Twists – there are a multitude of teaching instructions and ‘how-to-do’ theories for these asanas. I believe that in the practice of yoga poses, particularly twists, we often make things more complicated than they really need to be. If we observe the developmental movement of a baby beginning to relate to and explore the world around him, rotation of the spine happens naturally and with ease.
Twisting movements in babies are led by sensory information. A new-born will smell mother’s milk and turn his head towards her breast. When the baby begins to become more aware of the surrounding environment, he may turn his head in response to a sound. The rotation beginning in the cervical spine, will sequence down through the baby’s thoracic spine, ultimately enabling movement towards the object of interest, with involvement of the limbs.
Unfortunately, the grace and ease of movement that we experienced as babies, tends to get lost over the years through tension habits and too much sitting. It’s very common in the general population, and therefore beginning yoga students, to have a degree of stiffness/lack of mobility in the thoracic spine (upper-middle back). In attempts to twist, it becomes likely the cervical spine (neck) will be over-used, and/or attempts will be made to twist the lumbar spine (lower back), which isn’t designed for this purpose.
When habitual tension in the body manifests as lifted shoulders and stiffness in the thoracic spine, walking is likely to be affected. This is because lack of mobility in the thoracic spine will in turn inhibit rotation – arms and legs will no longer swing freely. Once this mode of walking becomes the norm, it’s more likely that twisting asana will be problematic. I suggest that rather than being so hung up on a lot of detail for the practise of twist asanas, we should focus instead on making them an easy, natural thing to do. We need to take time and have a relaxed approach. Here’s an exercise that’s very slow and so relaxing that students often fall asleep! It’s based on the Feldenkrais method and helps create more rotational ability in the thoracic spine:
In my blog ‘Sequencing towards Parivrtta Trikonasana’ I include videos and descriptions for the practice of Sitting Twists. First I describe an approach that sequences rotation from the top vertebra down. The second approach involves practising the twist with support from the organs/soft front of the body. My description of how to practise Parivrtta Trikonasana involves both approaches. However some asanas seem to work better with one approach than the other. For example in the practice of Ardha Matsyendrasana and Marichyasana 3, it can be helpful to initiate the twist from the belly – especially if it’s in the way! But I propose that all twist asanas can begin the natural way – the sensory led way that babies do – beginning with the gaze, sequencing rotation down the spine. Support for rotation from the soft front of the body can then follow, as ‘the last hurrah’, to gain a bit more juice from the pose – for those who enjoy doing that!