June 4, 2013

Yoga Twists & Turns: How to Stay Safe. ~ Michaelle Edwards

Be Aware of How Your Spine Moves

Yogis need to take care, as many people are unknowingly damaging their body by doing yoga twists without honoring the spine’s natural structure, which is made of curves—not straight lines.

The spinal column is a dynamic, flexible rod acting as a support structure for our body and nerves. The basic design is four opposing curves: neck, upper back, lower back and tailbone, allowing our trunk to flex, extend and twist.

In positions without these curves, twisting movement becomes difficult, and flexibility comes at the cost of overstretched spinal ligaments, compressed or herniated discs and even compression fractured vertebrae.

While most people are aware that one should avoid yoga twists when there is disc herniation or nerve impingement, many yoga twists require complex body positions that can reverse the curves of the spine, causing damage to an otherwise healthy body.

The human spine consists of 24 vertebrae that vary in size, shape, and function, separated and cushioned by discs which help to create shock absorption to protect our joints as we move, as well as providing a framework to support our nerves.

When we are born, we have a C shape to the spine that consists of one primary curve forwards, which makes it necessary to support a baby’s neck until he gets the muscle actions that create the spinal curves. As he begins to lift his head from the belly down position, extensor muscles in the back body from sacrum to skull, engage and create the secondary backwards curves of the lumbar (lower back) and cervical (neck area).

A sign of aging in the human body is the C shape template returning to the spine. It just makes sense not to engage your spine purposefully in a C shape to accomplish a yoga ‘pose’.

In my work and research to do yoga poses that simulate natural function and avoid injury, I feel there are many yoga twists that simply make no anatomical sense to the spiraling, curving dynamics of our human spine.

Chair sitting with the trunk and legs in a right angle position is wreaking havoc on the general population causing hip problems. This right angle template also permeates yoga asana with poses like staff being considered the ‘mother’ of all seated poses. Anytime we engage the body in the shape of a chair, we lose our spinal curves and challenge our spinal integrity.

The abdominals, trunk muscles and hip flexors shorten which flexes the lumbar spine area automatically; to add a twist to the spine is simply anatomical Russian roulette.

Ask any back doctor or physical therapist, and they will emphasize the importance of keeping the lumbar curve neutral when twisting the body, and never purposefully stretching the ligaments.

Yet that is what is required to do poses like revolved triangle where the goal is to twist the trunk and grab the big toe. To do this pose, one must engage the body in positions that put the spine under stress.

When practicing any pose where one twists with the lumbar spine flat or reversed, there will be strain and over-stretching of the lumbar/sacral ligaments needed to provide hip stabilization, and also the main shock absorbing elements in our spine and hips.

Many delicate nerves exit the spine in the lower back and neck area, innervating our limbs and organs. Ligaments hold our bones together, and when they become loose, the hip joint loses integrity which can lead to hip and groin pain and in some cases; replacements.

We have less sensory nerves in our ligaments and it is difficult to feel the damage occurring when they are over-stretched. Long term sitting or engaging in yoga positions that flatten the lumbar/sacral region is leading to what I have termed the SSS or sagging sacral syndrome.

In other words, you get a flat butt that does not look attractive but even more importantly, lacks the important sacral platform angle needed for efficient and pain free bio-mechanics.

When doing yoga twists, many people complain of pain in the sacral area, because the ligaments holding their spine to the pelvis have become so loose that the nerves are being pulled. All yoga poses should keep the joints stable and not pull on the “stitches” that hold the fabric of our being connected.

Many yoga instructors direct people to keep the navel drawn towards the spine during twists and other poses as a means to protect the back, but this actually creates dangerous compression forces that can undermine spinal function. Hold your navel in and walk around and you will feel how this action does not contribute to our natural design and function.

The anterior, or front side of the spinal discs and vertebrae are compressed by performing twists while tightening the abdominals strongly by pulling our belly inwards.

This action causes the lumbar curve to compress and flatten, and pushing the twist deeper in this position can damage the vertebrae and disks of the spine.

So any twisting we do needs to consider keeping the abdominal area relaxed and lengthened—not short and pulled in.

Always consider the integrity of the spine when attempting to do a yoga pose and try to avoid the quest to do the ‘pose.’ Use discernment when doing yoga. Ask questions and listen to your body.

What is the function and purpose of the pose? Will this pose contribute to real life function and does it allow my body to move naturally?

Keep It Simple

We do not need to be ‘consumers,’ doing endless variations of yoga twists. Keep the twists simple by bending the knees to prevent any lumbar compression created when both legs are straightened.

Make sure the pelvis is level; the rib cage and center of ear are aligned over the hips, and avoid going too far.

It is not necessary to go to extreme levels of twisting, and in fact you may actually be doing more harm than good by trying to get to the next level of twists.

Flexibility can be a liability when we lose the integrity of our hip joints by twisting with the lumbar spine flat. The numbers of hip replacements in long-time yogis are increasing, and one of the main culprits is twisting without the lumbar/sacral curve intact. Certainly these surgeries raise a red flag in the biomechanics of yoga asana that need to be seriously evaluated and discussed.

A good way to ‘test’ the value of a pose is to see if you can take a deep breath that allows the rib cage to expand and the diaphragm to descend down.

If you cannot inhale with ease, you are enlisting the flexors in your body to become dominant which will bring you forward and speed up the aging process.

You should never see your vertebrae protruding out the back body in any pose. One of the signs of aging is a protruding backbone, so for real-life function and joint longevity, the deeper you can keep your spine in your body, the healthier you will be.

Practice: YogAlign Spine Aligner

The YogAlign spine aligner twist is done by sitting on the floor or on the edge of a chair allowing for more comfortable natural spine alignment.

It is very important that the pelvis is level, and one maintains the lumbar/sacral tilt allowing the thoracic part of the spine to do the twisting and rotating.

When people have tight abdominals and hip flexors, it is vitally important that the pelvis be elevated above the knees by sitting on the edge of a bench or chair.

Consider always that the most important ‘pose’ we do all day should be an innate and naturally aligned posture. If a yoga pose can help you to enlist your natural posture forces, there is value and certainly a good outcome.

It is wise for all practitioners to always consider the physiology of the spine before attempting to perform yoga poses that may actually cause more harm than good.

Yoga twists to avoid if you want to protect the integrity of your spine:

Ardha Matsyendrasana  (Half lord of the fishes)
Marichyasana III (Sages pose)
Pasasana (Noose pose)
Janu Sirsasana (Head to knee forward bend with twist)
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved triangle pose)
Parivrtta ardha Chandrasana  (Revolved half moon pose)


Michaelle Edwards is a licensed massage therapist, yoga teacher, musician, and postural therapist living on Kauai. She invented a new painless way to do Yoga, fitness, self-massage and stretching called YogAlign that incorporates natural spine alignment and breath work to create good posture from the inside out. She is devoted to giving people the tools to heal themselves. Michaelle has a new book/DVD combo called YogAlign—Pain-free Yoga From Your Inner Core available at her website: YogAlign.com



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Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Bryonie Wise


{Photo: via Yogaaa on Pinterest}

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