Often in yoga classes we are directed to turn the head in the opposite direction of the knees to “increase the twist.” But it may be more important to track the subtle sensations and know from where we are twisting than be concerned about how far we can go. Sometimes turning the head can make us lose track of those sensations. Yoga provides an opportunity for self-exploration that can be more valuable than shape making. So let us explore what’s going and what contributes to what we feel.
Turning your head, with the eyes closed, can enhance sensations coming from the muscles, especially if, for one instance, the sternocleidomastoids are tight. Turning the head may or may not increase the twist throughout the spine as much as one feels. Muscles, like the scalenes, and fascia connect the skull and the spine and when one rotates the head the cervical vertebrae move as well (the scalenes also attach to the top 2 ribs and you should be able to sense what kind of effect turning your head has on them). Depending on your flexibility in these muscles and connective tissue this movement can feel small or large. Also, if your eyes are open visual stimulus may override what you’ve been feeling and your gaze may lead you to believe that your head and other parts of your body may be facing that same direction. You may feel sensations from your sensory organs that you’re turning to a satisfactory degree to yourself or your teacher, but this still does not mean that you are increasing the distribution of the twist “evenly” throughout the entire spine. How well you propriocept (the nervous system function that gives us the ability to sense our bodies from within) is what can trick you into believing that turning your head is actually increasing your twist in a way that is more significant than you would feel. You might be surprised how this head turning action can fool you into skipping over movement in the thoracic spine or other places.
Even now while sitting at your desk if you twisted to one side and used your head with the eyes closed you might be very surprised to see where the rest of your body is in space if you lined up your nose with your sternum and then opened the eyes. This information isn’t here to suggest that you need to exploit more movement in the spine to go farther. The structures that make up the spine influence the varying degrees of flexibility and movement available along it and this varies from person to person. The facet joints, the joints between the vertebrae, are oriented differently in each section of the spine. In the cervical spine the shape of the facets allows for more rotation, in the thoracic spine the facets allow for more lateral flexion, and in the lumbar spine the facets allow for more flexion and extension. Because we tend to exploit the rotation available to us in the cervical spine, combined with the visual stimulus of our gaze we may be fooled into feeling that we are in a “full twist” when we are actually just compensating.
You may be using your head to overcompensate for movement you may not have available in the thoracic or lumbar spine. Compensating in this way may not be great for your cervical spine. Or, in your rush to meet your end goal, you may be skipping over movement you didn’t realize you had in other places that would assist you in performing your twist. This same process of compensation can be applied to backbends, which we will discuss in a later post. Either way, in the name of doing yoga to gain more awareness and refine the connection you have to your body this is evidence that you need to be paying closer attention.
Try the seated twist again, but this time try to track the movement of it throughout your spine starting at the bottom (there may even be slight movement in the sacrum, but whether there should be and how much is another post. If you have questions about this contact us). As the twist spirals its way up the spine see if there are places in the spine you may not be aware of (consciousness). If so, go back, slow down and then proceed. This time can you keep track of all that movement in all those places and not lose your sense of it when you turn the head? If you kept track: Bravo! You are gaining new ground in creating flexibility, not just in your muscles, but in your nervous system. If you didn’t: It’s OK, just accept where you are and try again next time. This kind of bodily awareness is invaluable for ensuring you can make well-informed and beneficial movement decisions that allow you to maintain a healthy and injury-free practice that can help you to reprogram the body, the nervous system and the mind (brain) to help you live better.