There are physiological benefits to the circulatory system and internal organs, structural benefits to the musculoskeletal system, and focusing benefits to your consciousness.
Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar describes twists as a "squeeze-and-soak" action: The organs are compressed during a twist, pushing out blood filled with metabolic by-products and toxins. When we release the twist, fresh blood flows in, carrying oxygen and the building blocks for tissue healing. So from the physiological standpoint, twists stimulate circulation and have a cleansing and refreshing effect on the torso organs and associated glands.
Days spent sitting at an office desk or in a car causes connective tissues, muscles, tendons and ligaments to shorten, limiting joint mobility. Twisting can help regain flexibility in the spine, as well as in the hips, shoulders and abdomen. Twisting also stretches the muscles in the back, helping to relieve tension and pain.
Yoga twists involve the spine, as well as several major joints, including the hips and shoulders. In fact, full range of motion in spinal rotation is essential to many yoga poses. Unfortunately, many people lose full spinal rotation in the course of living a sedentary lifestyle. Some losses can occur if joints fuse due to trauma, surgery, or arthritis, but most range of motion loss comes from the shortening of soft tissues. If you don't lengthen the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (connective tissues) to their full length at least a few times a week, they will gradually shorten and limit the nearby joint's mobility. In the case of twisting, the limitation is usually in soft tissues around the spine, abdomen, rib cage, and hips. If you regularly practice yoga twists, there are some clear benefits to these same joints and soft tissues. Not only do you maintain the normal length and resilience of the soft tissues, but you also help to maintain the health of the discs and facet joints (the small pair of joints on the back of the spine where each two vertebrae overlap).
To maintain or restore the normal spinal rotation, it is recommended that you practice a simple spinal twist once or twice a day. (Note: If you have a spinal disc injury, consult your health-care provider before practicing twists of any kind.) A variation of the twist Bharadvajasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Bharadvaja) done sitting on a chair is an excellent option because it is so easy to integrate into everyday life.
A flexible spine can help you to go deeper in many foundational yoga poses. Poses that aren't traditionally thought of as twists, such as Revolved Triangle Pose, Side Angle Pose and Half Moon Pose, require strong rotation in the torso as the chest is opened and expanded. Increased strength and flexibility in the obliques from twisting can also help yogis tackle more advanced poses such as Eight-Angle Pose and Side Crane Pose.
For those with spinal impairments, such as a slipped disc, yoga twists should only be attempted under the guidance of a professional. Check with a professional if you are pregnant, or experiencing a peptic ulcer or a hernia. Twists are rendered ineffective if the spine is not elongated properly. The twist should start from the lower back and raise up the spine. The neck should be the last part of the spine to twist, as the neck is the most flexible part of the spine.
Tips for Performing Yoga Twists:
- Twisting motions are more difficult for some than others. Only twist as much as feels comfortable to you. If you perform twisting yoga poses on a regular basis, you will gradually be able to increase your range of motion and the depth of your twists.
- It's important to bring focus to each yoga twist. Before you begin a twist, use your core muscles to center your pelvis and hips. This provides a stable base to balance the spine. Keep your shoulders comfortably back and your posture upright. This is the ideal way to start a twist.
- Begin a twist by slowly inhaling and lengthening your spine. This is important for protecting the spine during the twist. Begin to twist as you exhale slowly, starting from your pelvis and twisting upwards to the neck. With each breath in, gently lengthen your spine further. Picture the spine stretching upward. With each breath out, gently twist a little deeper into the movement. Again, it is important to never twist beyond comfort.
- When you are finished with your twists, lie still on your back for several minutes to allow the benefits to sink in. Allow your muscles to relax. It's the ideal way to end a rejuvenating session of yoga.
- Those who have herniated spinal discs and those at risk of herniating discs should stick with seated twists, as standing twists could cause further damage in these cases.