One of main benefits of twisting yoga postures is the lengthening and strengthening the muscles along either side of the spine, creating space and a greater range of motion (ROM) between the vertebrae. Strengthening while lengthening these muscles aids in the over all health of your spine.
Our nerves and nerve roots stem from the spinal cord and disperse throughout the body, and when the vertebrae are “compressed,” they impinge on the nerves and nerve roots causing pain. Strengthening your spinal muscles by engaging in eccentric contraction (when the muscles are lengthening while contracted) versus concentric contraction (shortening of the muscles during contraction) during twisted poses, gives you the ability to create a stable space for the nerves to extend out from the spinal column between the vertebrae.
Here are tips on how to strengthen while lengthening the spinal muscles in twisting poses during your yoga asana practice.
#1: Hug your shoulder blades onto the rib cage.
During deep twists, Parivrtta Utkatasana (Twisted Chair Pose) and Parivrtta Anjaneyasana (Twisting Crescent Lunge).
Below is a image of Twisting Crescent Lunge with shoulders caving forward (Figure 1) and shoulders integrated and stacked (Figure 2).
In Figure 1, note when the shoulder blades are rounded forward the spine curves forward in a spinal flexion (very common with newer students). This flexion of the spine may actually compress the lateral and the anterior aspects of the spine, shortening the muscles between the transverse processes (the boney protrusions on either side of the spine that your spinal muscles attach to). This will inhibit the actual depth in which the spine can twist and possibly create it’s own impingement on the nerves and nerve roots.
In Figure 2, note how by hugging the shoulder blades into the rib cage it lengthens the spine, creating more space in between the vertebra. This action allows for a deeper twist, lengthening the muscles along the spine. By hugging the shoulder blades into the body you’ll activate the muscles on each side of the spine into an eccentric contraction. Notice how much the spine has lengthened.
#2: Uddiyana Bandha (Belly Lock)
Uddiyana bandha supports and stabilizes your lumbar spine, protecting your lower back from any injury and preventing the collapse of the vertebrae that can press against the spinal nerve roots. Using uddiyana bandha during twists also give space of the lumbar vertebrae during deep twisting postures.
Similar to Twisting Chair Pose, you’ll see here in Revolved Crescent Lunge, when you pull your shoulder blades into the rib cage it telescopes the rib cage away from the pelvis, lengthening the waist, allowing space for a deeper uddiyana bandha which supports the lumbar spine. The twist is actually taking place in the vertebrae of the spine rather than causing a forward curvature/flexion of the spine.
#3: Reach out through the crown of your head
Yoga works both the physical body and the energetic (subtle) body. The final step to truly strengthen while lengthening the spine muscles in a twisting posture is to imagine there are two opposing magnets, one at your head and one at your tailbone.
When go into your deep twisting posture, the magnets will repel from one another, causing the crown of your head to move away from your tailbone. You’ll feel your spine get longer. This length in the spine is called eccentric contraction. Your spinal muscles are actually working by lengthening AND strengthening simultaneously.
By strengthening your spinal muscles while they are lengthening, you actually have the ability to create more space between each vertebra and decrease the chance of impingement of the spinal nerves and nerve roots.
You also may be able to make yourself taller – and I’m living proof of that. At 54 years of age I have actually grown ¼ inch! And was told that my spine “is much younger than my age” by the osteopath who took my bone density test (a test every woman should have once they reach the wonderful age of 50). I took his comment as a compliment and give all the credit to the healing effects of yoga.
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