A few years ago, some friends and I performed an eye-opening experiment. We painted the body's major organs, glands, nerves, and muscles on a long white unitard. Then one of us donned the outfit and moved through a series of yoga postures as the rest of us watched. We observed the kidney area being squeezed in backbends, the stomach being compressed in forward bends, and the ribs and lungs being gracefully stretched in side-bending actions.
Watching my friend move through a series of spine-wringing twists was the most illuminating of all. Twisting seemed to alternately squeeze and stretch the entire contents of the torso—muscles, nerves, glands, and organs—from the pelvis all the way up through the neck. After seeing this unitard demo, I'm not surprised that twists are renowned for their balancing and toning powers, and for their ability to cleanse the body from head to toe.
Twists are often taught as balms for sluggish digestion, low energy, stifled breathing, and a variety of muscle aches and pains. Best of all, they feel good from the inside out. Reclining Twist offers an opportunity to feel the power of wringing out the body from its core. It can improve breathing, ease back and neck tension, and soothe frazzled nerves. Its reclined position lets us linger in the posture's curves and spirals, inviting the twist to penetrate deep into the spine. If you're anything like me, this pose will leave you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and rinsed clean.
Set Up Your Reclining Twist: Build a Strong Foundation from the Ground Up
To begin, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet comfortably on the floor. If your neck and shoulders feel tense, or if your chin juts upward toward the sky instead of settling comfortably toward your chest, elevate your head a few inches with a folded blanket or pillow.
Take a few moments to make sure the back body is long. Roll gently toward your left side and slip your right shoulder blade down toward the hips to create additional space between the ear and shoulder. Repeat this action on the other side.
To relax the lower back, lift the hips off the ground and gently draw the tailbone toward the heels. Maintain this length as you set the pelvis back down. Let a few soft breaths ripple through your body as you surrender to gravity's embrace.
Consider the sensations in your back body. If you notice that you are at all kinked up or wrinkled, adjust your position until you feel as if you are resting on a well-made bed rather than a tired and lumpy mattress.
Invite the skin of the back body to spread and soften, settling with ease and relief into the earth. Try to let go as you rest quietly here, breathing comfortably and drawing your awareness inward.
Move with Mindfulness
When you feel the urge to move, grab hold of the back of the right thigh or the shin with your hands and draw the right knee toward your ribs. (If you find it difficult to reach your leg, wrap a strap behind the knee, hold one end of the strap with each hand, and gently bring the knee toward you.) Rock gently from side to side to massage the lower back, and invite your exhalations to lengthen.
Still drawing the right knee toward your chest, slowly straighten the left leg by reaching your foot toward the end of your mat. Ideally, the leg will end up fully outstretched, as in Savasana (Corpse Pose). If this action causes you to wince, though, extend the leg only as far as is comfortable. Linger here for just a few moments, allowing the leg and hip muscles to release while encouraging the breath to feel as free and rhythmic as possible.
Now comes the fun part. Imagine you're lounging around in bed on a sleepy Saturday morning. Roll onto your left side, bringing your right knee and both arms along with you as you turn. You should end up on your left side from ear to ankle, with your right hip stacked directly on top of your left and both arms resting on the floor to your left. If rolling over feels awkward or gawky, try this tip: As you begin to roll toward your left, bend your right arm so the fingertips point upward, then press the right elbow firmly into the floor on your right side. This should give you a little leverage to roll over toward the left without strain.
Once you've rolled over, take a moment to assess the situation. For some, the right knee will drop easily toward the floor. For others, the floor will feel like it's a million miles away. If the latter is the case for you, slip a folded blanket or bolster between the right knee and the earth. In this twist, it's more important that the right knee is supported enough for you to feel grounded than to force the leg to reach all the way to the floor.
Move the Ribcage and Free Your Torso
Before completing the twist, visualize the possibility of maintaining the well-rooted feeling of the lower body—with the pelvis still looking toward the left. From the pelvis down, you'll stay nestled on your left side in that sleepy Saturday-morning pose. But from the rib cage up, you will spin toward the right—ending up on your back as if you were resting in Savasana.
To do this, first anchor the inner right knee by imagining that you're stitching it to the ground. Press the left elbow into the floor to help you rise up lightly through the chest, so the ribs and heart can spin toward the right ever so slightly. As you do this, reach the right arm up above the body and extend from the heart all the way through the fingertips, with the palm facing the same direction as the face.
Now imagine you have eyes in the front of your heart. When you are resting on your left side, these eyes are looking toward the left. But as you revolve the upper chest toward the right, the heart spins so it gazes upward toward the sky. This deep rotation at the body's core will encourage the right arm and shoulder blade to sweep outward toward the floor on your right side. Let the head follow the action of the twist, so you end up looking toward your right hand.
It is likely that in the beginning, muscle tightness will prevent the right shoulder from releasing completely onto the ground as you spin the upper body open. If this is the case for you, don't despair. Instead, bend the right arm and rest your hand on your ribs. Positioning your arm in this way is a better solution than plopping your right hand onto the ground while the shoulder still bobs in space, which risks straining the upper body.
In your mind's eye, trace a diagonal line from your right knee to your right hand and then lengthen through the torso along that line. If you feel yourself kinking up in the right waist, place your right thumb in the hip crease and actively draw the right hip away from your shoulder and toward your feet. Then bring the right arm back to its place.
The action of twisting will compress the diaphragm, so you may feel your breathing get more shallow. Bring your attention to the space you have created in the right side of the rib cage and imagine flooding the right lung with your breath.
Once you've settled as far into the twist as your body will allow, release any sense of effort and let gravity do the rest of the work. Enjoy the deep spiral of the spine. When you feel the urge to unwind, release out of the posture and lie flat on your back in Savasana.
Explore New Sensations with Asymmetry
Remain here for a few moments and take stock of any new sensations moving through you. After exploring the asymmetry of this twist, it is likely that the two sides of your body—your shoulders, ribs, belly, hips, and legs on the left and right—feel like they belong to different creatures. How does your right shoulder feel compared to your left? Can you detect any new pattern of your breathing after practicing just one side of Reclining Twist? Does your spine feel more fluid and free?
When you're ready, repeat the pose on the second side. Remember, the name of the game in this exploration is to anchor the legs while revolving the spine and torso in the opposite direction; on this side, that will maximize the stretch in the left side of the body.
When you've reached your comfortable limit, remember to settle in and breathe. Soften the body, relax the skin, and surrender into the stretch of the twist. Observe how breath by breath, time and gravity allow you to release ever more deeply into the pose, wringing out your spine from bottom to top.
Now sink, stretch, ooze, and release. Relinquish any grasping from your bones all the way out through the skin, so you feel softer, warmer, and stretchier. In your mind, trace the snakelike spiral of the twist from your tailbone to the top of your head. Linger here for a few more breaths, yielding and growing more supple with each exhalation.
When you're ready, unravel yourself, coming onto your back. Draw both knees toward your chest, rocking gently from side to side, then place your arms and legs on the floor and settle into Savasana. Let your breathing be full and deep, with each inhalation bringing you renewal and vitality, and each exhalation offering a sweet sigh of relief. Note the effects of the twist—you might feel an evenness in your body from left to right, an increased ability to breathe deeply, or a sense of stillness and equanimity—and bring this increased awareness with you the next time you come to your mat.