The Benefits of Twists: 5 Great Twisting Yoga Postures for a More Resilient Low Back

Twists don’t have to tie you up in knots! In this blog post, we review the anatomy of twisting yoga postures and discuss the dangers that people fear from twists (and the scientific literature around that danger). We also suggest five yoga twists that can be helpful for your yoga practice. Finally, we cover the many benefits of twists (both real and imagined). If you’re not into the anatomy portion, feel free to jump to the numbered twists below.

What Is A Yoga Twist (Anatomically Speaking)?

Twists are ubiquitous in most yoga practices. A yoga twist is a pose in which there is rotation of the torso. Rotation of the torso changes the relationship of each vertebra to the vertebra above and below through the combined action of a series of muscles.

Your vertebral column does not rotate in a uniform manner, so the change in relationship won’t be uniform but will depend on several variables. Some areas, such as the cervical and thoracic sections, have more mobility in rotation. Others, such as the lumbar region, have less mobility. The degree of muscle action in twisting is complicated and varies depending on several factors. The vertebral position (neutral, lateral bend, flexion, or extension), body position (sitting, standing, or supine), level of physical effort, and degree of resistance to the yoga twist each make a difference.

The main muscle of spinal rotation is the internal oblique on the ipsilateral side, which is the side corresponding to the direction of the twist. For example, when you twist toward your right side, the internal oblique on the right side is the primary muscle that is responsible for creating this movement. Other muscles on the ipsilateral side that contribute to rotation are the quadratus lumborum, psoas, and iliocostalis. On the contralateral (opposite side), the external oblique assists in rotation.

Who Can Benefit the Greatest From Yoga Twists?

In the past, there was believed to be a link between habitual twisting or trunk rotation and chronic lower back pain. However, a literature review of the topic reveals that twisting in yoga is not a statistically significant factor in lower back pain. It is likely that the previous studies that suggested a causal link were actually seeing the association between bending or bending combined with twisting rather than twisting in yoga alone.

It is interesting that those suffering from lower back pain have reduced recruitment of their internal oblique muscles during trunk rotation. So it may be that one way to reduce lower back pain is to strengthen the internal oblique muscle through regular, controlled twisting with the torso upright. Yoga provides a number of different options for twists, ranging from gentle to vigorous, depending on your own body’s needs.

Do Yoga Twists Really Detox the Body?

Your yoga practice can benefit your health in many ways. Regular twists can promote a healthy lower back. Incorporating these poses into your daily practice can offer you a greater sense of ease, especially if you sit at a desk, or are on your feet for long periods of time.

Although there is ample evidence that twisting can strengthen some of the muscles that promote lower back health, there are many claims about twisting that can be debunked. For example, twists do not “detox” the body. Your liver and kidneys do that. Twists do not improve circulation to the digestive tract, promoting digestion or a generalized “healing.” There is no evidence to support that claim and the digestive tract is already well vascularized.

There is evidence that having a regular yoga practice can benefit those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The mechanism through which this works is likely through increased vagal tone, which promotes digestive functions. Yoga has been shown to increase vagal tone (parasympathetic activity), which can help IBS patients, as well as those suffering from epilepsy, depression, and more. These benefits are seen due to the calming effect that yoga has on your nervous system, not on specific actions in twists. Likewise, they are benefits that help to reduce the presence and intensity of symptoms, which is certainly a benefit. However, reducing symptoms is not the same thing as curing a disease.

Recommended Twisting Postures for Your Yoga Practice

Here are 5 twisting yoga postures that you might find beneficial to your overall health. Some are suitable for beginners, some are more challenging, so pick the ones that work for your body!

1. Restorative Yoga Twist        A person doing a restorative yoga twist over a bolster

This variation is accessible and beneficial to most people, and a great pose to start with.

  1. To set up, use a yoga bolster (or a small pile of pillows if you don’t have a bolster).
  2. Sit alongside the bolster with your bottom thigh and hip in contact with the bolster.
  3. Now turn your torso toward the bolster with one hand on either side.
  4. Take a deep breath, and then lower your torso down onto the bolster with your head facing in the same direction as your knees.
  5. Stay here for 3-6 minutes.
  6. Repeat this with the bolster on your other side.

2. Jathara Parivrttanasana (Revolved Belly Pose)                    A woman doing a supine spinal yoga twist

This is also a gentle twist.

  1. Lie flat on your back and draw your knees in towards your chest.
  2. On an exhalation, lower your legs over to the right side, working to maintain a 90-degree angle at your hips if possible.
  3. Extend your arms out to either side, softening as much as you can around the sides of your waist and your ribcage. It’s ok if your opposite shoulder is not in contact with the ground.
  4. Your head can remain neutral and face the ceiling, or you can turn your head away from the direction of your legs.
  5. Hold for about 15 breaths.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

3. Parvrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)        A woman doing the yoga twist Parvrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) 

This is a more active pose than the previous two.

  1. Begin standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) on one end of your mat.
  2. Step your left foot toward the back of your mat, making sure that the left foot stays on the left side of the mat, and the right foot on the right side of the mat. This will help to ensure proper hip placement for the twist.
  3. Keeping your spine long and extended, bring your left hand down to a block or the floor and open your twist out to the right side, extending your right arm toward the ceiling.
  4. Try to keep your front leg straight, and the front hip reaching toward the back of your mat.
  5. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

4. Parvrtta Sukhasana (Revolved Cross-Legged Pose)       A man doing the yoga twist Parvrtta Sukhasana (Revolved Cross-Legged Pose) 

  1. A basic seated twist is to sit cross-legged with a blanket or bolster under your hips. Make sure that your pelvis is tilting forward and your spine is lengthening towards the ceiling.
  2. On an exhalation, rotate toward the right side bringing your right hand to the floor or to a block behind you.
  3. Place your left hand on your right knee or thigh.
  4. Take 10-15 breaths here and then do the same on the other side.

There are several variations on a seated twist that you can take depending on your comfort level. For example, bend one knee up with the sole of that foot on the floor and twist toward the bent leg. (photo above) You could also take a twist from Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), or the seated pose of your choice.

5. Parvrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)      A woman doing the yoga twist Parvrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)   

This is another standing yoga twisting pose that can be beneficial for many bodies.

  1. Standing at one end of your mat, from Tadasana, step your left foot toward the back of your mat and keep the toes pointing forward and the back heel off the floor.
  2. Bend your front knee. For an unsupported twist, open your arms wide and turn toward the right side.
  3. To leverage yourself a bit more in the twist, place your palms together at heart center and bring your left elbow to the outside of your right thigh.
  4. Gently press your palms together to gain some depth in the twist.
  5. Hold for 5-10 breaths and then reverse to twist the other side.

Reprinted with permission from Sara Doyle Yoga and Anatomy.  

Photos courtesy of Courtney Long

Sara Doyle Sara Doyle (Ph.D., E-RYT 500) has a Ph.D. in Anatomy and has taught anatomy to medical students, residents, and undergraduates at Duke University since 2003. She has a thorough understanding of the human body and the anatomy of movement. Sara has spent thousands of hours in the anatomy lab and participated in the dissection of hundreds of cadavers, giving her a unique perspective on how the body works and the anatomical variation between individuals. Her yoga classes and workshops reflect a science-based perspective and include the most current research available.

Sara has completed two 200 hour trainings – the first with Sarah Trelease, and the second more recently with Srivatsa Ramaswami, a direct student of Krishnamacharya. She has also completed a 300-hour training. Currently, Sara is enrolled in the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) teaching program at the UMass Center for Mindfulness. 

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