Yoga Twists

December 8, 2022

You have probably realized that most yoga classes have at least one twisting pose. Whether you love them or not, they are there. And for good reason!

Twisting poses have many benefits. They can improve organ functions, relieve blocked energies and even help you feel younger. Yoga twists can be quite challenging but so rewarding. Today, I will share tips to help you practice yoga twists safely and know when to avoid them.

What are Yoga Twists?

Yoga twists are poses that rotate your spine—moving your shoulders in the opposite direction to your hips. Popular twisting poses include:

  • Half Lord of the Fishes Pose, aka Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana) 
  • Twisted Chair Pose (Parivrtta Utkatasana)
  • Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
  • Supine Spinal Twist (Jathara Parivartanasana)
  • Marichyasana C

To receive all the benefits and stay safe when practicing these yoga twists, it is important to understand the anatomy behind the twisting action.

The anatomy behind twisting poses

Human anatomy looks at the structure of the human body, including the organs, muscles, tissues, bones and nerves. Practiced in the correct manner, yoga twists involve mainly the thoracic spine, obliques and intercostal muscles.

Next time you practice yoga twists, focus on these three parts of your body: 

  • Thoracic spine: The upper and middle part of your spine
Thoracic spine
  • Oblique muscles: The muscles on the side of your waist, moving to your navel
Oblique muscles
  • Intercostal muscles: The muscles attaching your ribs
Thoracic spine

4 Benefits of Yoga Twists

While providing a soothing stretch after a stressful day, this is not the only benefit of twists in yoga. Twisting yoga poses increase spine mobility, relieve blocked energies and stimulate the digestive system and other organs. Let’s dive deeper into each of these benefits.

1. Keeps your spine healthy

A famous saying in yoga is, “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” This is, in fact, true, but have you ever wondered why?

In between your spine vertebrae, there are gelatinous-like discs. These intervertebral discs help your spine move with ease and absorb shock. But as you age, they become thinner, which results in back stiffness and pain.

The gentle and controlled movement of yoga twists slows down the deterioration of these spinal discs. It also maintains the spine’s natural range of motion and ensures it does not become stagnant.

Whether you struggle with back pain or want to feel younger, yoga twists can help.

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2. Opens blocked energy pathways

Like most poses, yoga twists have physical and emotional benefits. As you stretch and create space during your twist, you also create space for energy that has been blocked. The space created improves energy flow, which calms the mind and aligns the chakra system.

3. Improves digestion

As mentioned above, yoga twists create space in the body. The space created in your gut allows food to pass through. Twisting your spine also creates movement in your digestive system. This constant stretching and contracting of muscles stimulate your digestion and metabolism.

Read more: How Yoga Can Improve Digestion – 5 Yoga Poses for Better Digestion

4. Stimulates and detoxes your organs

Yoga twists not only stimulate our digestive system, but they also activate and purify other vital organs in the body.

The lymphatic system drains lymph fluid (containing the blood's waste and toxins) from the body. Twisting poses assist the lymphatic system in detoxing your body by stimulating this flow of lymph fluid. Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana), for example, stimulates the lymph flow in your torso and activates the Solar Plexus Chakra. This improves the functions of your stomach, gallbladder, liver, spleen and pancreas, which all play vital roles in the body's blood detoxification and waste excretion processes.

Common Yoga Twist Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

There are two common mistakes in yoga twists: practicing without a stable foundation and twisting mostly from the lower back.

1. Unstable foundation

Having a stable foundation is essential during yoga twists. If your foundation is unstable, the twisting action can be incorrect, increasing the risk of injuries.

If your pelvis is not squared, the following happens: 

  • You twist from the lower (lumbar) spine (more on this in the next section).
  • You only stretch superficial muscles (and not twisting the spine).

What is your foundation in twisting poses?

Your foundation is your pelvis in standing and seated twists such as Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana). It is important for both your sitting bones to be on the ground to create a strong foundation. Avoid sitting on your heel or lifting one hip higher than the other. Keep your hips in line and your spine lengthened.

Half Spinal Twist - Ardha Matsyendrasana

Your shoulders are your foundation in reclining twists such as the Supine Spinal Twist Pose (Jathara Parivartanasana). Create a steady foundation for your supine twisting pose by pressing your opposite shoulder to the ground.

Modifications to improve yoga twists

As mentioned, grounding your sitting bones, pelvis or shoulders (depending on the type of yoga twist) helps create a stable foundation. If you find this challenging, here are tips to modify the different yoga twists:

Reclining twists: In Supine Spinal Twist Pose (Jathara Parivartanasana), for example, rather focus on grounding both shoulders than touching your opposite knee to the ground. Modify your pose to ensure that your foundation is stable, then twist from there.

Sitting twists: In Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana), for example, you can place a block or cushion underneath your pelvis or straighten your lower leg. This will create a more stable foundation if you find it challenging to ground both sitting bones.

2. Twisting from your lower back

If you do not square your pelvis, you are twisting only from your lower, also called the lumbar spine. Why do we not want that?

Your lumbar spine vertebrae are designed in such a way that they can move forwards and backwards, side to side, but barely rotate or twist. On the contrary, the thoracic spine (middle and upper spine) vertebrae glide against each other in rotation, ensuring easy twisting of the spine.

How to avoid twisting from your lower back

To avoid twisting only from your lower back, remember to keep your foundation stable and be aware of the range of mobility in the different parts of your spine. Start twisting only a few degrees in the lower spine and move up, twisting more in the middle and upper back.

Safety in Yoga Twists

Incorrect twisting of the spine can cause injuries and back pain. To practice yoga twists safely, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Ground your shoulders or sitting bones (depending on the type of yoga twist). 
  • Lengthen your spine by reaching upwards with the crown of your head. 
  • When twisting, elongate your lower back and focus on twisting more in the upper and middle back. 
  • Remember to breathe! Your breath might feel slightly shorter as your rib cage contracts but continue breathing. As you inhale, lengthen through the spine. And as you exhale, twist a bit deeper.
Safety in Yoga Twists

Who should avoid yoga twists

In some cases, yoga twists can be dangerous. Knowing your limits and consulting with a healthcare professional before practicing certain poses is essential. If you are unsure if yoga twists are safe for you, please consult your doctor or physiotherapist first.

Pregnancy

Most yoga twists place a lot of pressure on the abdominal cavity. This can be uncomfortable and dangerous for you and your baby. Learn about easier twists and modifications from a pregnancy yoga teacher.

Digestive issues

Yes, yoga twists can help with digestion and metabolism. But if you struggle with chronic digestive issues, you should consult your doctor first. Extreme twisting places pressure on the intestines which can worsen gut-inflammatory symptoms.

Spinal disc injury 

Because you focus on your spine a lot in yoga twists, it can worsen spinal disc injuries. Consult your physiotherapist before attempting twisting poses.

SI joint issues

The sacroiliac (SI) joint is located between your pelvis and lower spine. Incorrect or extreme twisting of the spine and pelvis can destabilize this joint and cause pain.

Stay safe and know your limits. Yoga should never be about performing but about taking care of your body and mind.

Conclusion

Yoga twists help release blocked energies, keep your spine and digestive system healthy, and improve organ functions. To practice twisting poses safely, it is important to maintain a stable foundation in your twist, lengthen through your crown and twist mostly from your upper and middle back.

Next time you practice yoga twists, remember these tips and benefits I shared.

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About the author

Kalyani Hauswirth Jain

Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is the Creative Director and a senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. Prior to joining Arhanta Yoga Ashrams in 2011, Kalyani studied Modern Dance in the Netherlands where she discovered her passion for the body-mind connection and personal leadership. In 2007, Kalyani began teaching yoga professionally, and four years later, she was training yoga teachers at our ashrams.

Now with over 11000 hours of teaching experience, Kalyani is a lead teacher for the 200- and 300-hour Yoga Teacher Trainings, as well as a number of 50-hour courses at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. When she’s not adjusting postures in class, Kalyani is writing informative blogs and guides for fellow yogis, and co-authored the critically acclaimed book, 'Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioners.'

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