Beginnings should be gentle so they provide a smooth transition and minimize our resistance to taking that first step. Yet they should also be vigorous enough to shake off some inertia and build the momentum that will propel us further along the path.
Beginnings should be gentle.
For beginning an asana practice, the knees-to-chest twist fulfills both of these requirements. It gently massages the low back, wakes up the organs and muscles of the abdomen, and establishes a full, rhythmic breathing pattern—valuable assets in any practice.
To begin, lie on your back and use your arms to pull the knees in toward your chest. Shift your pelvis so your lower back feels flat but comfortable against the floor—there should be no gap between your back and the floor, but you don’t want to feel like your vertebrae are grinding into the ground either. Stay here for a few moments, allowing your lower back to open and watching your breath move your belly against your thighs.
When you are ready to move, keep your knees in this position and lengthen your arms on the floor perpendicular to your torso, palms down. Continue breathing evenly and smoothly as you create as much space as possible between the tops of your shoulders and your neck. Move your arms down an inch or two if you find your shoulders creeping up toward your ears.
Engage your abdominal muscles to pull your knees further in toward your chest, and keep breathing. Then on your next exhalation, lower your knees toward the floor on your right, keeping the knees together and your upper back and both shoulders firmly on the floor. It isn’t necessary to lower your knees all the way to the floor—take them down only as far as you can control their descent. You’ve gone too far if your knees separate and your legs suddenly flop to the floor.
Bring your knees back to center on the inhalation. On your next exhalation, lower your knees to the other side, then inhale them back to center. Keep moving side to side with the breath. Both your breathing and the movement of the legs should be continuous—don’t pause. Feel the abdominal muscles warming up, the sides of the torso gently stretching, and the lower back and sacrum massaged by their motion against the floor.
Keep moving side to side with the breath.
To make the twist more vigorous, use your abdominal muscles to pull your knees in further toward your chest, lifting your tailbone and eventually the back of your pelvis off the floor as your knees move through center. Consciously relax your throat and face and keep your shoulders on the floor. If you are looking for a gentler sequence, allow the soles of your feet to rest on the floor next to your buttocks as you lower the knees from side to side.
Repeat the side-to-side twisting motion until your abdomen has begun to warm up and you feel like you’ve done an exercise that will leave you stronger the next day. This may mean lowering your knees five times to each side if you’re just starting out, or it may mean 30 repetitions if you’re more physically fit.
When you’ve had your fill, let your feet rest on the floor at least hip-distance apart so your knees can prop each other up. Place your hands on your belly and breathe into your palms, allowing nourishing and soothing energy to descend into an area that is often ignored throughout the day.
When you’ve had your fill, let your feet rest on the floor at least hip-distance apart so your knees can prop each other up.
You might use this twist as a warm-up for a full asana routine, or it might be the sole exercise you do to start the morning or prepare for a meditation practice. However you use it, remember to begin moving gently yet with purpose, and take your first steps with a firm, but kind, intent.
Let your breath descend to nourish and soothe your navel center, the seat of your power of digestion and your sense of self.
Benefits of Gentle Twisting
- Massages the lower back and sacrum
- Strengthens the abdominal muscles
- Stimulates the organs of digestion
- Aligns the back and spine against the flat surface of the floor
- Integrates rhythmic breathing with the body’s movement
Move within your own range of control. If you can’t keep your knees together or if you find they flop down to the floor, reduce your range of movement. It’s fine to lower your knees only to a 45º angle. Also try to keep both shoulders grounded.