Taking the Longview of Your Yoga Practice:
How to Practice Spinal Twists Safely
Every month in Align & Flow Yoga at TriBalance we highlight a particaular theme or category of yoga asana (postures) and work to break down the key joint movements required and which supporting muscles need to be engaged to execute the poses efficiently. This month the theme we are going after is spinal twists. We work through a set sequence of poses so that we can really go deeper into the key alignment principals relating to this category of poses.
Spinal twists boast a variety of health benefits to several body systems. Indian yoga master B.K.S Iyengar describes twists as a “squeeze-and-soak” action. The internal organs are squeezed which when practiced properly flushes out toxins and impurities from the organs and draws in fresh oxygenated blood, revitalising the entire system. This stimulation of the circulation to the internal organs assists various body systems including digestion, kidney and liver function.
Spinal twisting poses also help to keep the spinal joints and soft tissues healthy and vital. In order to maintain the extensibility and range of motion in any joint or soft tissue those joints and tissues need to be moved through their full range of movement at least weekly so that they don’t stiffen excessively and become restricted. When the spinal joints are taken through their full range of motion, blood flow and subsequent oxygenation of these structures is boosted as well as lubrication to joint surfaces.
In this way a regular yoga practice is a really effective way to maintain a healthy spine. However the spine has an element of complexity due to its many articulations and there are a few points to consider in our yoga practice. One issue that often arises in yoga practice is how to move the spine in a pose in a way that loads up each segment proportionally without causing any areas of excessive compression or stretch.
Overload can happen in other postural categories like forward bends & backbends. For example an excessive stiffness in the thoracic spine (commonly associated with prolonged sitting postures), will often cause us to overload and jamm the lower back or neck joints. Your spine will comply with your brains commands in one way or another, and will take the path of least resistance, resulting in excessive movement where there is more mobility like the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) spine joints. If you’re doing a backbend like upward facing dog for example, if you don’t have adequate thoracic mobility then your lumbar joints will bear the brunt of the spinal extension and there won’t be adequate sharing of the loads across the spinal joints.
The notion of load distribution through the spinal joints in forward & back bending is a relatively easy concept to grasp. However, when it comes to twists it gets a little more complicated.
The reason for this is due to the multi-planed movement of the sacroiliac joints (SIJ). The sacroiliac joint is the joint between the sacrum at the bottom of the spine and the pelvic bones on either side. As the sacrum is an extension of the spine and the pelvic bones attach directly to this, any movement of the spine will then also transfer into the SIJ.
Now the SIJ is an inherently stable joint, designed with broad surface areas of contact to provide a high degree of stability. They do also allow a very small amount of movement in 3 planes of motion.
Modern postural yoga has a long history of practitioners and the way we practice yoga today stems from the early yoga masters like BKS Iyengar who wrote ‘Light on Yoga’ one of the original written books on yoga asana. We must remember that these early practitioners used their experience of embodiment as well anatomical and biomechanical knowledge relevant to that time to determine alignment instructions for poses. We fast forward 50-60 years and we now have a lot more information about functional anatomy and biomechanics. It is sometimes the case that alignment cues need to be updated, like many aspects of the way we live today as we gain new information from science.
One example of this is the cue to square the pelvis in twisting poses. While this concept is grounded in the notion that the lower body will be most stable when the pelvis is ‘square’, this doesn’t fly when we consider the anatomy of the hip joints. In reality it is near impossible to square the pelvis to the front if the back hip joint is externally rotated, as in Warrior I pose. It’s actually structurally near impossible even for the most ‘open hipped’ practitioner to square the hips completely to the front in Warrior I.
This means that if we are practicing with the cue to square the pelvis to the front we are likely jamming the SI joints and forcing them too far out of congruence. Hence the countless accounts of injury from practitioners who experience SIJ dysfunction after a few years of practice.
Perhaps the way we should be practising is to instead ‘make the action of squaring the hips to the point that feels natural or organic for you body’, stopping at the point your hips naturally will rotate to, rather than trying so hard to square the hips that we jamm or overload the joints. If the end goal is to achieve a position somewhere between warrior 1 and warrior 2 where the hips are slightly off square, warrior 1.2 we could say, then this would be a much more structurally sound and joint friendly pose to be practising over the long term.
Ultimately we all love this practice and if we want to keep practising yoga for the rest of our lives we need to be smart and savvy about how we practice.
Cathy Aganoff is a physiotherapist, yoga therapist and clinical pilates instructor. She offers private yoga therapy sessions with students who may be working with injury or who are wanting to delve deeper and learn how to be more efficient in their practice.