Ask the Yogi: Twists

Ask The Yogi

Twists and Calmness

Question: Why do twists, which are often challenging postures, often have such a calming effect?

Answer:  This question can be answered at many levels, which ultimately all flow together, linking physiological and anatomical details to amazing sensations of wholeness and integration.

The muscular-skeletal system provides structural stability and controlled mobility, which allow you to stand erect (rather than collapsing like a rag doll) and protect vulnerable internal organs.  Most joints and other mobile parts of your body can either bend or twist, and the few areas that can both bend and twist are fairly vulnerable to injury.  More specifically, your lumbar spine (lower back) is good at bending, your thoracic spine (chest) is good at twisting, and your cervical spine (neck) is good at both, and thus deserving of special care.

When you do a seated spinal twist, begin by grounding through both sitting bones (the ischial tuberosities at the base of your pelvis) and then move the twist up your spine, so that you get a little bit of twisting through the lumbar, more through the thoracic, and then finish by turning your neck, head, and eyes.  This sequence will protect your cervical spine and it will also help you to feel integrated as your head follows your heart.  Then, as you gain a new perspective by looking back over your shoulder, you will be able to open to that new perspective from a stable and grounded base.  Any expectations that are a product of only looking in one direction will drop away and you can open yourself to the flow of forms and sensations, all of which can be calming at many levels.

The central nervous system includes your brain and spinal cord, which runs through and is protected by the vertebrae that constitute your spine (the spinal column).  Most of the nerves that carry information to and from various parts from your body extend out from your spinal cord.  When you ground, lengthen, and then twist your spine, you subtly re-align your vertebrae, thus relieving unnecessary pressure on those nerves.

Sensations we perceive as pain or discomfort are often signals, transmitted by our nervous system, that some part of our body is troubled.  Twists can often relieve those troubles, and therefore allow our nervous system to relax.  When you twist, you typically expand one side while compressing the other, reverse the sides, and then (hopefully) pause and allow yourself to absorb the effects of the twist.  This process of compressing and releasing squeezes the toxins out of your organs and muscles and then allows fresh blood and nutrients to flow into them, improving their health and making it possible for them to function more smoothly.

Many yogis know that, when done with awareness, deliberately tensing the body can induce greater relaxation when the tension is released; this is why a brief  practice of the rigid corpse posture can sometimes help beginners really relax into savasana.  Twists, by squeezing and then releasing, squeezing and then releasing, may work in the same way.  Not only do they stretch potentially tight or mis-aligned parts of the body, they also induce them to relax.

Finally, there are some very specific physiological and anatomical reasons why spinal twists may be especially calming to the nervous system.  Anatomy texts divide your nervous system into voluntary and autonomic components.  The autonomic nervous system keeps your body working beyond your minds control, although yogis know how strongly our thoughts and actions can affect the autonomic nervous system.  This autonomic nervous system includes two (possibly more) distinct sets of nerves, known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  Twists can affect both, in positive and calming ways.

The sympathetic nervous system speeds your heart rate, it releases glucose into your system, and it opens up the bronchiole passages to allow you to bring in more air with each breath.  It has gotten something of a bad reputation, because it is stimulated by stress and its extreme arousal includes a rush of adrenaline that results in the fight or flight response; however, the sympathetic nervous system can also (very necessarily) get you ready for action in a more calm way.  Adrenaline (as well as cortisol, which has come to be known as a stress hormone) are secreted by your adrenal glands, which are located just above your kidneys.  Because of their location near the mid-line of your body, the adrenal glands are especially likely to be gently squeezed out and reinvigorated by twists, so they will function more efficiently and only release adrenaline and other stress-related hormones when necessary.

The parasympathetic nervous system regulates various bodily functions, such as digestion, under non-active circumstances; it also slows the heart rate and thus has a calming effect.  Much of the information of the parasympathetic nervous system is transmitted through what is called the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of your brain down your spine.  Thus spinal twists should gently stimulate the vagus nerve, allowing it and the calming parasympathetic nervous system to work more efficiently.

Twists also help the alignment of your spine and thus calm the nervous system by relaxing nerves, specifically:
1) There are many many joints in the spine (3 between most pairs of vertebrae) and many many many ligaments, which are highly ennervated.   With good alignment the ligaments and their many nerves relax.
2) Alignment relieves excess pressure on the many spinal nerves (four branches between most pair of vertebrae).

On a psychological level, twists are calming because they help us to literally see things from a new perspective and because they offer a feeling of reduced stress upon completion in the area that was receiving the twist.  The nervous system interprets this decrease in less stress as a “safe” situation that promotes further physical release throughout the whole body.

Answered by Michelle Hegmon, with input from Sarv Varta and Jeff Martens.All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.