Yoga is an evolutionary process. I learned this in my first yoga teacher training program at White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, CA. I had no idea how accurate that was until now, 8 years later, and I see not only my practice changing and evolving, but the yoga world changing and evolving. I see hundreds of people attending Wanderlust, wearing chic yoga clothes, and looking like a contortionist in acro yoga. While that is all well and good, this is where we need to simplify: why are we doing these movements? Why do we do inversions, forward folds, or twists? Is it to achieve a shape and post on Instagram?
Why do we need to twist?
Why do we twist in the first place? No, our organs are not a sponge being rung out. No, we are not detoxing the liver. That happens naturally. So why? Observe how you are sitting right now. Are you rounded in your spine? Are your shoulders slumped? Are you hunched over your computer? First of all, that is all relatively normal, as we live much of our day in the modern world and not meditating in the Himalayas. Don’t get down on yourself for being a human in 2016.
That said, we do need to counteract all that slouchiness. Why? Because our muscles and bones would very much appreciate being moved in opposite and counter directions. Probably lengthening up and rotated to the side. AKA, a twist. We need to stretch the musculature around the spine and create space in the discs. Try it. How does it feel to simply lift upright and rotate right or left?
Do you feel like you can take a deeper breath? Do your muscles feel longer? Does your spine crack? Space is made. Twists can help improve digestion because you are moving around and stimulating circulation, releasing tension in the spine, and relaxing the body, all of which helps the other organs do their jobs. When we talk about yoga twists, it takes this simple idea and applies the asanas to challenge twist in a balance (side crow pose), twisting while lengthening the hamstrings (think lunge or standing postures), and even twisting in an inversion (headstand variations).
When do we twist?
Gentle twists in the beginning of class can feel good, like sitting in Sukhasana (easy sitting pose) and twisting right or left without force. Practices like Ashtanga have lots of great twists like Marichyasana A, B and C, but just be sure your alignment is correct as these poses tend to be tough on those whose hips are not quite open enough. Postures like twisted crescent lunge, revolved ardha chandrasana, and revolved triangle are common, but do be careful when you are twisting to let your hips drop a little left or right. Trying to keep the hips fully even and then deeply twisting can throw off your Sacroiliac joint.
After a longer, more vigorous practice of back bending and forward bending, you want to make sure to twist at the end so as to neutralize your spine. Supine Twist is usually a good option, making sure to twist at the navel and not yanking from the shoulder.
I have been dealing with this in my own practice because I have SI pain on my right side. I am not sure exactly how or when this started, but sometime 6 months ago it increased. I realized I had been trying to stabilize my hips and do very deep twists, as I had been taught time and again. My good friend and yoga teacher, Kim Drye of Here Now Yoga, told me right away: Stop doing twists, and don’t stabilize your hips. This is controversial in the yoga world, but it is important to get drop dogma and explore. That is what yoga is all about anyways, right? Alas, my back is on the mend! Chiropractic care and restorative yoga has also been incredibly beneficial because after 12 years of practicing, typically your alignment needs some tending to.
Other times to be aware of shifting how you do twists is during pregnancy (don’t squish the baby), spinal disk injury (don’t exacerbate an injury, go see your doctor for recommendations for repair), and digestive issues (could be overwhelming for you, see your doctor for recommendations).Remember, set your intention for practice, dig deep inside to see why you are doing these postures, what they are doing for you, and how it is shifting how you feel and your thought patterns. A good, long Savasana is key at the end of your practice. Be kind to yourself and compassionate always.