A Healthy Twist

by Allegra Gulino

I had a background in gymnastics when I came to Yoga in 1995. Therefore, I was familiar with back bends, forward bends, hand/headstands, and balancing poses. For me, my familiarity and comfort with what were considered “challenging poses,” cast the asanas that were surprising and difficult into high relief.

Twists were in that category – a completely new experience for me. No matter if they were taught supine or as an active pose, I remember a lot of wincing and gasping, due to the intense sensations in my torso and the outsides of my hips. For a couple of years, twists caused a physical and emotional struggle every time.

If this sounds like you, take heart. You can transform your experience of twists into something refreshing, as they are for me now. Reading one article may only be a lantern in the dark, but give this a try.

Of course, my first problem with twists was due to poor attitude. I stretched with too much drive; too much impatience, and tuned out the repeated directions to breathe or relax in the quest for ego validation. I was looking for the familiar feeling of ease and vigor. It seemed unacceptable that a simple twist stymied me.

Maybe you are also active and competitive, used to feeling competent in your activities or sport of choice. The bigger the pride, the bigger it falls, when we are confronted with the new. Yoga is not a competition. Once competitiveness enters your practice, it becomes a risky, ego builder – with nothing in common (apart from appearance) with Yoga’s inherent steadiness and meditative qualities. Instead, let’s be gentle and curious in our approach.

Have blocks available and lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground. Take a couple of long slow breaths, creating a some distance between your observing Self and those little egoistic voices. When ready, open your arms wide into a “T” formation on the floor with your palms facing up. On an exhale, bring your knees towards your belly with your legs together. Keeping your legs together, begin to sway your knees and hips to the left and right, like a pendulum. Inhale in the center and exhale to each side, gradually increasing the distance the knees travel to each side, but maintaining a moderate or slow pace. Relax your breath and face – enjoy this.

Then, next time your knees travel towards your left, see if you can lay them on the ground. If this feels too deep, without judgement or drama, put a block under your legs. After a couple of breaths, use your left hand to tuck your knees closer to your left armpit. Keep the right shoulder releasing towards the ground. After your knees have reached a physical place on the ground that is somewhat challenging, but not overwhelming, use your left thumb to push your right (top) hip crease away from your head – this action lengthens the spine. Once you’ve found a position for your hip that’s comfortable and expansive for your spine, try to keep that and allow the left hand to rest either on your top thigh or on the ground, facing up.

After a few breaths here, assess. If you’re in a place of ease, you can also straighten the top leg and maybe hook the big toe with your left hand. Undo this step if it got too intense, or if you lost your breath. However, if the top leg straight stage is easy, straighten the bottom leg also, so your legs are stacked and the top hip is still away from your head. Assess. If you’re still ok, flex your feet. This ought to intensify the stretch. Stay here for several breaths – lengthening your spine with the inhales and relaxing deeper with the exhales. You may find yourself getting naturally deeper into the twist – not only due to the exhales, but because gravity is in a friendly position here (as opposed to revolved triangle and the like).

When you are ready, bend the knees under the left armpit and on an exhale bring your knees back towards your belly. Do some gentle pendulum sways before taking your legs towards the right side. Repeat the directions above. This side may be different, so keep an open mind and remember, no competition….When done with the second side, do more pendulum sways to release the back. It’s best not to end your practice with a twist, because this can cause misalignments, so it’s advisable to “recover” with some symmetrical poses, like spinal tucks/arches or forward folds. Also, when practicing twists always twist to the right first. This means that on your back, the legs go to the left first, but from upright positions, the torso spirals to the right first. This detail is important for the digestive system – which normally gets a massage and is coaxed into its natural flow – unless the twist is done in the wrong direction, which can actually cause indigestion.

When practiced well (and gently), twists can give a wonderful wringing out for the organs, muscles, circulatory and lymph systems and spinal discs, as well as increasing lung capacity. Allow your ego to dissolve as you relax deeper into a healthy twist.

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