A reclined, supine spinal twist is a common way to transition into savasana. But with low-back pain being one of the most prevalent chronic conditions in industrialized countries, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at how to get into and out of this pose, as it's one that some yoga practitioners find aggravating to their lower backs. Using props and modifications can help keep the spine (and shoulders) happy and healthy.
Twisting in a way that gives more attention to how the pose looks rather than how it feels can exacerbate rather than alleviate back pain. In a reclined twist, your lumbar spine (lower back) is tasked with bearing the weight of one or both legs that are often hovering away from the floor. This can lead to less-than-ideal loads placed on the sacroiliac joint—often evidenced by the number of pops and cracks that can be heard during a reclined twist in class. But when variations and props are employed, a reclined spinal twist can strengthen and mobilize back and core muscles in a supported manner, which may actually help relieve and even prevent low-back pain.
That’s because, first of all, supporting the legs means the lower back muscles aren’t straining to hold them up in empty space. Ditto for arms and shoulders that would otherwise be floating, which can result in numbness, tingling, or pain in the upper extremities. Optionally supporting the hips and low back to keep them from rolling out of the twist will keep the SI joint in alignment, making that a great variation for people with SI joint concerns. And by twisting with the knees tucked up higher than hip height, the low-back muscles share the load of the legs, which reduces low-back stress.
For this variation of a reclined spinal twist, you’ll need two bolsters. You may also want to have two blocks and a folded blanket on hand.
Start by aligning one bolster lengthwise along the right side of your mat, in the middle to bottom half of the mat. Place the second bolster to the left side of the top half of your mat.
Lie on your back and bend your knees, drawing them toward your chest. You can gently grasp the sides or backs of your thighs or shins. Take three deep breaths here and then gently rock from side to side, providing a subtle massage for your low back.
Then use your hands to assist in guiding both bent legs over to the right side of your mat, allowing the outside of your right knee and calf to be supported by the bolster. Roll over fully onto your right side, allowing your right arm to extend straight out to the right, with your left arm draping down the left side of your body. Are you in a quasi fetal position, but with a long, extended spine? Good! That’s where you want to be.
Make sure to draw your knees up so they’re pointed toward your right elbow. This will allow you to target your upper and mid spine if/when you complete the twist. It also decreases pressure and possible strain on your low-back muscles and vertebrae.
Also make sure your pelvis is stacked vertically to avoid shearing at the SI joint, and check that your knees are stacked (not separated or staggered). If your pelvis is not stacked, you can adjust by hiking up or lowering down your right hip, even as it’s tucked underneath you. Notice how these movements affect your knees, and note which position better serves you. If your knees are still not stacked, you can remove the bolster from under your knees and place it between your knees instead, or place a folded blanket between your knees. You can also place the second bolster along your spine (as pictured above) to prevent your hips from rolling backward.
Take a few breaths here. This is not a spinal twist but a type of side-lying child’s pose, which may be just the delicious and restorative pose that your body needs at this point. So feel free to stay here.
If you wish to complete the twist, initiate it from your mid back, not the lumbar spine, and begin reaching your left arm out to the left. Keep your knees aligned and on the bolster. If at any point they start to shift, stop.
If you can release your left arm and shoulder to the ground without either unstacking your knees or lifting them away from the bolster, then ground your left shoulder blade into the floor and breathe there. If your left shoulder is hovering, place the second bolster underneath it.
Notice what your neck is doing. The forward-head and rounded-back posture typically resulting from driving, texting, and computer work can make it difficult to lie on the ground with a long neck. If it feels as if your chin is pointed to the sky and the back of your neck is crunched, place a blanket under your head with a rolled edge supporting your neck. Another option is to place a block under your head with a rolled blanket under your neck.
You can then gaze to the ceiling, the right side, or the left side, noticing the different sensations in each direction and choosing the one that works best for you.
Stay in the twist for three to five minutes. To come out, imagine you are tightening a belt around your waist, and activating the core muscles in the front, sides, and back of your torso to help you guide your knees back to the center. Use your hands for support as needed as you roll onto your back. Hug your knees into your chest and rock from side to side. Come up to a seated position to arrange the props for the opposite side, and then switch sides.
If you placed the second bolster along your spine to keep your hips from rolling back, and you’d like to keep it there, you can use a folded blanket to support your arm instead of the bolster.
You can also place blocks under your elbow and hand for support—especially if you feel any numbness, tingling, or pain along your arm, shoulder, or fingers.
Though a reclined spinal twist is often considered a gentle, relaxing pose, that doesn’t make it one-size-fits-all. There are many different modifications to try in order to make it a safe and effective pose for your spine. Try some of these suggestions and you may find that you can “twist” without the accompanying lower back “shout.”
Photography: Andrea Killam