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Bad Yoga #16: If I Twist the Wrong Direction the First Time Then I’ll Hurt Myself?

Bad Yoga #16: If I Twist the Wrong Direction the First Time Then I’ll Hurt Myself?

Our dream came true when one of our readers wrote to us with the most fabulous question:

I’d like to see if you can answer a question for me. I’m currently working on my 500 hour yoga certification. This past weekend one of the teachers, in talking about twisting postures, insisted that twists must be done to the right then left to follow the path of the intestines. She went so far as to say that you are putting your students digestive health at serious risk to do twists left then right. This just doesn’t seem likely to me. So please, if you can answer this question; does it matter which direction twisting postures are performed? I’m working on a scientific based workshop about asanas and would love to have some data regarding twists.

Thank you for your help,
Bruce Peterson

Great question and people are now sending them to us for answers. Happy happy day!!!!! (um, please do this more.) Ok, well, here’s our answer. Feel free to let us know how you think we did. Thanks again Bruce!

colonBe aware that systems of medicine that are explicitly based on the use of energy flowing through the body (i.e., acupuncture, ayurveda, etc.) may be more supportive of what your teacher is suggesting. Some people use yoga in this kind of therapeutic way. We don’t (but do support other beneficial aspects of yoga), so we’re going to keep our explanation in the context of the physiology we do refer to in SMARTerYoga™. This is partly the difficulty of culturally appropriating spiritual/esoteric practices like yoga and trying to apply them to a different demographic.

  1. Right to left is the direction in which the colon is structured and it moves its contents along this pathway. So, that’s accurate, so far….
  2. The enteric nervous system is very sensitive and responsive to touch. So, if you were doing visceral massage I would go with what’s typically been taught and massage right to left in order to help facilitate the movement described above. But, twists are not massage and do not provide the direct pressure that a massage would.
  3. Let’s put “yoga advice” in the context of daily living. If the advice you were given is true then you should be worried of ever having to spontaneously rotate your trunk to the left. This happens countless times in a day. Imagine having dropped something on the left and you pick it up with your right hand. Does that mean you now have to develop an OCD-like ritual to compensate for twisting “against your colon?” Doesn’t seem functional for easy living.
  4. Never have we read anything in movement literature that suggests otherwise. Maybe double check by looking in Lexus-Nexus or PubMed articles? Or collect data by working with students/private clients and document them as case studies.
  5. Neuroscience! The human brain is bilaterally organized, meaning we have a right and left hemisphere that is connected by the corpus callosum. When these two halves of the brain control our limbs they do so contralaterally. Left brain is in charge of the right side of the body and right brain is in charge of left side of the body. Guaranteed, if you google, “trunk rotation and bilateral organization of the brain,” you will find a plethora of scientific and movement oriented literature that suggests crossing our midlines is necessary for optimal brain function. I highly doubt that our brains and bodies would be constructed in this way if we had to be so careful about, what is to most of us, casual and unconscious movement. If, having been born structurally normal, I shouldn’t have to care about which direction and order I rotate my trunk. It does’t make evolutionary sense and it flies in the face of the principle of homeostasis.

Bad Yoga Tip #8: Turning Your Head Makes Your Twist Bigger

There’s a few things to be commented on in this pic. Hmmm…

Often in yoga classes we are directed to turn the head in the opposite direction of the knees to “increase the twist.”   But it may be more important to track the subtle sensations and know from where we are twisting than be concerned about how far we can go.  Sometimes turning the head can make us lose track of those sensations. Yoga provides an opportunity for self-exploration that can be more valuable than shape making.  So let us explore what’s going and what contributes to what we feel.

Turning your head, with the eyes closed, can enhance sensations coming from the muscles, especially if, for one instance,  the sternocleidomastoids are tight.  Turning the head may or may not increase the twist throughout the spine as much as one feels.  Muscles, like the scalenes, and fascia connect the skull and the spine and when one rotates the head the cervical vertebrae move as well (the scalenes also attach to the top 2 ribs and you should be able to sense what kind of effect turning your head has on them).  Depending on your flexibility in these muscles and connective tissue this movement can feel small or large. Also, if your eyes are open visual stimulus may override what you’ve been feeling and your gaze may lead you to believe that your head and other parts of your body may be facing that same direction.  You may feel sensations from your sensory organs that you’re turning to a satisfactory degree to yourself or your teacher, but this still does not mean that you are increasing the distribution of the twist “evenly” throughout the entire spine.  How well you propriocept (the nervous system function that gives us the ability to sense our bodies from within) is what can trick you into believing that turning your head is actually increasing your twist in a way that is more significant than you would feel.  You might be surprised how this head turning action can fool you into skipping over movement in the thoracic spine or other places.

Even now while sitting at your desk if you twisted to one side and used your head with the eyes closed you might be very surprised to see where the rest of your body is in space if you lined up your nose with your sternum and then opened the eyes.  This information isn’t here to suggest that you need to exploit more movement in the spine to go farther.  The structures that make up the spine influence the varying degrees of flexibility and movement available along it and this varies from person to person. The facet joints, the joints between the vertebrae, are oriented differently in each section of the spine.  In the cervical spine the shape of the facets allows for more rotation, in the thoracic spine the facets allow for more lateral flexion, and in the lumbar spine the facets allow for more flexion and extension.  Because we tend to exploit the rotation available to us in the cervical spine, combined with the visual stimulus of our gaze we may be fooled into feeling that we are in a “full twist” when we are actually just compensating.

You may be using your head to overcompensate for movement you may not have available in the thoracic or lumbar spine.  Compensating in this way may not be great for your cervical spine. Or, in your rush to meet your end goal, you may be skipping over movement you didn’t realize you had in other places that would assist you in performing your twist. This same process of compensation can be applied to backbends, which we will discuss in a later post. Either way, in the name of doing yoga to gain more awareness and refine the connection you have to your body this is evidence that you need to be paying closer attention.

Try the seated twist again, but this time try to track the movement of it throughout your spine starting at the bottom (there may even be slight movement in the sacrum, but whether there should be and how much is another post. If you have questions about this contact us).  As the twist spirals its way up the spine see if there are places in the spine you may not be aware of (consciousness). If so, go back, slow down and then proceed.  This time can you keep track of all that movement in all those places and not lose your sense of it when you turn the head?  If you kept track: Bravo!  You are gaining new ground in creating flexibility, not just in your muscles, but in your nervous system.  If you didn’t:  It’s OK, just accept where you are and try again next time.  This kind of bodily awareness is invaluable for ensuring you can make well-informed and beneficial movement decisions that allow you to maintain a healthy and injury-free practice that can help you to reprogram the body, the nervous system and the mind (brain) to help you live better.

Bad Yoga Tip #7: Twists “Cleanse” and “Wring Out” Your Organs

Wow, this cat twists the pants off of us. Thanks to Zen Master Ziggy:

Fellow yoga teachers, please stop saying that doing twists (whether seated, standing, or lying down) helps to “wring out the organs”.  Some even go as far as to say they should be done as part of cleanses and can rid the organs of toxins, and that when you release from the twist, your organs are “filling with fresh blood”.  While these may be helpful metaphors, they are for the most part not true and can convey a message that yoga teachers have little to no appreciation for the sciences of anatomy and physiology.

1) Generally (if you are contracting your internal and external obliques as you are supposed to) when you rotate your trunk, otherwise known as a “twist”, you are creating intra-abdominal pressure. What the heck does that mean? Your abdominal organs (with the exception of your kidneys and, arguably, part of your spleen) are encased in a sac called your peritoneum and tethered loosely in place by ligaments. Some of these organs are vacuous (like the stomach and intestines) and some are not (like the liver). When you compress the outside of the peritoneum, the organs will glide around and compress a little.  This external movement helps to facilitate an internal movement, which can be helpful in many ways.  Since organs, like so many parts of the body, benefit and function best when moved, twisting can be super helpful for helping out digestion.  Remember when we wrote this post a while back about breathing and digestion (of course you do!), well the same principles apply here.  It’s safe to say that the body does not function optimally in a stagnant state.  So twist and do so knowing that you are helping create movement in your internal organs, but in NO WAY are they “wrung out.”  That is not possible and if that happens to you or inside of you please go to a hospital, because you are going to die. Also, do the organs fill with fresh blood after a trunk rotation? No, they are CONSTANTLY filled with “fresh” (I’m assuming this means oxygenated) blood, because we have these vessels called ARTERIES whose job is to deliver this type of blood constantly from birth to death. And what exactly do they mean by removing “toxins?”  This is a much debated topic in body science, but if they mean that twisting movements can assist in a metabolic process even on the cellular level, we’ll buy that.  Because ALL movement helps to facilitate metabolic processes on just about all levels.

Now none of the above means that you can’t enjoy metaphor and imagery like, “imagine twisting and creating a spiral staircase of your organs.”  That’s ok if that’s how it FEELS to you.  It’s ok if you FEEL like your organs are in a Coney Island Carnival Carousel accompanied by the NYC mermaids.  This is the beauty of a practice like yoga where one can explore and connect to the uncharted territory of the internal landscape. You can FEEL many things that not everybody else does and that experience is valid (Kim hates the “staircase of organs.”  Mel does not mind it. And yet, we coexist.).  But understanding the anatomical reality is a good place to start from when contextualizing, making sense of and sharing that experience with others.

2) Your organs don’t twist around your spine.  For context, imagine lying on the floor with your knees twisting to one side and your head twisting to the other.  Going back to the “feelings” issue: You might feel or be directed to allow “the internal organs to twist around your spine,” BUT they don’t. The peritoneum is ALWAYS in FRONT of the spine… with no exception.  In a different relationship to gravity, such as a seated twist, you may FEEL as if the organs are moving around the spine, especially if you turn your head to the opposite direction than your knees.  Doing so can enhance sensations, because you are playing with proprioception, nervous system functions, and if the muscles on the front of the body are tight then you are feeling them stretch. Don’t confuse feeling muscles stretch, connective tissue move and tracking the subtle spinal sensations for organ movement.

3) As stated above, yes, movement is GOOD for the body.  Therefore, twisting can be really good for improving digestion and relieving acute constipation, gas and other general indigestion.  But it should be noted that not everyone’s guts or enteric nervous system enjoys being so stimulated. Again, you will find exceptions to every rule.  So as long as twisting doesn’t aggravate an already agitated system than feel free to enjoy.  Go forth and twist as much as you want, safely of course (respecting the limitations of your body)!  Because now that you know what’s really going on in the body you have better chances of performing twists with awareness, which opens the door to theREALpossibilities and benefits.