Twists can be heaven for a bad back—if you don't push too hard. Learn how to do these 9 spinal stretches to ease pain in your back.
For Elise Miller, a longtime Iyengar Yoga teacher who was diagnosed with scoliosis—abnormal lateral curvature of the spine—as a teen, twisting poses are pure bliss. "I love moving from gentle twists into deeper variations," she says. "I think twists can be the most cleansing of all the poses." She's referring to master teacher B.K.S. Iyengar's "squeeze and soak" theory: The action of twisting the spine squeezes the muscles, spinal disks, and abdominal organs. When you release, blood floods back into those areas, bringing nutrients and improving circulation.
Still, Miller can understand why many people don't enjoy twisting. The problem, she feels, lies in an overzealous approach. "You see people doing twists, and they just go for it. Then they feel stuck, like they have nowhere else to go—and they don't, because they haven't allowed an opening to happen." Her remedy for this common problem is twofold: First, she says, you must elongate your spine and create space in it before twisting; otherwise you exert pressure on the disks and leave yourself open to injury. Second, she uses props in her twist sequences to gently prepare the body for deeper poses. Being mindful of your alignment and using props will prevent you from powering through the poses, so you can enjoy a spiraling action up the spine and reap the benefits that twists offer.
Sit sideways on a chair with your right hip facing the chair back and a block between your thighs. The chair will stabilize the lower back, pelvis, and legs, allowing you to safely rotate your upper spine. Place the hands on the chair back as you inhale and lift the spine. Exhale and twist, pulling with the left hand and pushing with the right. Allow the head and neck to follow the twist of the spine.
Place a chair in front of you and put your right foot between its front legs. Step your left foot back about 4 feet and turn it in 80 degrees. Place your hands on your hips and square them. Inhale, lift your torso, exhale, and fold forward, placing your left hand on the chair seat, in line with your right big toe. Place your right hand on your sacrum and twist to the right, bringing the right shoulder toward the ceiling and the left ribs forward. To go deeper, place the left elbow on the chair and raise the right arm.
Place a block on a chair, then put your right foot on the block with the toes facing forward. Place your left hand on your right knee and your right palm on your sacrum. Inhale and lift the spine, then exhale and twist to the right, allowing your neck and head to follow. Keep the hips even and twist from the upper spine. Press the right hand into the back waist to turn the torso more deeply.
Take a wide stance. Turn your right foot out and your left foot in 80 degrees. Square your hips toward your front foot, then bend your right knee directly over your ankle. On an exhalation, bring the left side of the body toward the right leg. Rest the left armpit to the outside of the right knee and press the palms together. Lengthen the spine and twist the ribs and torso to the right. To go deeper, bring the left palm to the floor or to a block and reach your right arm over your right ear. Gaze at your right fingertips as you lengthen your entire right side.
5. Parivrtta Dandasana (Revolved Staff Pose)
Sit up tall with your legs strongly extended on the floor in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Draw the flesh of your buttocks back in order to sit directly on your sitting bones. Roll your thighs inward and maintain a natural curve in your lower back. Bring your left hand to your outer right knee and place your right fingertips on the floor behind you. Inhale and lift the spine, then exhale and twist to the right. Keep the heels even and stabilize the inner left thigh.
6. Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist)
Sit in Dandasana. Bend your knees and bring your feet next to your left buttock. Place your left ankle on the arch of your right foot. If the left hip is higher, place a blanket under the right hip. Exhale and turn your torso to the right. Place the left hand on your right knee. Press your right fingertips into the floor (or on a block) behind the right buttock and breathe as you turn the spine. Draw the tip of the right shoulder blade in and turn the right shoulder back. Keep your torso upright without lifting the left thigh.
Sit in Dandasana. Bend the right leg and step the right foot to the outside of the left knee. Bend the left leg and place the foot to the right of the right sitting bone. The foot should be resting on its side, with its inner and outer edges parallel. Press the right fingertips into the floor and draw your torso up. Move the back ribs in. Exhale and turn to the right. Bend the left arm, and press it against the outside of your right knee to help you twist.
Sit in Dandasana. Bend the right knee and press the right heel against the perineum. Twist to the right as you lengthen your torso over your left leg. Reach out and hold the inner side of the left foot with the left hand, thumb pointing toward the floor and left pinky pointing up. Stretch the right arm overhead and hold the outer side of the left foot. Bend and widen the elbows away from each other to spiral the waist, chest, and shoulders. Extend the spine and rest the left ribs on the left thigh.
From Dandasana, reach your arms overhead, exhale, and fold forward, grabbing the feet, shins, or thighs. Inhale and lengthen the torso up. Exhale, bend the elbows out, and take the torso toward the legs as you extend the front, sides, and back of the body toward the feet. Breathe deeply and steadily. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths.
Lie in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for 5 minutes or longer.
Sit in a cross-legged position and rest your mind on your breath for 5 to 20 minutes. For closure, bring your palms together in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal), honoring the inner light within you and extending that light to all beings.