Turn Up the Torque
Every time you walk across a room, reach into the back seat of your car, or pass a dish at dinner, you rotate your spine. You probably take such movements for granted most of the time, but imagine being unable to do them. If you've ever had back spasms or a crick in your neck, you know how debilitating it is when you can't turn sideways. Without access to the full range of motion in your spine, your life becomes very limited, but when your spine is strong and supple, you radiate well-being. Twisting poses—whether seated, supine, or inverted—can maintain and even enhance your ability to rotate your spine. When you do twists, the muscles on the left and right sides of the torso work together to produce enough torque to turn the spine. This tones the muscles of the torso, restoring mobility and balance on both sides of your spine, which may improve your gait and boost the power of your limbs when performing everyday tasks that involve pushing, pulling, or turning.
When you twist, you also compress and squeeze the spinal disks, which improves circulation and nourishes tissues that are critical to having a supple spine. Clearly, twisting poses play a key role in gaining and maintaining spinal health, but the most gratifying benefit may be the simple sigh of relief they can evoke after coaxing tension from your back muscles. When you deconstruct the architecture of spinal twists, you can see that they typically come in two varieties: You either keep your shoulders fixed while the pelvis rotates the spine, or vice versa—you keep the pelvis fixed and use your shoulders to help you turn the spine.
In Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), your pelvis stays neutral while your shoulders rotate. But the effort it takes to rotate the spine often uproots the back leg, which can throw you off balance and create anxiety about exploring the pose. The key to feeling grounded is to root strongly through your feet. Keeping your pelvis stable and square toward the floor (with the hip bones horizontally and vertically even) will help you do this. Keeping the pelvis stable is not easy, and it's a detail that is often passed over in Revolved Triangle. You may have learned to initiate the twist from the pelvis by dropping your back hip toward the ground. When you do the pose this way, you may feel as though you're getting a deeper twist, because it enables you to turn the torso more. But turning the torso further doesn't mean that you are rotating each individual vertebra more.
Even if you're accustomed to dropping your back hip, try keeping your pelvis fixed and observe the difference in the way your body feels. You might find that a stable pelvis gives you more leverage and actually increases the degree of rotation in your spine. I've noticed that keeping my pelvis square has reduced the sacroiliac strain I used to feel after doing Revolved Triangle. Though Revolved Triangle is typically practiced as part of a standing sequence, coming to it from a series of gradually deepening twists will help imprint muscle memory of the two varieties of rotation, which will help you demystify this asana. After warming up with a few Sun Salutations, lie down and begin your exploration with two supine poses.
Simple Reclining Twist
Take a minute or two to recline on your back, relaxing your muscles, your breath, and your mind. Don't underestimate the power of moments like these to create an atmosphere of openness, curiosity, and flexibility. Move into constructive rest by bending your knees and placing your feet flat on the floor. Relax your arms along the floor at shoulder level. Keeping your shoulders on the mat, exhale and let your knees fall to your right. Allow your knees to drop loosely, taking your hips and lower torso with them into a simple spinal twist. Notice how your shoulders stay on the floor while the movement of your hips and legs rotates the spine, much like turning a corkscrew. Stay for a minute to feel and observe your back muscles. Are they tight? Do your shoulders rest comfortably on the mat? Try to consciously release any stiffness you feel in your back muscles by allowing your spine to settle into the floor.
Next, bring your attention to your breath. Twists squeeze the diaphragm, which can make your breath feel strained. To help release tension, use each inhalation to create space in your abdomen and each exhalation to coax your muscles to adapt to the twist. When the spine rotates in more challenging twists such as Supta Parivrtta Garudasana (Reclining Revolved Eagle Pose), your muscles will resist and rebel. Take the time now, when the pose is simple, to use it as a primer for exploring how to adjust to the muscular resistance. Stay for another minute, then bring your legs back to center and switch sides.
Supta Parivrtta Garudasana (Reclining Revolved Eagle Pose)
The basic shape of this pose is similar to Simple Reclining Twist, but the way you enter the twist makes it different. In Simple Reclining Twist, your shoulders stay fixed as your pelvis rotates around the spine. In this pose, it's just the opposite: The left knee on the floor keeps the pelvis fixed while your left arm reaches toward the left to create spinal rotation. Begin again in constructive rest. Shift your hips a few inches to the left before crossing your legs as in Eagle Pose, left thigh over right. If you can hook your foot behind your right leg, do so, but don't worry if you can't. Draw your knees toward your chest and, exhaling, turn onto your right side, pinning your left knee to the floor. If this creates pain in your knees or lower back, modify your position by unhooking the left foot and elevating the left knee on a block or blanket.
With your left knee on the floor or on a block, reach toward the ceiling with your left arm. Exhale as you slowly lower your left arm to the floor, placing your hand in line with your shoulder. Keep your pelvis fixed, and this time feel how the shoulders create the torque, like a corkscrew. Your body may twist easily, letting you bring your shoulder to the mat, or you may barely turn. Take your time and keep your left arm active, even if it's hovering above the floor. Be curious and patient with the process. If your knee moves up, away from the floor or block, or your breathing becomes labored, it means that you're rushing the pose and inviting strain. Whether you get your shoulder to the floor is unimportant; this is a strong twist regardless. Once your upper back is at its maximum, turn your head toward the left, but be mindful. The neck, or cervical spine, is the most flexible part of the spine. If your upper back is tight, you might try to overcompensate for it by turning your neck more extremely. That's why it's important to wait until your thoracic rotation is at its maximum before turning your head.
With your pelvis stabilized in this pose, you may feel much more of the turn coming from your upper back. That's because keeping your pelvis fixed limits the rotation in your lower spine. If you tend to be a flexible person, this is a good thing. It's relatively easy for flexible people to overdo it and stretch the lumbar joints beyond their natural capacity without even knowing it, which can eventually strain the lower back. Stay in the pose for about a minute. If you feel as though your body naturally wants to go deeper, exhale and move your left shoulder toward the floor. Notice how this action turns your chest while leaving the lumbar region undisturbed. A more subtle way to do this is to visualize each thoracic vertebra spinning, like a bead on a string, into the rotation. Stay in the twist for another minute, then change the cross of your legs and twist to the other side.
Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), variation
When you practice Janu Sirsasana as a twist rather than a forward bend, it can further educate you about the mechanics of rotation. Sit with the soles of your feet together and your knees apart in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). If you find it difficult to sit with an upright pelvis and straight back, sit on a folded blanket. Keep your left knee in place and extend your right leg, centering your weight on the back of the heel. Hold the outer edge of your right leg or foot with your left hand, and place your right hand on the back of your right hip. Keep your gaze on your right foot, and with an exhalation, lift your ribs and shift your lower abdomen to the right to align the midline, or axis, of your torso with the right leg. You may already feel a twist; now turn it up a notch by broadening your chest and pulling your right collarbone and shoulder back. As in Supta Parivrtta Garudasana, keep your hips fixed and strongly turn your upper spine.
If your breath is unrestrained and you feel as though you can deepen the twist further, exhale and stretch your right arm straight back, rotating your skull to gaze over your right shoulder at your hand. But remember, if your upper back is tight and feels stuck, you may be tempted to initiate the twist from your head and compress your neck. You may also unconsciously swing your upper body laterally, moving your head and shoulders to the outside of your leg. Sidebending like this creates poor alignment and can make the twist unsafe. Avoid these common mistakes by keeping your gaze on your right foot until the last breath or two in the pose, then gently turn your head to look over your right shoulder. Keeping an image of the spine spinning on its axis will also help.
Open your chest by actively expanding its core to create a dynamic sense of space that both deepens the twist and wrings out tension from the upper back. Hold for about five breaths, then exhale to release the twist. Fold forward into the classic forward-bend version of Janu Sirsanana for a minute before switching sides.
Parivrtta Utthita Hasta Padasana (Revolved Extended Hand and Foot Pose)
Stand with your arms outstretched at shoulder level. Adjust your stance so your feet are parallel and directly underneath your wrists, or closer if your legs are strained. All standing poses need to be grounded, especially twists. Take a moment to balance the weight between your feet, firmly grounding them evenly across the ball and heel of each foot. Pull your inner thighs toward your hips and steady your abdomen. Stand tall as you exhale, and turn your upper body to the right to begin a spinal twist. Did your hips come along for the ride? That is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the stretch probably feels good, so enjoy it for a few breaths. But then, try it with your pelvis fixed and see if your spinal rotation becomes deeper. Keeping your upper body rotated to the right and your arms outstretched, slowly start to turn your hips back to the left, toward their original position. Pause and notice where you feel your back resisting the turn. Rather than bracing yourself against the resistance, sweet-talk tension away from the muscles, and you will gradually be able to return your hips to the original, even alignment you had before you twisted.
You may notice that keeping your pelvis square forfeits some of the turn of your upper body, but now that you understand the anatomy of twists, you know that keeping one point fixed is essential. Stay in the pose for a minute, then rest your arms before repeating to the left. Fully explore the relationship between keeping the pelvis stable and the spine mobile, since it is very similar to the alignment in Revolved Triangle Pose. After you've completed your second side, take a counter pose such as Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), or Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) to allow the spinal muscles to return to neutral before practicing Revolved Triangle Pose.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
Start again with a wide stance, rotating your right foot out 90 degrees and your left foot in about 40 degrees. Turn your hips toward your front foot. The aim is to have the hips turned all the way to the right so the midline of the torso is aligned with the right leg, as it was in Janu Sirsasana. Expect some resistance from your left hip and leg. The fastest way to turn your hips fully to the right is to turn your left foot in more and shorten your stance. However, I don't think that's the most skillful way. Instead, recruit the deep abdominal muscles to do the job by shifting your lower belly to the right and pulling your right hip back. That not only keeps your left leg solid, but it also taps support from your core, which establishes the stability that benefits standing poses and twists. If your left hip still hangs back, then turn your left foot in slightly. Don't sacrifice your roots; distribute the weight across the ball of your foot and keep that left heel firmly down.
Place your right hand on your right hip and extend your left arm up alongside your ear. Breathing in, shift your hips toward the rear of your mat and exhale to hinge forward over your leg, pausing halfway. Gaze at your right foot as you shift your lower abdomen and then your ribs to the right to align the midline of your torso with your right leg. Bring your left fingertips to the floor outside your right toes, keeping the left shoulder in line with the leg. If that's not possible, take the left fingertips to the floor or to a block on the inside of the right foot, keeping your left shoulder in line with your left hand. Continue to look down, keeping your head and gaze in line with your foot to help align the axis of the torso over the right leg.
Pause at this point to train your focus on the base of the pose. Keep your back leg grounded with the heel down. The pelvis is level, the belly is stable, and the breath is steady. Initiate the twist by pressing into your left hand and lifting your chest. Pull your right shoulder up and back to rotate the thoracic spine. Feel how the rotation here is exactly the same mechanical process as in the previous two twists; the pelvis is level and stable, and the shoulders act as the top of the corkscrew that turns the spine. As the twist winds up, the hips, back leg, and heel must stay grounded to resist being pulled into the turn. Go slowly, allowing for a little give in the hips; take your time and be careful not to force the twist. Let yourself be guided by the somatic memory and actions of the earlier poses. When the pose is steady and you can enjoy the sensations free from the distractions of your back leg, Parivrtta Trikonasana will become a pose you look forward to doing.
Power up the twist by extending your right arm up. Make sure your left shoulder stays aligned over your leg or hand, rotate your head, and gaze at your right hand. If your neck hurts when you turn your head, or if turning your head causes you to lose balance, gaze at the floor and focus on grounding your feet and steadying your belly. Over time, revisit turning the head. Once your chest is free and you've established a strong base, you will be able to rotate your neck and gaze comfortably at your right hand. Keep both arms active to give the upper body a strong surge of energy that may rotate the spine even more. Hold the pose for several steady breaths, keeping the body active and alert. When you feel as though the twist is at its maximum, make a small counteraction in the back leg: Exhale, surrendering your upper back into the twist while slightly turning your left thigh out. You may find that this small move realigns the pelvis and makes it level, affirms a nicely grounded left heel, and lets the twist give the spine a final hug.
Once your body has adjusted to the instruction and principles of the pose, let your focus turn away from the form; accept the pose as it is. Stay aware of it, but use it as a vehicle to turn your attention inward. If you can, create a sense of expansion by letting your awareness drench the pose with space and fullness. Dwell in the sensations; inhabit the form. Stay as long as you have clarity and steadiness, then exhale fully to release the twist. Breathe in as you stand up, then root your legs into the earth with a solid exhalation. Turn your feet parallel again for a few breaths to reestablish stability before practicing the pose to the left. Twists do not come easily to many of us. Because they wind you up so snugly, they can seem more stuck than liberated. However, with patience you will fall in love with twists. They will teach you to appreciate that less is often more. You will find that your effort is well repaid by the final sweet gift that comes as you unwind the spine, sigh deeply, and feel your whole body radiate lightness and well-being.
Based in Boston, Barbara Benagh has shared her passion for hatha yoga for more than 35 years.