Twist and shout (or simply breathe… ;-) your way into Dying Warrior pose

Twists are wonderful poses for keeping the spine and internal organs healthy, but how, exactly, do they do that? By bringing fresh blood flow and spaciousness to the entire torso, from deep within all the way to the surface skin.

One might hear or read that “twists are detoxifying,” but this is not completely accurate: twists tone the internal organs by squeezing them and restricting blood flow for a few breaths, then releasing the restriction and allowing fresh blood to flush the “old” blood out. It’s like when one wrings dirty water out of a sponge, and then allows it to fill with clean water.

Similarly, twists massage, bring fresh blood and stretch the muscles that line the spine, thereby allowing the vertebrae to move within their full, healthy range, rather than being “locked” into position by stiff muscles. Think of the cracks that sometimes happen at a (good) chiropractor’s office and how much relief they can bring to a sore back. Twist often spontaneously cause this kind of release in one’s back once the muscles have relaxed sufficiently to allow for it.

And, as an added bonus, twists definitely help things move along in the intestines!

The ability for the spine to twist increases from the bottom to the top of the spine, with the lower back having the least ability to twist, and the neck having the most. This also affects how your internal organs respond to the twists. I also differentiate twists into “open” and “closed” variations (these are my own terms, so it’s not likely that you’ll see them used elsewhere): Open twists are those where the front of the body opens more than when the spine is neutral, such as when we take the left shoulder more to the left while keeping the hips squared forward; e.g., utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose. Closed twists compress the front of the body more than when the spine is neutral, such as when the shoulder crosses the front of the body’s midline; e.g., parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle pose. Open and closed twists are counter poses to each other, asking the spine to move in opposite directions, and are usually done in pairs. Keep this in mind as you move through the following series.

[Please note that if you are pregnant, certain twists will probably not feel very good, and are not recommended. Please consult with an experienced teacher if this is your situation.]

We begin as we have in past practices, on the back with the foot in a strap – supta padanghustasana. Think about how these pose variations would feel if you were standing on the leg extended along the floor!

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Not really a twist just yet, but moving towards an open twist: Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
Closed twist: You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

We then move onto utthita parsvakonasana, extended side angle pose, one of the most delicious of all yoga asanas, in my opinion! 🙂

Turn the heart towards the sky, creating an open twist in the upper body, while remaining grounded through the feet (especially the heel and outside of the foot of the straight leg).
Create a beautiful and long line from the side of the foot to the tips of the fingers.

The counter pose, parivrtta parsvakonasana, demands a deep release of the psoas.

Press into the pinky side of the back foot, and ensure that you front knee is not falling in towards the center of the mat. In this photo, my knee could be bent more towards 90 degrees, and my heart could be lifted closer to my hands to deepen the twist..

Utthita trikonasana, triangle pose, asks the spine for the same kind of action as extended side angle, and parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle, is a closed twist like rotated extended side angle. Note the additional challenge of a straight front leg and how it affects your alignment.

Triangle, open twist: Keep the front of the torso long and over the front leg – imagine a bolster in your mid-spine – and the knee of the front leg aligned with the second toe of the front foot; press into the heel of the back foot. The twist is in the spine, not in the arms. Think of a corkscrew rotating – the heart up to the ceiling.
Rotated triangle, closed twist: keep the hips even (the hip of the back leg will want to drop), and press well into the pinky side of the back foot. Press your bottom arm into the floor or block to give you leverage for the twist. Stack top shoulder over bottom shoulder and keep front of torso long.

Eric’s twist is next.

LOL, just kidding! But, I love this image that a student of mine sent me when I was still teaching in Virginia.

Here is the human equivalent of Eric’s twist (no Sanskrit name that I know of, and apparently an asana invented by Eric Schiffmann, a contemporary yoga teacher).

Preparation: sit back on your heels and hold the heel on the opposite side with your hand. If you cannot reach, place a strap securely around your foot, and hold the strap as close to the foot as possible.
Lift your hips and place your shoulder to the side of the knee towards which you are twisting – note! it must be the shoulder and not the head, as pressing on the head only will strain the neck (if the shoulder does not go down all the way, but is close, place a blanket under your shoulder to support it). The other arm keeps one from toppling over. Press the shins, which remain even with each other, into the floor, and gently encourage your shoulder blades to rotate towards the ground, while your face turns up towards the ceiling.

Finally, we arrive at the main event, the dying warrior (this one doesn’t have an official Sanskrit name either!). From downward facing dog pose, come into high plank and slip one leg under you and out to the opposite side. Ideally, you would keep the leg straight, but if that’s too much for now, you may bend the knee.

Keep the back toes firmly turned under and the back leg active. Place the arms into sphinx position, then shift the elbow opposite to the right angle leg (in this photos, that would be the left arm) in line with the hip. Other arm presses into the floor to deepen the twist (see next photo).
Here you can see a variation with bent knee and the opposite arm pressing the floor to deepen the twist.

Finally, we undo all of that closed twisting with an ahhhh-worthy open twist on a bolster.

Lie with a bolster in the soft part of your torso, between the ribs and hip. Tuck up the knees and place the foot of the top leg just above the knee of the bottom leg. Hold the ankle with the hand on the same side and open the other arm up and out to twist open the body. Breathe well and enjoy the release!

And that’s it for our twisty “torture” Tuesday and Thursday practice! 🙂 Enjoy in good spinal, endocrine and digestive health!

~namaste,

Sylvia

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston. 

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