Franke Culpin discusses twists – in particular, their benefits and their use in yoga – and gives some tips and sequences for how to include them in your own home practice
Wring It Out. Burn Through It. Cleanse and Restore. These are just some of the many themed classes I’ve seen centred around twists. Powerful sounding stuff! I love how a twist feels but that’s not to say I find them easy and there are plenty of deep twists, especially those involving binds (wrapping our arms around ourselves and clasping hands or holding wrists so we end up looking like a pretzel) that are not yet part of my practice. However one of the things I love is that our yoga practice offers the chance to turn and twist the body in so many different ways that we can include them in our practice, no matter what level we’re at and reap the benefits.
I tried to think about when I twist in ‘normal’, off the mat life. Other than looking over my shoulder when I’m reversing or putting my seatbelt on, I don’t tend to twist so, therefore, I hardly ever twist and not in an even way.
Twists help to restore the spine’s natural range of motion – for that reason they are often used as neutralising poses, for example after deep backbends. We can lose the full rotation of the spine if we don’t keep mobile and supple and, for me, a huge appeal is that a good twist helps to ease upper back tension. If I need to re-energise and build heat then, again, twists are a great go-to as they stimulate the circulation.
Here’s are some more benefits:
- Often described as massaging the abdominal organs, a twist can compress this area, pushing out blood filled with metabolic by-products (including toxins). When we release the twist, this area opens up and fresh blood and nutrients rush in. For this reason, they are described as de-toxifying and as stimulating the digestive system
- They stretch the back muscles
- Help to open the outer hips
- They stretch the front and sides of the abdominals, an area that’s often tight and difficult to access.
- Often overlooked, twists can also help you access and release the front of the body as they release tension in the front of the ribs, chest and shoulders, and so, for those reasons, can also be good prep poses for backbends.
- They can leave you feeling mentally clear and refreshed.
Some Tips for Twists:
Warm up with poses that lengthen your spine (to help you rotate more easily) for example Child’s Pose, Downward Facing Dog and a forward fold like Uttanasana. Add on poses that open your outer hips for example Pigeon Pose and Cowface Pose.
Elongate to prepare, lengthening up through the torso then start your rotation.
Because the 12 thoracic (midback) vertebrae have ribs attached, they can’t twist as freely as the neck vertebrae. And because of the orientation of the lumbar (lower spine) facet joints, the rotation of these five vertebrae is the most limited. To ensure that you don’t over twist in the more mobile parts of your spine, begin by bringing your awareness to your lower back and begin the twist from there letting the twist gradually unfold up your spine.
Use your breathing to help deepen the twist: on an inhalation draw yourself taller; on an exhalation, twist a bit more (without overdoing it).
Find twists tricky?
Have a think for yourself. How do you feel before, during and after twisting in your practice? What might you need to do to make twists feel more accessible?
Yoga twists involve the spine, as well as several major joints, including the hips and shoulders. Often the limitation is usually in soft tissues around the spine, abdomen, rib cage and hips so try some more preparatory poses to open these parts of the body, especially the outer hips (see above for a few prep poses).
If closed twists – where you turn into the body – don’t feel good or are inaccessible then try turning the other away – away from the body – into an open twist, for example, Marichyasana 1 turning away from the bent leg.
The wall is a brilliant tool to use in your practice. Try using the wall as a prop to help open the chest in a seated twist. By using a wall, the arms have more power to deepen the twist while the front of the shoulders, chest, abdominals and sides get a deep stretch.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, an all round, balanced yoga practice should include some twists and here are a few fun transitions using twists for you to try out in your practice once you’ve warmed up. I like to start seated in Easy Pose for side bends and gentle twists before taking a few rounds of Sun Salutations:
(Note: If you have a spinal disc injury, consult your health-care provider before practicing twists of any kind.)
Once you’re warm, you can build in these twisty transitions during the more vigorous part of your practice:
- In plank roll to the outside edges of your feet one way then the other – hands stay on the floor – so you take twisted plank a few times each side then transition to Down Dog. From there step your right foot forwards coming into a straight leg lunge. Keep your left hand on the floor slightly forward of your left shoulder and raise your right hand for Easy Twist. To add on a challenge, transition to Side Plank, stacking or hovering the right foot on top of the left. Move to Down Dog perhaps through a Vinyasa and then do the same as you just did on the other side.
- Step out for a wide leg forward fold with a twist. Come up and turn to face the front of your mat. Take Parsvottanasana / Pyramid Pose – you might need to step the back foot in a bit. From there you can take Parivrtta Trikonasana / Revolved Triangle or transition into Warrior 3 and add on the twist for Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana / Revolved Half Moon.
- From Down Dog step into Crescent / High Lunge – twist and step your back foot forwards to twist in Utkatasana / Chair Pose. Mix things up by reversing this transition, stepping the foot on the opposite side to the twist back from twisted Utkatasana to a high lunge keeping the twist.
- Why not add on Parsva Bakasana / Side Crow after twisted Utkatasana for another arm balance? This can also be a fun pose to explore from Ardha Matsyendrasana / Half Spinal Twist.
Seated forward folds and supine poses are a nice way to wind down towards Savasana.
Let us know how you get on and for more information on bringing twisty transitions into your practice, why not join the next Vinyasa Flow training weekend during which Frankie will be leading a practice focussed on twists and discussing how to sequence for them.