“C’mon baby, let’s do the twist!” Hearing these words you probably think of some good old fashioned dancing. (I think of a scene from The Blues Brothers with the whole town getting down with their twisty selves and Ray Charles belting ‘C’mon and let me see ya shake your tailfeathers!’.) Yet think of just how many times you twist to some extent each and every day. Life isn’t linear straight lines and our spines are frequently twisting, whether checking the traffic behind us or checking in with our bodies as we move in our yoga practice.
Let’s explore the rotational ability of different parts of our spine, why you might want to ignore the advice to keep your pelvis fixed, the challenges proportions can create during twists, and a really awesome somatic exercise that helps you twist deeper!
Different Vertebrae, Different Design
The sections of our vertebral column (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral) each have a unique design for specific functions. In general, the higher up the spine we go the more our vertebrae can rotate. This is especially true at the axis, the second highest vertebrae, which is intelligently designed to allow for our heads to rotate. (It’s more important for us to be able to see what’s around us than to to twist our bums to face forward even though that would take salsa dancing to a whole new level! Our lumbar vertebrae are designed to be more weight bearing and to provide attachments for our large back muscles.)
Cervical ~ 50°
Thoracic ~ 35°
Lumbar ~ 5°
Woah, so over half of our rotational ability comes from our neck up? That’s right! That’s why it is so important to be mindful of how you establish twisting postures.
It’s easy to just turn your head and have the sensation that you are deep into a twist while missing out on the little movements lower in your spine that can create a big difference in your experience. The twisting from our lower spine creates a nice pumping effect for our internal organs. Thus we want to ensure we are twisting our spines as a whole unit rather than just taking our gaze to the side. I find it more effective to begin twisting from the bottom up. This ensures that we get our whole spine into the action, feeling those subtle twists in the lower back that are harder to recognize once our heads are turned.
To really experience the different areas of your spine rotating in a more independent fashion I highly recommend trying the exercise at the end of this post!
Proportions Affect Keeping A Straight Spine
It is most efficient to twist from a central axis. In our bodies our spine serves as this axis to rotate around. (Our spine and skull are the main components of our axial skeleton if you recall our exploration of the skeletal system.) This is why it is pivotal to keep your spine as straight as possible when twisting. (This is true most of the time. Some postures change this dynamic such as a twisted upward facing dog.) A rounded back can create distortion in this central axis and prevents the spine from fully elongating and decompressing. Twists help to decompress our vertebrae. The straighter our spines, the more space we create to allow for the decompression in the discs between our vertebrae!
Yet for many of us in many twisting and revolved postures we find that we need to round forward to a certain degree to create the leverage to twist deeper. Recall the post about proportions? Let’s dust off one of those principles and put it in action!
Sit on the ground with your feet outstretched in dandasana, staff pose. Bend your right knee and place your heel close to your buttocks, keeping your sit bones planted on the ground. Extend your right arm out parallel to the ground over your knee. Notice how much space there is between your arm and knee. Now place your right hand on the ground behind you for support. Hook your left elbow on the outside of your right upper thigh.
Hold up! Notice if you had to round your back forward to find the leverage to hook your elbow. (The larger the gap you observed before, the more your spine has to round to catch your elbow on your thigh. It is easier for individuals with a smaller torso to femur ratio to maintain a straight spine while twisting.) Also notice how close your supporting right hand is to your buttocks. Some yogis tend to extend the hand far behind and slouch back into the weight of the hand. Instead try to bring the hand closer, (or even place it on a small block) and press into the hand to feel the lifting force extend your spine taller. Whenever you are trying to lengthen your spine be aware of creating the sensation of lift from your foundation, in this case your supporting hand.
The rounding of your back to catch your elbow on your thigh becomes even more pronounced in revolved postures. Try catching your elbow on the outside of your thigh in a revolved lunge and notice if, and how much, you had to round your spine to find leverage.
Allowing your pelvis to move with you can also help if your proportions make it harder to twist. Moving the pelvis allows your shoulder to come further across, giving you a better chance of finding the leverage to twist deeper. This brings us to a topic that has generated a lot of debate in the yoga community; should your pelvis stay rooted to the ground in twists?
The Fixed Pelvis Debate
There is a debate among many yoga teachers and practitioners as to whether you should keep your pelvis fixed or allow it to move with you as you twist. The conventional idea that you must keep your pelvis fixed and facing forward during a twist is a bit outdated and doesn’t fit many people’s unique bodies. Many experienced and respected yoga teachers (such as anatomy enthusiast Jason Crandell) have changed their style of practice from the traditional ‘fixed’ pelvis to the more modern ‘mobile’ pelvis approach. For some individuals keeping the pelvis fixed is a perfectly valid way of initiating twists that creates a strong foundation (this is more valid for people who twist very easily. If they allow the pelvis to move it can potentially bring the shoulder so far across that it is harder to maintain the leverage against their thigh to twist deeper). Personally I like to allow my pelvis to move with me as I twist.
For anyone who experiences pain in their SI joint it is imperative that you allow your pelvis to move with you as you twist. Twists naturally pull one side of the top your sacrum forward (the opposite side to the direction you are twisting). When the sacrum shifts too far forward it can pull away from the ilium (the top bowl of the hip) and cause pain in the SI joint*.
Repeatedly keeping both sit bones rooted to the ground in seated twists can create instability in the ligaments that stabilize your sacrum and pelvis. Your pelvis and sacrum should move together as a continuous unit. If you keep your hips level on the ground, the pelvis remains fixed as the sacrum moves with the spine. This torque can pull on those stabilizing ligaments in your sacral region and cause instability and lower back pain. If you allow your pelvis to mobilize and move with you as you twist then the sacrum and pelvis work in unison and do not cause strain in the lower back.
Does one approach or the other affect your rotational ability?
Keeping your pelvis fixed or allowing it to move in the direction of your twist doesn’t really have much of an impact on your rotational ability. The vertebrae of the spine will still twist the same amount. The individual who allows their pelvis to move will appear to be in a deeper twist because the foundation point of the twist has changed to involve the pelvis. The rotation of the spine remains relatively the same.
Whenever I look at yoga anatomy I like to envision how certain movements are applicable to everyday life. I can’t recall ever being outside of a yoga class and twisting in a way that keeps my pelvis fixed, it just doesn’t seem as natural or practical of a movement to me personally.
A Somatic Exercise to Twist Deeper
Here’s a great exercise to experience the different areas of your torso twisting independently of one another and as a cohesive unit. Compare your twisting capabilities from the beginning of the exercise to the end and you will probably be astounded how much further you can twist from these simple movements. Not only does this practice promote deeper twisting, it helps establish the connection between your muscles and brain. This style of somatic movement uses pandiculation and bringing awareness to contracting muscles to reset muscle tension. By changing up your normal muscle activation pattern in this way you can give your brain fresh input rather than relying on the same muscles in the same way you habitually do. The result is often an increase in your range of motion!
Life constantly has us twisting around. Twists literally allow us to see all the beauty around us, not just in front of us. Honor your body when you twist in yoga class. Protect your unique bone structure and allow your twist to reach all the areas of your spine. Similarly, honor yourself when life is twisting you too far in one direction or another. Know yourself. Know your capabilities and limits both physically and in your relationships. Enjoy all the beauty around as you rotate around that incredibly beautiful central axis, your own self.
*Source: Cole, Roger. https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/turning-point
Cover photo: Painting by Thomas Hart Benton