinal movement but a hip movement. So, if we are restricting the pelvis in that square-neutral, but drawing the body deeper into the pose, this is where things can get risky for the spine.
With students, it can be an interesting inquiry at the end range of the twist to note if there is a specific area of ‘stuckness’ tension, pain, etc., or if you just aren’t twisting any further. In my own practice, this is something I pay a lot of attention to, as I get to the end range of the twist, my habit is to extend (arch) the spine and then the end of the twist feels tight in just one area of my spine. If I leave my spine in neutral in a twist, then what happens at the end range is just a slow ending of the twist, rather than a ‘catch’ or specific ‘tight bit’. That might be something to try out in your own practice, and if you are a movement teacher, get your students to play with range of motion and explore what the end range feels like in a few different shapes.
So, I hope that’s given you some ideas to play with. From here, you might want to further explore with your twists while lying down on your back, standing, and in poses like Triangle, Side Angle, and Standing Wide-Legged Forward Fold.
I am eager to learn more, as always, so if you have experience, wisdom, or guidance to share on safe twisting, and in particular how to provide safe and effective instruction to a diverse group of yoga students in a led-class environment, I’d love to hear from you.