by guest blogger Holly Walck, devoted Iyengar yoga student and teacher
Once, while driving, I reached into the backseat back directly behind me, and into my yoga bag in which I had stashed some almonds. My immediate craving was satisfied, but my lower back suffered as a result--it was in spasm for the next several days, revolting over the extreme position I had imposed upon it.
After the spasm subsided and I started my regular yoga practice again, I discovered how essential twisting postures were for the health of my back. If we were trees, our spines would be the trunk: our arms stretch up and out from its top like branches, reaching and waving toward space, while our legs grow down from its base, stabilizing us into the firm earth below our feet.
Forward and backward bends strengthen and stretch the muscles that support both the front and back of the spine and twisting poses make those precious muscles more intelligent. As a bonus, twists cleanse the liver and kidneys. They strengthen the digestive system and give the body a much-needed wringing out after the heavier meals of winter and the rainy days of early Spring.
Twists are the great neutralizers, bringing us into balance from front to back, from left to right, from the inside out. Enjoy the squeezing, soaking, wringing, and rinsing action this purifying family of poses offers in the sequence that follows, and say good-bye to winter and hello to spring!
1) Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), heels on blocks
- Start by kneeling on your mat with your inner upper arms in line with your inner wrists.
- Exhale and raise your knees up off the floor and straighten your legs, placing your feet behind your hands and your heels at the edge of the blocks.
- Press your palms firmly down and lift your inner arms well up, continuing that lengthening action all the way up your spine.
- Keep your arms fully extended and lift your shins, knees, and thighs up while pressing your heels down into the blocks.
- Observe the effect that keeping the heels lifted has on the abdominal muscles. Try the pose off the blocks, then on the blocks to feel the difference.
- Exhale, lower your knees back to the floor, and come down.
2) Intense Side Stretch/Revolved Triangle (Parsvottanasana/Parivrtta Trikonasana), hands on block
- Start at the top of your mat in Mountain Pose. Place your hands on your waist and step back 3½ to 4 feet with your left foot, placing your foot down with your toes turned out slightly.
- Inhale and raise your chin up, move your back ribs into your trunk, and maintain their position as you exhale and extend forward over your front leg and place your hands down on the floor under your shoulders. As your legs, buttocks, and spinal muscles lengthen, your spine will become parallel to the floor. For now, place your hands on blocks or a chair seat. This is Intense Side Stretch (pictured above).
- Before revolving into Revolved Triangle (pictured above), stretch both legs to their maximum by pressing down into the soles of the feet and the heels, and make the hips compact by pulling both of your hips in towards one another.
- Now draw the right outer thigh up and away from the floor as you take the left side of the torso down towards the floor, placing your left hand on a block and your right hand on your waist. Pause here, inhale, and, with an exhalation, revolve the right side of your abdomen and chest up towards the ceiling.
- Observe that your whole left side is turning towards your right side, from the waist to the ribs all the way to the back of your left ear.
- To come out of the pose, reach back into your left heel, while maintaining firmness in the hips, stretch up through your right arm and pull yourself back up to Intense Side Stretch. Turn back to the center and jump your legs back together, coming up into Mountain Pose.
3) Bharadvaja's Twist (Bharadvajasana I), seated on a block, block under the hand
- Sit on the block with your legs stretched straight out in front of you and, with an exhalation, swing your legs to the left, placing the feet outside the left hip so that the inner right arch is a bed for the top of the left foot. Keep the knees as close together as possible and see that the right knee lines up with the right hip.
- Keep the outer left shin, the ankle, and the little toe down on the floor and, with your next exhalation, revolve your trunk to the right, turning the right side of the abdomen, chest, ears, and temples more and more to the right, placing your right hand on a block behind you.
- Observe that the more you take your hand toward your left buttock, the deeper you twist.
- Exhale and come back to the center, releasing the twist from the temples, ears, chest, and finally, the abdomen.
- Sit on the block with your legs stretched straight out in front of you. Bend your right knee and place your foot on the floor, bringing your calf and the back of your thigh together. Your right heel should be in line with your right buttock bone and as close to it as possible.
- With an inhalation, stretch your left arm up as in Overhead Arm Stretch and lengthen your left side up towards your hand. As you exhale, bend your left elbow and hook the back of your left upper arm outside your right thigh and take your right hand onto a block behind you.
- Revolve the right side of your abdomen and chest away from your right thigh, and turn the left waist, ribs, and chest towards your right leg.
- Observe that the more you press your arm into your leg and your leg into your arm, the more your spine lifts and turns.
- With an exhalation come back to the center, releasing the twist from the top down as you did in Bharadvaja's Twist.
5) Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), block under sacrum, block under heels
- Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Press your feet and the tops of your shoulders down and raise the backs of your thighs, your buttocks, and your back ribs up and away from the floor.
- Place the block underneath your sacrum, vertically in line with your spine. (If placing the block this way causes pain in your lower back or sacrum, try turning the block sideways on its high side. If this doesn't help, switch the block onto its wide side.)
- Now, one by one, extend your legs and take your heels onto the second block so that they are in line with your buttock bones.
- Turn your upper arms from the inside out, as you would in Mountain Pose and press the backs of your upper arms down as you bring the bottom of your sternum closer to your face.
- Observe the opening this pose gives to the front of your spine, and how fully expanded your lungs are now.
- To come out, lift the buttocks up and turn the block on to its low, flat side. Place the back of your pelvis on the block and let your lower spinal muscles spread laterally. After a few breaths, take the block out and bring your back to the floor. Turn over onto your side and come up.
Holly Walck is a devoted student of Iyengar Yoga and a junior intermediate certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. Learn more at www.yogawithholly.com.
All photos by Jessica Cuttic.
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