Okay, I finally can talk about Spring without feeling like a fraud. Here in Southern Quebec, it is now officially warm enough, the earth thawed out enough, to call it Spring. The birds are singing, the fiddleheads are ripe, my 3-week cleanse feels easier, and I'm even starting to consider changing over my closet.
It's time to talk about spinal twists.
Although twists are not necessarily “big” poses, don’t be fooled. Even though sometimes it might feel like not much is happening, they are deeply detoxifying, rejuvenating and stimulating. Twists are powerful and fortifying not only for the spine but for the organs as well. After a good twisting practice you should feel lighter.
Twists are the perfect spring cleaning poses.
Here are some pointers for working deeper in twists and feeling great in your back after:
I'll start by addressing the perennial (or at least very common) question about spinal twists.
QUESTION: Should I square my hips when twisting or allow my pelvis to turn into and with the twist?
ANSWER: It depends.
Let’s get into some of the nuances of this. I’m going to get a little technical here, so let me know if you have any questions:
In a twist, the torso rotates over a stable base that resists the movement, providing resistance from which the spine can revolve and extend.
What differentiates a twist from a turn is that in a twist the base stays stable. Think of a rubber band. Without tethering one end of the rubber band while twisting it you’d just be turning it around in circles. But when you hold one end of the rubber band down, you get rotation.
That’s what a spinal twist does for the vertebrae. It rotates them. So, the stability of the foundation in a twist is essential. The base of the twist, usually the pelvis, needs to stay stable so that the vertebrae above can twist.
WHAT WE WANT: A stable foundation from which to rotate the spine.
WHAT WE DON’T WANT: Pain after the twists. This often comes from the sacrum and the ilium moving at different rates in the twist. When that happens we can end up with a subluxation, the SI joint being “out” after the twist, and this can cause pain. This is the rationale behind the idea of firmly stabilizing the pelvis, i.e. “hugging to the midline” at all times in twists.
However, I believe there are some issues with this:
For one, if we’re stiff and we keep the hips very square and the pelvis completely stable in a twist, we may not get very far.
Generally, if you’re stiffer, it’s better to let the pelvis move into the twist. Be mindful though of keeping the top of the sacrum moving in and the lower back extending up to maintain healthy alignment in the lumbar spine. Sit up on height if you need to keep from rounding the lower back.
If you're more flexible, the situation is a bit more nuanced:
If you remain totally lax, you won’t create the stability in the base that is necessary for the twist to happen and deepen. You’ll get more rotation and deeper into the twist if you keep your pelvis more square. And, allowing the hips to passively move into the twist can result in the SI joint going out for the reason mentioned above (see: WHAT WE DON'T WANT).
Yet, I also believe that holding the hips rigidly fixed can ALSO create problems for the SI joint.
My experience is that you’ll have to experiment with the right balance of stability and release in the pelvis that allows you to create the necessary resistance to create the rotation in the vertebrae without overdoing it.
TIP: Instead of stabilizing the pelvis by hugging toward the midline, or firming the outer hips in, Donald Moyer suggests focusing on deepening the inner groins as a way to hold the pelvis stable without rigidity. This focus works better for me.
Three more principles to keep in mind when twisting:
1. TWIST FROM THE BASE UP
Keep in mind that the lumbar vertebrae have very little rotation that’s even possible for them, so most of your twist will happen in the thoracic region and ultimately, the cervical, though your neck should be the final part of the spine to twist.
2. TWISTS ARE ALWAYS ACTIVE (except supported, restorative versions)
Work in twists in two phases:
- The Elongation phase on the inhalation, lengthen the spine up and create space
- The Twisting phase on the exhalation, soften the big, outer layers of the trunk muscles and mobilize the deeper, smaller spinal muscles to move deeper into the twist, even working on the organic, or inner body (more on that next week!)
3. INITIATE THE TWIST FROM THE OPPOSITE SIDE
Begin the action of the twist from the side you are twisting away from. Remember to keep widening, and creating space on that opposite side in the elongation phase and move deeper by twisting away from that side in the twisting phase.