If your masseuse, your shrink, and your yoga teacher ever got together, they'd surely agree that you need twists. Your masseuse knows that your back muscles are tighter than the strings on a soprano ukulele; your shrink knows that half your tension comes from stress. And your teacher knows that twisting poses are often the best way to untie both physical and psychological knots.
Forward bends, side bends, and backbends bring relief, but twists really get to the core of your tension. Only twists can effectively stretch the deepest layer of back muscles: the small ones closest to your spine. The more you practice twists, the more you realize they don't just release tightness; they also dissipate the frustration, anxiety, or fear that's often behind physical tension. On many levels, twisting is more about what you let go of than what you accomplish.
See also Twist Yoga Poses
Make Your Spine Long
You'll get more out of twists if you elongate your trunk as you inhale, and relax and turn as you exhale. When you lengthen your torso, you're positioning your spine so it can rotate safely and effectively. This, in turn, stretches and strengthens your muscles in ways that reinforce healthy posture. When you relax before rotating, you soften your diaphragm, abdominal, spinal, and rib cage muscles so they're ready for a thorough, satisfying stretch.
Here's a simple way to learn the elongation and relaxation phases of twists. Sit cross-legged with your pelvis and upper back against a wall. (If your lower back rounds and touches the wall, elevate your hips on enough folded blankets to let you arch it slightly.)
Place your hands on the floor or blanket alongside your hips. As you inhale, push your hands and chin down while you press the back of your head into the wall and up. As you do this, keep your shoulders down and feel your chest lift. This is the elongation phase. Now, keeping your spine tall and your hands pressing down, exhale fully but without forcing, completely softening your belly, ribs, and back. That's the relaxation phase.
See also Spine Stretches
Surrender to the Twist
Twists come in many varieties—standing, seated, reclining, inverted, and arm balances—and each twisting pose is powered by a slightly different balance of physical forces—gravity and the muscles of your arms, legs, waist, and back. In this series, you'll use your arms to drive the twist whenever possible, allowing the muscles around your waist to relax and passively receive the action. If you engage your trunk muscles to twist, you usually limit your range of motion; beyond a certain point, you wind up contracting muscles that should be relaxing and stretching.
Whichever way you power a twist, first you have to release the large outer layers of the trunk muscles in order to rotate at the deep level of your small spinal muscles. So before you explore these five twists, practice a well-rounded set of the nontwisting postures that release the large muscles of the torso: forward bends, side bends, and backbends.