A New Twist on Twists
It's one of the most satisfying sensations in asana practice: that feeling of release that comes from a deep twist. Twisting poses rotate the spine and stretch your back muscles, leaving you feeling clean, clear, and refreshed. They're even thought to stoke the digestive fire, known as agni. In fact, twists are so beneficial for the spine, back body, and digestive system that their ability to open the front of the body is often overlooked. But by using the world's most ubiquitous yoga prop—a wall—you can begin to access and release the front of your torso as you twist. You might even start to consider these poses to be the biggest heart openers you've come across in years.
In most twisting poses, you generate the leverage to twist by using your abdominal muscles and by pressing an arm or hand against a leg. Think of Marichyasana III: Pressing your left elbow against the outside of your right thigh helps you turn your spine. But 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. You still get the benefit of releasing tension in your back and stimulating the digestive process, but you'll finally get to access your front body—at no additional charge.
Action Plan: In any twisting pose, it's helpful to imagine the torso as a cylinder. When you twist, you rotate the cylinder around a central axis. When you use the wall to help you twist, you stretch not only the back of the cylinder but also the front and sides.
The End Game: These poses stretch the front and sides of the abdominals, an area that's often tight and difficult to access. The twists are also effective heart openers because they release tension in the front of the ribs, chest, and shoulders. They'll leave you feeling a sense of spaciousness in the front body that will facilitate deeper breaths, improve your posture, and, in general, help you to feel more light, spacious, and comfortable throughout your body.
Warm-Up: You'll warm up with poses that lengthen your spine (to help you rotate more easily) and open your outer hips (to help you keep your hips level and comfortable as you sit and twist). To elongate your spine, start with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), High Lunge with arms overhead, and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) with your knees slightly bent. To prepare your hips, practice Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Pigeon Pose, and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose).
Sukhasana (Easy Pose), with a Twist
Propping: A wall is your main prop, but you'll also sit up on a block.
Why This Works: Using the wall for leverage helps create a strong opening in your front body. Sitting up on a prop helps you position your hips optimally so you can lengthen your spine and maintain the natural curve in your low back.
How to: All of the postures that follow have three distinct phases. In the initial phase, you determine how far to place your body from the wall based on your flexibility and proportions. (The poses have enough subtle differences that you may need to adjust your distance from the wall for each pose.) The next two phases explore the posture with different degrees of intensity.
Place a block (or folded blankets) approximately one arm's length away from the wall (you'll adjust the exact location in a moment). Sit on the block facing away from the wall, with your right shin crossed in front of your left. Rotate your torso gently to the right, placing your left hand on your right knee and your right hand on the wall at shoulder height. See that your right arm is straight and externally rotated and that your torso is vertical. Take a moment to adjust your distance. If you're too close to the wall, your shoulder will feel jammed and your upper body will round forward. If you're too far away, you'll be able to straighten your arm, but your upper body will lean toward the wall.
Now you'll focus on twisting. First, refine the position of your right hand and arm. With the center of your palm at the height of your shoulder and your fingers and elbow crease facing the ceiling, press firmly against the wall. You'll start to feel the familiar stretch in the back body that accompanies twists. But more important, you'll feel a thorough opening in the front of your right shoulder and chest and possibly in the forearm, upper arm, and abdomen, as well. Stay here for 4 to 5 breaths. To increase the twist's intensity, turn your fingers to the right, lift the heel of your hand away from the wall, lengthen your spine, and walk your fingers as far to the right as they will go. Breathe smoothly in order to help unwind tension in the front body. After 4 to 5 breaths here, release the pose slowly. Take a moment to notice how this twist affected your body. Then, repeat the posture on your second side.
Marichyasana I, as a Twist
Why This Works: Sitting on a block makes sitting upright easier, especially if you have tight hips or hamstrings. The wall helps increase the twist's intensity and the opening in your front body.
How to: Find the right distance from the wall as you did in the previous posture, being mindful that you may have to slightly reposition yourself to ensure the correct placement. To begin, keep your block (or folded blankets) in the same position as in the first pose, and have a seat. Straighten your right leg, bend your left knee deeply, and place your foot on the floor close to your left sitting bone. In this version of Marichyasana, you will be twisting away from the bent knee, not toward it. Lengthen your spine and place your left elbow against the inside of your left knee. Rotate your torso to the right and place your right hand on the wall level with your shoulder. Determine if you need to be a little closer to the wall, a little further from it, or if you're already in the position that will let you straighten and externally rotate your right arm.
Now it's time to explore the actions of the posture. With your right arm straight and level with your shoulder, press the wall a bit more firmly. Feel the stretch increase in the front of your shoulder, chest, and arm. Lift the left side of your lower back up away from the block, and turn your chest more strongly toward the wall. Imagine that your right collarbone is lengthening toward the wall as you increase the rotation of your spine. Press your left arm against the inside of your knee to support this work. Breathe steadily in this position, feeling your front body open, for 4 to 5 rounds before repositioning your top arm for the last phase of the posture.
To open the front of your upper body even more, turn your fingertips in the direction of the twist and walk your hand further into the posture. Be sure to move mindfully and slowly, since this is a demanding degree of rotation. Press through your fingertips and lift the heel of your hand away from the wall. This will keep your wrist and forearm from overstretching and will shift the demands of the posture into your biceps, deltoids, pectorals, abdominals, and spinal muscles. Notice any differences that you feel in this seated twist compared with previous ones you've done. Breathe into the stretch of your upper body for 4 to 5 breaths before slowly lowering your arm and releasing the pose. Pause for a moment when you come out of the pose and savor the feeling of your back body before taking your second side.
Bharadvajasana, with a Twist
Why This Works: By using similar positioning and leverage as the previous postures, this pose provides even deeper spinal rotation.
How to: This twist will allow even more range for rotation and will stretch your abs more deeply. Kneel down, lift your hips, shift them to the right, and let the top of your left foot slide onto the arch of your right. Sit on the block, press your right hand against the wall, and adjust your distance so your torso is vertical. Emphasize the external rotation in your top arm by lifting the front of your armpit and drawing your scapula down. Lengthen up through your central axis, draw in through your lower abdomen, and turn your navel to the right. Breathe for 4 to 5 rounds and feel the sides of your abdomen release tension.
If your body allows it, walk your hand further to the right. Turn your fingers to the right and lift the heel of your palm. Feel the spiraling movement from your lower abs through your rib cage, chest, and shoulder into your right arm and fingertips. Bend your left elbow and pull against the outside of your right knee. This will help you get a nice deep stretch across the front of your torso. Savor another 4 to 5 breaths and then release. Bask in the space you've created before transitioning to your left side.
Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.