“All of our nerves originate in the spine and then radiate out through the whole system. So when you awaken your spine, your entire body is rejuvenated.”
Back in the 1960’s my favorite uncle taught me how to do the twist. He said, “Pretend you are stamping out a cigarette at the same time that you are drying your backside with a big towel!” He put the needle on Chubby Checker’s record as we stuck one foot forward, stretched our arms out, and then twisted like mad! All the other uncles and aunts threw their hands up and said, “Careful, Howard. You could throw out your sacroiliac doing that crazy dance!”
My relatives were right. Just like anything else you do with your body, you can hurt yourself by twisting if you don’t take proper care. In yoga, we also twist at the waist, but without the sexy lower body action of the Chubby Checker twist. We stabilize the lower body by being grounded in our seat. This creates a spiral staircase in the spine, leading the upper body around the bend to view another vista.
There are many reasons to twist. While my Uncle Howard liked to dance, I also remember seeing ladies on TV doing the twist to help trim their waists. Since twisting involves the spine, nervous system, internal organs, and the neck, back and abdominal muscles, the benefits are profound.
For one thing, moving your spine is the best way to prevent spinal shrinkage. Remember how your grandparents seemed to shrink? Well, it wasn’t just you getting taller. We do tend to get shorter as we age, but it doesn’t have to happen. The two main ways to prevent shrinkage relate to your spine and your musculature.
The vertebral disks are like sponges-unless you continue to fill them with body fluids and energy, they dry up and flatten out. Moving your spine circulates fluids through the disks, fluffing them up and creating length and flexibility in the spine. Because all of our nerves originate in the spine and then radiate out through the whole mind/body system, when you awaken your spine your entire body is rejuvenated. The great modern dancer Martha Graham said it: “The spine is the tree of life.”
Moving your spine will also maintain strength in your neck and back muscles. Twists massage the muscles of the back and neck, which surround the spine and help you to sit, stand and walk comfortably, and twists can relieve headaches, backaches and stiff necks. Strong muscles support bone and move our skeleton through space. Without this muscular support our skeleton gradually surrenders to gravity and we shrink.
Spinal shrinkage is not just an issue of vanity. Our internal organs need space to function. They also need fluids to nourish them and movement to keep them active. When our body starts to close in on itself, these organs get hard, dry, tight and dysfunctional. And so do we.
People who don’t do yoga tend to think of yogis as people who twist like pretzels. We do-but it is just as important that we untwist, too. At the end of a sequence of yoga twists, I once asked my class, “Do you feel twisted now?” and a student called out, “No. I felt twisted when I came to class and now I feel good.” We feel good when the flow of our body’s energy, fluids, and wind are unobstructed. Blockages that occur from lack of movement, poor diet and stress can be removed by first twisting and then releasing the twist.
This action is commonly called “squeeze-and-soak.” Like wringing out a washcloth, we squeeze out energetic, physical and emotional toxins. When we untwist, freshly oxygenated blood rushes in, nourishing our internal organs and keeping them healthy and fully functional.
Explore these guidelines while doing your twisting sequence:
- Try to deepen your breathing above the waist.
- Consciously relax your back muscles, allowing them to broaden away from your spine.
- Keep the crown of your head in line with your tailbone.
- Look at what is in front of you before you twist. As you turn into the new vista, see everything along the way.
1. Sit cross-legged with the right foot in front. Inhale to lengthen your spine. Twist right on the exhale.
2. Dip your left shoulder down towards your left knee, keeping your right hip on the floor. Inhale to sit up.
3. Exhale and fold forward over your legs. Go where you can go comfortably. Inhale to sit up.
4. Place your right leg on top of your left leg and walk your right fingers out to the side. As you exhale, bend to the right. Feel your breath expanding your left ribs. Inhale up
5. Exhale as you twist to the left.
Repeat steps 1-5 with the left leg in front then continue with 6-8.
6. From hands and knees, place your left shoulder on the floor to twist. Feel your belly scooping toward your spine and then around to the right. Press your right hand on the floor to increase the twist. Come back to all fours and do the other side.
7. With bent legs, place your feet slightly wider apart than your hips. Let both knees slowly fall from side-to-side, back and forth, like windshield wipers.
8. After a few windshield wipers, keep your knees to the left. Let your left knee stay exactly where it is and stack your right knee directly on top of it. It’s okay if your right shoulder lifts off the floor. Repeat to the right.