Pose of the Month: Seated Spinal Twist (Marichyasana III)
Four common misconceptions about twists, and teaching cues to help students practice them mindfully and safely.
Spinal twists provide a treat for the whole body. They can help maintain the spine’s natural length and mobility, tone the paraspinal muscles, and soak the abdominal organs with healing, conscious breath. Done correctly, they give our students the opportunity to practice listening to their bodies, letting go of judgments, competition, and unrealistic expectations, and staying present to what is happening with each breath. Sounds like a perfect vehicle for cueing the Essence of YogaFit, doesn’t it?
The operative phrase of course is, “done correctly.” Problems usually arise when students fall prey to common misconceptions about twists and focus more on how far they can crank the spine than on finding space and freedom in the body. Let’s take a look now at Seated Twist and see how we can help our students gain the most benefit from this pose. And then we’ll address those misconceptions.
Main Elements of Seated Twist
Establishing Base and Dynamic Tension (through the hips and legs)
Creating Length in Spine
Spinal Rotation (notice that spinal alignment comes first!)
Most Challenging Aspects
Keeping both hips on the floor
Stabilizing lower back
Originating the twist from pelvic floor and not mid-spine
Maintaining spinal alignment
Keeping shoulders from collapsing forward
Listening to the body
Begin with the YogaFit standard Warm-Up (standing or supine) and a few rounds of Sun Salutations to warm the body.
Stretch and Strengthen to Prepare
Offer a few opportunities to stretch out the hamstrings, so that by the time students get ready to move into the pose, they are able to sit comfortably. Consider Down Dog, Forward Fold, and Standing Splits. Also, provide several ways for students to expand the chest and elongate the spine: Cat/Cow, Standing or Kneeling Camel, Chest Expansion, and Locust are good choices.
Seated Twist: Setting up the Pose
Come to a seated position on the floor. For tighter hips and hamstrings (or hips that sit unevenly on the floor), elevate the hips by sitting on a block or folded blanket or two.* Cue students to establish a strong base by actively moving the sitting bones down into their support. Bring the right foot to rest next to the inner left thigh, OR cross it over the left thigh (right knee pointing at the sky).
* No blocks or blankets? You can roll up the student’s mat, even a little, which should help tremendously. If your students are still struggling to sit up tall, cue them to bend their knees as much as necessary to release the lower back and allow their spine to lengthen.
Moving into the Pose
On the inhale, cue the students to move their sitting bones down, as they lengthen the spine—referencing how they felt in the prep poses like Camel and Chest Expansion. Bring the right hand to the mat just below the shoulder. Students who find that bringing the hand to the floor causes rounding in the lower back can choose to add a block under the hand to create length in the spine. With the exhale, allow the torso to gently rotate to the right, drawing the right shoulder back and left shoulder forward, while keeping both hips strong and parallel (without shifting the left hip forward). The left hand comes around the front of the right shin and rests lightly there (without using the right shin as a leverage point to “crank” deeper into the pose). With each inhale, lengthen again, and with each exhale, allow the pose to deepen using the core (think micro-movements!). After 6 to 10 breaths, switch sides.
Four Common Misconceptions (and Teaching Cues That Address Them)
#1: I must be able to twist far enough so I can see behind me. This happens when students pull on their knee to turn further, lift their opposite hip off the floor, and crane their neck as far as possible. Ironically, how far behind we can see is actually the least important thing about a twist!
Teaching Cue: Remind your students that the most important action in a twist is creating length in the spine and encourage them to move into the twist, slowly and gently while focusing on supporting a neutral spine. Allow the neck and head to follow the line of the spine.
#2: Sitting on a block or blanket is “cheating.” Many students think of props as “crutches” instead of “pose enhancers.” So here’s a question: Which do you think would be “cheating”: Elevating hips on a block or blanket so that the foundation of the pose is solid and secure (and the sacrum is protected)? Or, lifting the opposite hip off the floor so you can look like you are twisting deeper when you’re really not? Definitely the second one, right?
Teaching Cue: Remind your students that using support will actually enhance their ability to approach the pose with a stronger foundation. You might also have your students play around with using props and then not using them: Which expression feels the most lengthening? Which expression enables their shoulders to stay open and their chest lifted?
#3: To do the pose “right” I have to place my foot on the opposite side of my knee. Not true. That is simply one expression of this pose. Placing the foot of the bent leg on the inside of the straight leg offers the least amount of intensity in the outer hips and the least amount of pressure in the knee. So it’s the perfect variation for many people. Crossing the foot to the other side of the straight leg increases the stretch in the hip. This variation is not better or more advanced—it’s just different!
Teaching Cue: When introducing this pose, start with the foot inside the knee, then offer the cross-over variation for added intensity. Remind students that the comfort of the bent knee is most important. If the knee doesn’t like the cross-over, then uncross!
#4: Pulling on my bent knee really helps me go “deeper” into the pose. When they pull on their knee, students run the risk of over-stretching, which increases the probability of muscle spasms as well as injury to the spine and the neck. Why? Because once you do a pose with a specific destination in mind, you stop paying attention to what’s really happening and you lose connection with the breath.
Teaching Cue: While in the rotation, cue your students to lift up their hands slightly. If they are able to maintain the depth of the twist, then they have found the correct expression of the pose. However, if they lose the twist, that’s an indication they were relying on external manipulation to go deeper in the pose instead of using their core muscles.
Throughout the Seated Twist, use the Essence of YogaFit to encourage students to maintain focus on the breath and listen to their bodies. This will enable them to set aside the need to compare and compete and be able to wisely approach twists of all kinds.
I’d love to hear from you! What’s your favorite cue for twists? How do you encourage students to stay focused and in the present moment in a twisting posture? Please share below!