I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Like many parts of Asia, Malaysia was and remains a rich and fascinating confluence of cultural tradition and economic progress. Comprising mainly of Malays, Chinese and Indians, the country honours a plethora of religious festivals such as Deepavali, Chinese New Year as well as the fasting month of Ramadan observed by Muslims.
In our home, my parents had a special corner dedicated to an altar upon which Buddhist statuettes and relics sat. At dawn the house would fill with swirling patterns of smoke emanating from burning incense, as my grandmother would start the day by making an offering to Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, Lord Buddha, the Monkey God and all of our ancestors before us. Waking up to the musky smells of burning incense and calls of the Salat al-fajr Muslim pre-dawn prayer from the nearby mosque were my morning alarm bells and two of the most vivid memories of my childhood growing up in the Happy Gardens suburb of Petaling Jaya.Despite this routine of religious rituals and the observance of cultural superstitions, like many other Chinese parents, my own deeply valued education and encouraged their children towards higher education in the sciences and law. Science and superstition intermingled and was a normal part of everyday life. Like the respectful younger and older siblings of a blended marriage, science never questioned superstition and superstition found its way around science.
What does all this have to do with yoga twists, the subject of our October practice theme? The tradition of yoga has evolved from a not so dissimilar foundation of mythology and science and nowhere is the cleavage more pronounced than in the study of yoga twists. An analysis of the benefits of twists can lead you down many paths as twisty as the poses themselves. Academically speaking, yoga teachers largely fall into two camps – those who take an anatomical-scientific approach and those who take a slightly broader perspective on this topic. Yoga does have a tradition of reverence based on the guru-student relationship which demands an unquestioning, leap of faith commitment to the gospel of the guru. One of the most controversial debates around the benefits of twists was popularised by BKS Iyengar, a luminary from the yoga world stage, beloved in both the East and the West. Let’s explore Iyengar’s “squeeze and soak” theory on yoga twists.
Squeeze and Soak:
Quite simply, the idea behind the squeeze and soak theory of yoga twists is that the action of twisting has detoxifying effects. The proposition is that twisting postures reduce the flow of blood to the organs and upon release encourages the removal of metabolic waste and the supply of fresh blood. A google of this topic will find many searches of yoga studios and teachers who continue to support this idea and the marketing of yoga twists repackaged within the guise of one of the most popular 21st century catchphrases of the health industry – “detox”. Our livers have become so toxic and useless now that we have to artificially resuscitate this organ through a regiment of wheatgrass infusions and wringing yoga twists. I don’t have an issue with this but lets be clear as to whether the term is being used metaphorically or to support a scientific proposition.
Unfortunately, the idea that you can arbitrarily and directly detoxify the liver through a series of specific postures has been debunked by science. Understanding that there is a difference between mobility of organs (ability of organs to shift position) and motility of organs (movement within the organ) is really the key to its undoing. Detoxification is an intra-cellular process where toxins are transported into the liver and turned into water-soluble form and transported through the urinary system for elimination or further broken down through enzymatic action for excretion. Although particular twists can impact on the shifting or mobility of the organs, detoxification is a process that takes place at a cellular level within the organ which twisting postures cannot directly impact upon.
Organ mobility happens everyday when you simply breathe, walk and bend – this is not controversial. Your organs shift in response to external factors and when your body alters its shape. This doesn’t mean that you are instigating a chemical change within the key organs of the body. The chemistry of the body may alter and key organs start to work more efficiently including the efficiency of the liver in removing metabolic waste after a period of time if you stick with a fitness plan and accomodate dietary and lifestyle changes. The idea of “wringing” out key organs may have more of a metaphorical value in that sense since it is only through the consistent and persistent longer – term practice of yoga that one might see those changes in the chemistry of the body.
Building the total body in yoga & the place of twists in your yoga diet:
In the Hatha Yoga classes that I run, two of the main objectives is the building of functional strength and flexibility. The way I like to look at doing this is by dividing the body between torso and limbs. The torso in this definition includes the muscular-skeletal system from the top of the shoulder girdle all the way down to the base of the pelvic girdle attached to the axial spinal column. The limbs include the arms and the legs. The torso also coincides with the core and the core is also the axis around which yoga postures revolve. If the core is weak, yoga postures will at best be challenging and impossible to execute.
As such for any student who comes to me for the very first time, the first task is always to evaluate and build core strength. Time and time again, it never ceases to amaze me how a simple execution of Sun Salutation A and B can reveal instantly student strengths and weaknesses in every single part of their anatomy. This is because the holding of the 17 postures in Sun Salutation B and the movement from one to the next demands the recruitment of just about every single muscle in your body as well as “functional” strength. “Functional” strength refers to the ability of the muscle(s) in play for a particular activity to accomodate movement from one activity to the next under the stress of resistance. This is opposite to building strength by isolating a particular muscle through isometric contraction for a period of time like you do when lifting bicep curls in the gym for instance. At the end of the day, we work towards strength and fitness goals for a greater purpose – to be able to enjoy daily activities and movement without fear of injury. In that regard yoga and in particular dynamic vinyasa along with yin and its longer holds provide a wonderful balance in building functional strength and flexibility.
Often I see active people in my class who are engaged in muscle building-centric gym based activities such as “pump” who have impressive musculature around the appendicular skeleton (biceps, triceps, glutes, quadriceps) as well as in the superficial abdominal muscular structure. Yet these students struggle to execute the vinyasas of Sun A and B proficiently. Back and core strength is questionable around the lowering down to Chatturanga Dandasana (low-plank) from Adho Mukha Svasana (Downward Facing Dog) and the same questions arise in relation to quadriceps and gluteus strength when stepping into a hold for Virabhadrasana 1 ( Warrior 1 ). The addition of movement to the holding of postures raises questions about the importance of functional strength versus just strength in general, and how strength in various parts of the anatomy dialogue and interact with each other when moving from one activity to the next. For example if you can bang out abdominal crunches but your core collapses halfway through lowering down from Adho Mukha Svasana (Downward Facing Dog) to Chatturanga Dandasana (Low Plank), functional strength is missing as the upper body is failing to have a conversation with the abdominals in that particular set of dynamics.
Flexibility around two key areas of the torso can also impact significantly our ability to execute yoga postures and most importantly carry out movements in our daily routine. The first is the hips and the second is the spine. Flexibility is the product of joint range of movement as well as the pliability of attaching muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia. The lack of flexibility around the hip joints, accumulated tightness of muscles particularly around under-stretched areas of the side trunk and back, weakness of deeper core muscles all contribute to present an ungainly portrait of an unbalanced boot-camp physique. Having explored the idea of the total body in terms of functional strength and flexibility lets consider how yoga twists can positively impact your overall yoga practice and physical well-being.
The Real Value of Twists:
The hips is one of the first areas I like working with in yoga and this was our September theme. Please feel free to review the article on this to canvas why this is so. Spinal and trunk flexibility is the other and this is where twists come in as it forms an integral part of a complete yoga diet. Spinal flexibility covers two aspects – twists and backbends. The latter is dealt with separately and later in the year in December. Twists come before deeper backbends in my programme for pragmatic as well as psychological reasons. It’s more important that we are able to turn around when driving and backing out of a car park without pulling a muscle than it is to be able to execute a wheel pose ( Chakrasana ). Practically speaking there are very few situations in daily life that require you to drop back and hold a yoga wheel pose. Psychologically speaking as well, students are more open to performing twists than they are to deeper backbends such as Ustrasana (Camel pose) or Laghu Vajrasana ( Little Thunderbolt pose ) and this is why the deeper backbends are left till a bit later in the year whilst still making inroads into yoga confidence as well as flexibility and strength. Twists whilst improving flexibility around the spinal musculature can also stretch anterior abdominal muscles thus improving your performance around deeper backbends which demand flexibility of muscles around the front of the body.
The spine emanates from the sacrum and extends all the way up through the torso and attaches to the medulla oblongata (brainstem). A host of muscles attach to the spine that benefit from a regular regiment of yoga twisting and these include the spinal rotator muscles – quadratus lumborum, the erector spinae and as mentioned previously, abdominal muscles. Other muscles that benefit from stretching in twisting postures include the obliques. Like any other part of your anatomy, consistent attention to these areas through yoga twists will strengthen and improve flexibility and reduce risk of back pain and injuries from seemingly innocuous everyday activities. Bending to pick up a child or grocery bags or taking a two handed – back hand tennis swing for example can result in the over-stretching or tearing of large muscle groups and ligaments surrounding the spine. It’s nice having large biceps and a six-pack but if your back muscles and surrounding tissues are tight and weak, I don’t see how that’s going to help you at all.
It goes without saying that regular yoga twisting can be particularly helpful for athletes such as rugby, basketball, netball, volleyball and tennis players where spinal and trunk flexibility can only improve performance in the field and reduce the risk of injury. These types of athletes engage in some serious twisting and torquing of the upper body where additional flexibility can bring tremendous advantages over their competitors. As such, continuing to build strength within the framework of flexibility will continue to elevate performance whilst reducing the risk of injury.
Finally for the average punter, twists can help reduce inherited muscular-skeletal imbalances in the body through the realignment of the shoulder girdle in relation to the spine and the pelvis to the spine. Everyone has these imbalances and you don’t have to be a Minecraft geek who sits hunched over the computer for hours to have these issues. Imbalances may also be genetic – such as being born with one leg that’s longer, flat feet, bow-legs – these are all inherited genetics that create imbalances in the muscular-skeletal body that slowly impact on our posture over time until one day back pain or hip pain sets in. A regular practice of twists can help lessen the negative impact of these imbalances by constantly adjusting the alignment of the shoulder and pelvic girdle in relation to the spine whilst improving flexibility and strength of the affected muscles.
Psychological impact – the relationship between the Vagus Nerve and Yoga Twists?:
One area which I’m particularly interested in is the relationship between certain yoga postures and the stimulation of the Vagus Nerve. Although much has been documented and researched about the Vagus Nerve and its role in the human anatomy, the literature on the relationship between yoga postures and stimulation of this nerve is extremely limited. As such I raise this but add a question mark for its potential significance as a form of therapy for depression, anxiety, high – blood pressure – all the illnesses of a modern Yang lifestyle resulting in a overly stimulated sympathetic nervous system – is so great that it cannot and should not be overlooked by health professionals.
The Vagus Nerve is a subdivision of the peripheral nervous system that roams along the oesophagus down the spine and towards the lungs, heart and digestive system. It has been described as being central to the para-sympathetic system which takes us into the rest and digest mode and allows for the deep rejuvenation of the body, mind and soul. Twists when coordinated with mindful, even breathing may help stimulate the Vagus Nerve, allowing for the the para-sympathetic system to kick in.
Why? Backbends and twists which affect the spine are frequently cited as postures that bring to the fore emotional breakthroughs and respite. Given the location of the Vagus Nerve along the spine, and its function in reducing heart-rate, blood pressure, release of anti-stress enzymes and hormones, one has to question the link between its functions and the effects we experience from these yoga postures that directly impact the spine. The study of science and breakthroughs is an organic process that changes and evolves day by day. What we know about the human biology today is different from what we knew about it a thousand years ago. Just because we haven’t found the answers doesn’t mean that the scientific basis doesn’t exist – it just hasn’t been found yet. Just because the scientific basis has not been found is no excuse for bringing out the pseudoscience.
The stress-relieving effects of twists is a perfect reason to slot this set of postures into our practice this time of the year. October is around the time of the year that stress levels start to mount. With the holiday season and Christmas just around the corner, it’s traditionally a hectic period where looming deadlines and demands start to punish the blood pressure. Incorporating these postures into your yoga practice will help keep stress levels in check and help you make it through to the end of the year in good shape.
The role of myths, metaphors and science in yoga:
Yoga is an ancient system of wellness which has taken root in the mainstream health industry. Certification standards can vary wildly from one place to the next in that the syllabuses of yoga schools can be structured completely differently, yet offer the same internationally recognised qualifications. Some schools provide longer training times lasting up to a year and others provide certification in two weeks. This has led universally to criticism of the quality of yoga teachers and what they bring to the modern yoga studio. Health professionals in related professions such as physiotherapists, massage therapists and fitness consultants spend many years honing in on their craft based on relatively universally uniform requirements that involve the academic study of human biology and anatomy. This is the level of accountability that we hold them to when dealing with individuals who seek them out for help in their physical bio-mechanics. Why should yoga teachers looking to enjoy the fruits of this billion dollar industry, who wish to be regarded as health professional equals to these sister professions be held to any less? These days, the modern yoga studio is less a shala off a dusty beaten track and resembles more a wellness clinic in a built -up urban location.
If physiological wellness is really what we are offering, then the manner in which we inform and teach should reflect that responsibility. We need to let go of myths, pseudo-science and be prepared to ask more questions even if those questions seemingly relate to untouched wisdom that has been passed down guru to student. The Iyengar Squeeze and Soak Theory is one such example.
Despite my own upbringing in South East Asia, in an environment which valued science but rampant with religious rituals and superstitions, I believe our students deserve a lot better than a practice packaged within the confines of mythology and unsubstantiated gospel. Mythology is wonderful for drawing inspiration from and the world of yoga has plenty to offer. Legends provide inspiration when the real world just seems grey and uninspiring. But it’s just that – inspiration for a grey day. However when a student’s health is at stake, we must deliver much more than just gospel and hearsay and ensure that the information we provide has sound, medical basis. After that, the proof is in the pudding. If something feels good and we feel and see the positive benefits, we will continue to do it, whether science or blind faith become the motivating factor.
Yoga Twists is the theme of our October practice with the first session commencing Friday October the 5th at 10:30 am at Bodyneed Sports Clinic, 17 Maidstone St, Ponsonby, then Sunday at 9:30am and thereafter every Friday and Sunday at the same time for the rest of the month.