A Different Way to Twist: Hands-Free Twisting

by Baxter 
A while back, I started playing around with what I call “hands-free” twisting in seated and standing poses. I can’t recall exactly why I started playing around with this idea, but it may have been inspired by a dynamic standing sequence my wife Melina Meza teaches that includes a hands-free twist. In any case, I became curious about how this way of twisting might be of benefit.

Typically you use your hands to push and pull you in a twist, for example, as you would in Easy Sitting Twist with one hand on your knee and the other on the floor. However, when you twist your torso without using your hand to push or pull on anything, for example in Easy Sitting Twist with your arms raised to shoulder level, you are experiencing your “active” range of motion of your spine. This is the actual amount of movement that your spinal rotating muscles can create on their own, including both the deep rotator muscles, such as the rotatores muscles (that’s right—they rotate you!), and more superficial muscles, such as your middle abdominals (the obliques), as well as many others. I feel this is beneficial for two reasons. First, by only using your rotating muscles, you are targeting them specifically for strength building. And because those muscles attach directly to your spinal bones, they can also help to keep the spinal bones stronger. Second, you may be avoiding over-rotating your spinal bones. Over-rotating, which you are at risk of doing when you involve the hands and arms more actively in creating your twists, take you into “passive” range of motion, which could lead to soft tissue or bone injury. 

To feel the difference between your active and passive range of motion, you can try a little experiment (as long as you do not have osteoporosis or osteopenia, in which case, it is best to watch someone else try this): 

1. Sit in Easy Sitting pose and find your inner lift (see Friday Q&A: Can You Straighten Your Spine).

2. Bring your arms into Bird Wings (take them out to your sides at shoulder level, with your elbows bent to 90 degrees and your hands pointing to the ceiling).

3. Slowly rotate your upper belly, chest, and head to the right until you cannot go any further, noting where you are. This is your active range of motion.

4. Now, bring your hands to knees and floor. Then carefully and gradually push with your back hand and pull with your front hand to see how much further you are able to turn. This extra distance is your passive range of motion.

5. Release to center and repeat on the second side.

Passive range of motion involves adding an outside force in addition to using the muscles needed to create an action at a joint (in this case, rotation between spinal bones), and in the seated and standing twists, that outside force is usually your hands and arms. (In other types of poses, there can be other outside forces. For example, in Child’s pose, it is the weight of your body pressing down on your legs that takes you into deeper bend of your hips and knees and in Reclined Leg Stretch pose, it is using the strap to pull on your leg that takes your hip joint into a deeper bend.)

If you are generally healthy, and as long as it feels okay and you do it mindfully, you can certainly add in the passive range of motion to your twists, which, of course, take you further in your range of motion. 

You can certainly practice your twists the classic way, which includes moving into your passive range of motion. However, I have noticed some of my students very aggressively using their arms to go further into twists, which I regularly caution against due to the risk of injury from practicing this way. And for those with osteoporosis and osteopenia who have been warned about twists in general, skipping the passive range of motion may allow safer exploration of turning of the spine while lowering the chance of breaking a spinal bone. However, I’d recommend you do this under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist (The most commonly fractured bones in osteoporosis and osteopenia are the spinal bones, or vertebrae, in the rib cage area). 

The biggest drawback to hands-free twisting is more about personal preference than anything else; you don’t rotate as far as you would if you used the arms to push and pull you deeper into the twist, which for some people is not as satisfying, especially if the belief is that a deeper twist is a better twist (obviously, from what I have said already, I am not one of those people). In addition, you might best explore this in your home practice, as your teacher may have different ideas about twisting in a class setting. 

I hope that the reasons presented will at least inspire you to experiment with the hands-free style and see what effects you notice. You can also play with your arm position. For example, sometimes I take my arms into Bird Wings or Airplane position (arms straight out to sides) if I want some additional strengthening for the arms and shoulders and other times I just lift my hands a bit above where they’d normally to make the pose easier. To date, I have applied this technique for dynamic and static versions of Easy Sitting pose, Sage’s Twist 3, Half Lord of the Fishes pose, and Upright Revolved Triangle Pose (no forward bend done in this version). See the links below to view and try some of them!

Easy Sitting Twist, Hands Free
Sage’s Twist 3, Hand Free
Half Lord of the Fishes, Hand Free 

I’ll be adding videos soon of the modified Revolved Triangle pose and Melina’s standing sequence! 

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