This article looks at sitting twists from the viewpoint of an Alexander yoga teacher.
A major difficulty people may face in doing a range of yoga postures is having a faulty idea about how the body is designed to do the particular movement they are approaching. If their idea of the movement possibilities of the body is incorrect then they will inevitably run into problems, because they will be attempting to do the impossible! Incorrect ideas about what is possible and what can move in twists are very prevalent.
Think about this question regarding your spine – what are the possibilities for rotation in the vertebrae of your lumbar spine (green), your thoracic spine (blue) and your cervical spine (red)?
Lumbar vertebrae have virtually no rotation available, but people commonly attempt the twist with the idea of rotating this area of the spine resulting in the lower back being pulled in, shortening and contracting all the muscles of the back and stiffening the ribcage. Instead, in these poses, the whole lumbar spine needs to be lengthening, creating support through the whole of the spine which allows the ribcage to remain free and the thoracic spine to rotate.
Gorman (1) gives the following figures for the range of movement of different areas of the spine; 5° for the lumbar spine (or 1° between each vertebra), the thoracic spine 35°, and the cervical spine or neck 50°. Of course these figures are very approximate as actual rotation is difficult to measure and there is a considerable variation in the amount of rotation between people, but the orientation of the articular facet joints of the lumbar spine makes rotation in that area extremely limited.
The thoracic vertebrae are the part of the spine (Fig 2) to which the ribs attach at the costovertebral joints (Fig 3). The structure of, and connections between the thoracic vertebrae allow for considerably more rotation than in the lumbar spine. What restricts rotation in this area are the ribs and the rigidity which most people have in their ribcage. As pictured in Fig 2, the front part of the ribcage which attaches to the sternum (breastbone) is made of cartilage. Cartilage potentially has a significant amount of flexibility.
There are twelve ribs. The top ten ribs attach to the cartilage which attaches to the sternum and there are two “floating ribs”. It is very common for people to restrict the flexibility of their ribcage either by habitually collapsing, or just as commonly by trying to stand or sit “straight” by pulling back the shoulders and pushing the chest forward and therefore narrowing their back and restricting the flexibility of the whole ribcage. This flexibility of the rib cage is what allows the rotation of the thoracic spine. The over contraction and narrowing of the back also restricts the mobility of the floating ribs which severely limits the movement of the diaphragm (the mobility of the lower ribs to which the diaphragm attaches is severely restricted in most people).
It is essential for healthy functioning in the twisting movement that there is length throughout the spine and therefore optimal space between the vertebrae. In twisting we want to activate the very deepest layers of postural muscles (rotatores, interspinales, intertransversii) and also the multifidis. These are all postural muscles which span one, two or three joints between the vertebrae and which help stabilise the spine. This stabilising function is very important, but as people become tense, tight or collapsed, these muscles lose their elasticity as the larger more superficial “movement” muscles are recruited to do that task, leading to tiredness and often pain and discomfort in these muscles.
I believe that much of that sensation people frequently get in Alexander lessons when guided by a teacher of lightness as well as length, comes from a releasing of excess holding of these muscles, which in turn is only possible when we stop overusing those more superficial muscles which are better adapted for movement rather than stability.
In twisting it is essential that the twist accesses these deep postural muscles around the thoracic vertebrae. This means that we have to have the whole torso freely lengthening and expanding and this gives a completely different sensation from a twist when these muscles are not fully activated. This requires letting go of excess holding in the ribcage which is part of releasing into length and expansion.
Especially in the upright twists it is very common for people to contract the lumbar spine (in an attempt both to lengthen and try to twist that part of the spine) and to pull one of the shoulder-blades back, thus contracting and shortening through the muscles of the back as well as putting stress on intervertebral discs. People doing this feel the sensation more through the more superficial muscles of the back, a much less pleasant sensation than if the deep postural muscles are the focus of the movement.
Fig 4 is a version of a seated twist where we can see both fairly good lengthening through the spine and a widening of the back.
We are aiming to work very deeply in these postures. In addition to working on the level of the very deepest layers of the postural muscles, as we gain greater coordination and flexibility in these twists and can move more deeply into them, we are also then taking the movement into the internal organs of the abdomen. In doing this, we can begin to contract the muscles of the abdomen inwards, only to the extent that can be done without tightening the neck or shoulders. We can only usefully work into this level if we are not compromising free coordination of head balance and the length and freedom of the spine.
In Fig 5 we can see that instead of being lengthened and expanded, the torso is moving into collapse. The spine is being rounded and the abdominal organs compressed. In this version of twists this is the most common form of misuse.
There are two reasons why this happens. The first is that he is lacking the flexibility to sit on his sitting bones (ischial tuberosities). For many people, doing the twist effectively whist sitting on the floor is impossible. Unless the contact with the floor is with the sitting bones then there is no possibility of accessing length through the spine. So instead we need to provide enough support under the pelvis so that length through the spine is possible. This may be simply a folded blanket as is being used in Fig 6, or a fairly high block as is being used in Fig 7. The second reason for the collapse is that he is taking his left arm too far over his bended knee and thus collapsing even more through the torso.
In Fig 6 we see a practitioner with almost complete access to the rotation of her spine so that she is able to take the arm over then under her knee and in addition to take hold of her other hand of the arm behind her back. This is often considered the “correct form” for this posture, but probably less than one in two hundred people have the flexibility to do this, and in most cases people attempting this will simply discoordinate themselves. In Fig 4 & 7 we can see that the practitioners, rather than discoordinating themselves by trying to use their arms as in Fig 6, are using the contact of the hand with the leg to assist with the twist, thus keeping the integrity of the core – head, neck and back.
Fig 8 Another version of the sitting twist can be done in a chair. This is especially useful for those with more limited flexibility. However it is necessary to pay attention to the tendency to overextend and narrow the back in this one. In the postures seated on the floor (or supported by a blanket or block on the floor) the more frequent tendency is to flex and collapse the torso as in Fig 5.
Things to think about in twists
As in all yoga postures it is good to have an Alexander yoga teacher to observe and to give you feedback and guidance.
Lacking this, here are some things you need to be aware of:
Twisting postures have something of a reputation for worsening sacroiliac pain by over-stretching the ligaments in this area, which should not be twisted. There should never be the slightest pain in this area. If you work with proper coordination and especially avoid over-contracting the lumbar spine you will avoid this problem.
I have occasionally worked with students with disc problems who have been told by their doctor or other health care practitioner that twisting in not good for them. Indeed some have developed rigid use of themselves by restricting normal twisting activities in daily life. Certainly discs do not appreciate the spine being both twisted and shortened (a very common situation). However, twisting out of length is quite a different matter and carefully, with the aid of an experienced teacher, virtually everybody can profitably work with these postures.
In addition to the problems mentioned above if you have pain in your neck, back, around the shoulder blades, in the knees or hip joint then you are probably disco-ordinating yourself in the posture and need to rethink what you are doing.
Both sitting bones should be equally grounded in this posture. If you find that both sides are uneven then you will be shortening yourself on the side of the more grounded buttock, and instead of rotating out of length will be cork-screwing your spine into compression rather than extension.
Whilst doing a good twist you will notice that your breathing noticeably frees and opens up without any necessity to consciously alter your breathing. If you are collapsing or conversely narrowing and tightening your back your breath will be restricted. If we find our breath constricted in any yoga postures the answer is not to try to get more breath in, but to take away the constriction which is preventing the breathing from working freely.
(1) Gorman, D “The Body Moveable” Vol 1 Trunk and Head David Gorman, London 1981