Whenever I announce to one of my yoga classes that we are going to focus on twisting poses, there is a spontaneous "ahhhhh" from my students. Almost everyone loves to twist, because these poses bring such a release, no matter what your level of ability or physical condition. And the benefits of twists are many; besides the immediate gratification of the way they feel as you do them, they tone and cleanse your organs, release and strengthen the muscles of your spine and neck, and allow you to open and strengthen your shoulder joints. At the beginning of a practice, twists gently open up your spine, and at the end of a practice, they align and quiet the nervous system.
Bharadvajasana, a seated twist that is asymmetrical in the spine and pelvis, creates a slight backbend in the upper body. In twisting poses like Bharadvajasana, it is important to pay attention to your head placement and to avoid doing the pose "head first," tightening the muscles at the back of the neck and contributing to headaches, upper back tension, and fatigue. To test your head position, lift your head upright and place the palm of your hand across the muscles at the back of your neck. Are they hard and taut? Bring your head back without lifting your chin, and you'll feel the muscles at the back of your neck soften.
In exploring this revitalizing twist, we'll focus on these aspects of movement: Where is your head in relationship to your spine? What is initiating, or moving, the pose? And where is the center of the pose?
To practice Bharadvajasana I, sit on your heels in the center of a mat. Fold a blanket into quarters and place a right-angle corner of the blanket so that it points at your right hip. Now sit to the right, placing only your right buttock on the blanket. Your left buttock will be off the floor, suspended in space. Use this blanket support unless you are very flexible in your lower back and hips. Even though this is an asymmetrical pose, we want to minimize the asymmetry. If the position of your pelvis is too asymmetrical, it will be risky for your sacroiliac joints and lower back.
Sit upright and face forward, so you are not twisting yet. Place your fingertips out to the sides, a few inches away from your pelvis. If possible, cross the top of your left foot over the arch of your right foot. Let your left buttock drop down as if your left sitting bone were a weight. Now begin to observe the placement of your head in relation to your spine. Let your head balance over your spine so that the muscles in the back of your neck remain soft.
Keep dropping your left sitting bone with every exhalation and begin to activate the muscles between your shoulder blades, so that you draw your inner shoulder blades deeper into your back. This will create a slight backbend in your upper back, and a lovely broadening of your upper chest, as you can see in the photograph below.
Now place your right hand on the floor or on a block behind you and place the back of your left hand on the outer right knee or thigh. Extend through the heel of the left hand towards the floor. Keep both inner shoulder blades pressing into your back.
Okay, now be honest: Have you begun to pull yourself into the pose with your head, brain, or eyes? Instead, drop down into an awareness of your organs, especially your intestines. Ambition, and the desire to "get there" (wherever "there" is) can pull your head forward. So without hurrying, begin with every exhalation to rotate from deep in your belly. Can you have an awareness of rotating not just the bones of your pelvis, but the contents as well? When you lead with your head in twists, you cheat your spine out of the fullness of this movement. Bring the left side of your intestines towards the right, and let your head trail slightly behind.
Can you sense the delightful, undulating motion of your breath through your spine, and let the twist deepen as you exhale, so that the movement is characterized by ease, not force? Come to an awareness of your lungs, turning your left lung to the right and letting your spine ride the rhythm of your breath.
Then begin to consider where the center of this pose is. What are you spiraling around? What is turning? What is stable? I sometimes see the "center" of my spine like the eye of a hurricane in twists: Even though in reality I know that there is rotation in my whole spine, imagining the center of my spine as a still, quiet space my body turns around seems to deepen the pose for me. Ask yourself whether there is a tendency for you to push strongly into the front of your body, or to fall into the back of your body. Strive to be in the center of your spine.
Finally, after giving yourself a good minute or more to practice these movements, turn your head. And if you need an image to help you find the balance of your head over your spine, here is one that helps my students: Remember those little dolls that you used to see in the back of people's cars, their heads bobbing? Let your head balance that effortlessly over your spine. At the very end of the pose, turn your head completely, so you bring the stretch now intentionally into your neck, facilitating a fabulous neck release, and take both eyes into the right corners of your eye sockets. Throughout the entire pose, keep using the rhomboid muscles between your shoulder blades to draw your inner shoulder blades deeper and deeper into your back.
In the depth of the twist, and after releasing the pose, observe how delicious it is to let your brain relax into the back of your skull, to let yourself be led instead of forcefully leading. Practice twists anytime you feel distracted, anxious, fatigued, or agitated, for a deep renewal of body and spirit.
The founder of Seattle Yoga Arts, Denise Benitez has studied yoga for more than 25 years. She has studied primarily in the Iyengar tradition of hatha yoga, but is also informed by many other traditions of yoga, human movement, and spirituality.