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Yoga Poses with a Twist

Yoga twists are a group of yoga postures that focus on rotating your torso. Yoga twists can be used as a warm up, peak postures, counterposes, and therapeutically.

Often more dynamic twists are practiced with or after forward bends and hip openers while restorative twists are effective to practice after backbends.

In this blog we’ll explore:

  • How to best practice yoga twists

  • Breathing in twists

  • Warming up with twists

  • Dynamic and deep twists

  • Gentle restorative twists

  • What to watch out for when doing twists

yoga poses with twists

What is a Yoga Twist and How Can You Best Practice Them?

Yoga twists are focused on rotating your torso in one direction to create spinal rotation.

Our spine is made up of the lumbar spine that is located in the lower part of our back and the thoracic spine that is located in the upper part of our back. The thoracic spine and upper back have more mobility to twist from side to side than the lumbar spine and lower back.

Therefore, when you practice yoga twists it’s useful to focus on first lengthening up through your lower back and then focusing on twisting from your thoracic spine, chest, and upper back. This will help ensure that you twist safely and effectively during your yoga practice.

The abdominals are the core muscles that enable you to rotate and move your spine for a yoga twist. While the obliques—located at the sides of your core—support rotation of your spine and allow you to actively turn your torso to one side.

By encouraging rotation and movement in your spine you can help facilitate circulation around your discs and vertebrae. You can find out more about the functional anatomy of twisting in Ray Long’s book, The Key Muscles of Yoga.

Breathing in Twists

You might have noticed that the more challenging you find a particular yoga posture the more difficult it is to breathe slowly and deeply in that yoga pose.

Since breathing is an important aspect of yoga, see if you can bring more awareness and focus to your breathing when practicing challenging physical postures like deep twists.

When you practice yoga poses with twists your ribcage becomes more contracted and your spine has the tendency to shorten. This means that the deeper the spinal twist is, the more difficult it is to breathe fully.

To help counteract this natural tendency of your breath to become shorter and shallower in twists it can be helpful to actively focus on allowing your spine to lengthen and breath to slow down and deepen when practicing yoga twists.

If you notice that it is still very difficult to breathe in certain yoga twist try coming less deep into the posture so that you can still have a flowing breath while in the posture.

Over time, as the pose becomes more comfortable you can then explore moving a bit deeper into the posture while still breathing steadily.

Want to explore more about breathing in yoga twists? Practice along with my 30 minute vinyasa yoga practice focused on your breathing in twists.

Warming Up With Gentle Twists

Before attempting any of the deeper yoga twists it’s a good idea to make sure you first warm up your body and spine.

You can do this by actively moving in and out of some gentle twists with the support from your core. This is known as dynamic stretching and makes a great warm up when starting your yoga practice.

(1) Parivritta Sukhasana | Seated Twist in Easy Pose

Come to a cross-legged position, known as Easy Pose or Sukhasana.

Use your inhale to reach your arms up high overhead and at the same time see if you can really lengthen up through your spine. On the exhale, start to twist to the right and if you can actively use your abdominal muscles and obliques as your turn your chest to the right.

You can drop your left hand to your right knee and bring your right hand behind your right hip as you twist to the right side.

Inhale, come back through the middle, reaching your arms up high, and lengthening up through your spine. Exhale, twisting now to the left side and bringing your right hand to your left knee.

Repeating this several times to each side. Seeing if you can link your movement with your breath.

See if you can keep each of these twists quite nice and light. Not going to your maximum but just getting a little bit of mobility and length here through the spine as you create heat in your body.

yoga twists

Dynamic and Deep Twists

After you’ve warmed up your body by a series of sun salutations and/or some gentle twists you can start to explore some more active and deeper twists that you’ll come across in vinyasa yoga.

Whatever sort of twist your practicing in a flowing, vinyasa practice it’s important to keep focused on your breathing and to understand the mechanics of twisting yoga poses. Since the deeper the twist and more challenging it is the greater the tendency will be to hold your breath.

So just like explained above, see if you can use your inhale to really lengthen up through your spine and lower back. And then on the exhale focus on twisting your thoracic spine and upper body.

Understanding where your shoulders are in space during the twists will also help you get the most out of a deeper twist.

For example, if you are twisting your torso to the right you will be able to deepen your twist by bringing your left shoulder forward (i.e. to the right when twisting to the right) and your right shoulder back (i.e. towards the back of your mat, as if you’re turning to look back behind you).

We’ll explore these specific actions in three different yoga poses. You can also choose to practice along to my free guided video focused on twists in vinyasa yoga.

(1) Revolved Chair Pose | Parivritta Utkatasana

The Revolved Chair Pose—also known as Parivritta Utkatasana—is a great standing yoga standing twist to practice in a yoga flow.

You can bring your feet together, or slightly apart. Draw the weight back towards your heels as you sink your hips down and back, and bring your palms together. Use your inhale to lengthen up through your spine and lower back. And then exhale as you use your core muscles to twist your chest and upper torso to the right.

You can choose how deep you want to twist, while still being able to maintain a soft and steady breath. The bottom elbow could hover when twisting less deeply, or you could drop the left elbow to the right thigh to deepen the twist.

If your left elbow is on your right thigh you can also actively work on bringing your left shoulder over to the right and right shoulder back. Pressing the palms together and you’re drawing your elbows wide apart.

Stay a few steady breaths.

And then use your next exhale to release the twist and come back through the center. Inhale, as you lengthen in the middle and exhale as you twist to the left side. Again you’re trying to find that rotation in your chest, upper back and thoracic spine.

Twists in yoga

(2) Revolved Side Angle Pose | Parivritta Parsvakonasana

The beauty with the Reverse Side Angle Pose is that you can choose how deep you want to twist and tailor the posture to what feels good for your body and breath on a given day.

Start with your back knee on the ground to get the best position in the twist. Use your inhale to lengthen through your spine, and exhale to twist deeply to the side.

Like in the Revolved Chair Pose, you can bring your palm together and either have your bottom elbow hovering above your leg or resting on your thigh.

See if you can actively press your palms together and elbows apart, as you keep breathing in slowly through your nose. Option, if you like, to extend your back leg.

Focusing as best as you can particularly on lengthening the start of your inhale to allow both the inhale and exhale to be long and deep.

yoga lunge twist

(3) Revolved Wide Legged Forward Fold | Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana

The Revolved Wide Legged Forward Fold Pose allows you to work on flexibility of your hamstrings, hips and shoulders while strengthening your core in the twist. The focus here on lengthening the spine is a good habit to build and use for other yoga twists.

Start by having the legs wide to the side and folding half way forward from the hips. Engage your abdomen and legs as you reach your head and spine forward.

Bring your left fingertips down under the left shoulder. If you want extra height or space to twist, you could either bend the knees or place the left hand on a block.

When you’re ready to add the twist, place the right hand on your right hip and start to rotate your chest and right shoulder up towards the ceiling. From here you can choose to reach your right arm up and really stack your shoulders as you keep your hips square.

Again we’re using the same principle here that you're lengthening through the spine and lower back. Using this length as an aid to help you breathe in the twist. As you stay here for around five long and steady breaths.

And then exhaling you can bring that right hand down and repeat on the other side.

yoga standing twists

(4) Seated Half Spinal Twist Pose | Ardha Matsyendrasana

For the Seated Half Spinal Twist Pose your hips stay heavy in the ground. This can allow you to potentially twist a little deeper in the pose if that feels ok for your hips and back.

Start by sitting with both legs out in front of you. Then bend your right knee and step the right goot over the left leg. Ground down through your hips and right foot as you lengthen up through your spine.

Wrap your left arm around your right knee and see if you can lean your upper body towards your right knee. You could hold the right knee just with the left hand or wrap the left arm a little further around the right leg.

Inhale, as you lift up the right arm and lengthen once more through the spine. Exhale, as you bring your right hand behind (but not too far away) from your right hip.

Take your time to explore the best position for your right hand. If your right hand is a little bit far over to the right side of your mat it won’t give you enough space to twist to the right with your upper body, chest, and shoulders.

So if you need, you can adjust the position of your right hand and bring it a little back towards your right hip.

If you come on the fingertips on the right hand it will give a bit more space versus being on the palm. Allowing you to lengthen up a little bit higher through the lower back and draw your right shoulder back.

Lengthen up on the inhale, and then exhale twist to the right and bring your right shoulder back.

To deepen the twist you could experiment with bringing your left shoulder a little forward. So when I say forward, I mean towards your right knee. This will give you even more space to bring your right shoulder back and thoracic spine / upper back to the right.

The neck can be long, the chin can be a little tucked here. Staying here for five active breaths.

So with every inhale you can be really lengthening upwards through your spine and then with the exhale you might be exploring a little bit more twisting to the right. Staying here one more breath.

Then slowly exhale and release, you can extend the right leg and we'll do the same thing on the opposite side.

yoga seated twist pose

Restorative Yoga Twists

Restorative yoga twists make great counterposes after backbends. Since they are more gentle than some of the deeper twists they can be useful to include right at the beginning or end of a dynamic yoga practice.

Often restorative twists can be useful to ease any tension in your back that you might experience from long periods of sitting or standing.

Why restorative twists: counterposes, ease tension in back or after long periods sitting/standing, end or beginning of practice.

To allow these twists to have a more gentle quality you can ease your body slowly into the posture without actively engaging your core or rotating your upper body to one side.

(1) Thread the Needle Pose | Parsva Balasana

Start by coming to your hands and knees. From here, start to thread your right arm through the left. Dropping your right shoulder and right side of the head down.

Option to keep your left arm bent under your left shoulder or to extend your left arm out in front.

You can keep your hips and lower back relatively straight here and focus on dropping the weight down of your right shoulder and right side of the head towards the ground.

If it doesn’t feel comfortable to bring your right shoulder down to the ground you could place your right forearm down instead and keep your right shoulder lifted.

Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths and then slowly come out and repeat the other side.

yoga twist pose

Supine Spinal Twist Pose | Supta Matsyendrasana

This final Supine Spinal Twist Pose is a great way to finish off a gentle or more dynamic yoga practice.

Come to lie on your back. Hug your right knee into your chest with the help of your hands and extend your left leg long out in front of you.

From here start to guide your right knee over to the left with the help of your left hand. You can keep your left hand heavy on the outside of your right thigh and reach your left arm out to the left. Option if you like to also turn your head to the left.

If the version with just one knee bent doesn’t feel comfortable you can choose to do this posture with both knees bent and moving over to one side.

Stay here for at least 10 breaths with your eyes closed and body heavy. And then slowly release and switch over to the other side.

restorative yoga twists

What to Watch Out for When Practicing Twists

Since twists are focused on rotating the spine, it’s important to practice these with caution if you have backpain.

Usually if you have mild backpain or tension it will feel relieving to practice some of the gentler twists. But if you have chronic or reoccurring backpain make sure you check with a physiotherapist or doctor before attempting even the restorative twists.

Another thing to watch out for when practicing twists is when you are pregnant. Usually its best to avoid the deeper twists when pregnant and check with a qualified teacher for alternative postures.

Also, deeper twists—like most other active yoga postures—are best done on an empty stomach. So try to avoid practicing these postures right after a heavy meal.

If you’re looking for a shorter and gentler yoga sequence focused on twists you could try this 5 minute hatha yoga practice.

Happy practicing!

💛 Irene

vinyasa krama yoga asana

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