When I consider the types of yoga classes I tend to include in my classes, I’ve found that I focus on a couple types of movements. One is backbends and forward bends, a category of poses that fall within the sagittal plane. That means lots of Cobras and Wheel Poses as well as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Hanumanasana (Splits or Monkey Pose).
I also emphasize poses that ask us to hug in toward the midline or, conversely, that expand us outward, like how our legs squeeze into our arms and shoulders in Bakasana (Crow Pose) and our leg and arm reach outward in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana II (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose 2). These occur in the coronal plane.
But there are three planes of movement. The one I teach the least is the transverse plane, which, in yoga, relates to twisting poses such as Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved or Twisting Chair) and Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon).
I think one of the reasons I tend to minimize their role is not everyone loves twists. When I walk into class and announce, “We’re twisting today!”, students seem much less enthusiastic than when I say “hip-openers” or “handstands.”
But after a class in which we’ve twisted, people are often elated at the effects. Many students say they feel energetically and emotionally “wrung-out” and as if they’ve had a release. Although there is a lack of scientific evidence for the claim that twists physiologically detox us—a claim that many contemporary teachers and ancient texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika from the 15th century, assert—twisting is definitely an essential movement for maintaining and enhancing core stability.
3 key points to emphasize with students during twists
A go-to twisting sequence can be a surprise plot twist for students and can offer teachers opportunities to teach some of the subtler aspects of yoga, including the breath and the chakras. Let’s get into it a little more below.
1. The “spiral staircase”
One of my favorite ways to teach twists is to suggest that we’re trying to find a central line around which we revolve. I know some teachers who refer to this as “the spiral staircase.” Teachers who are subtle body-focused refer to this as the Sushumna Nadi, the central channel of energy along which the chakras are found.
2. The breath
Twists require an intimate connection with the breath in order to be done efficiently and safely. The physical movement into a twisting pose is often taught on an exhalation, although the pose actually begins when you are cued to inhale with the intention of creating length in your spine. (The initial lengthening is also an opportunity to align the spine, which is the site of our chakras and the central nadi.)
But the more intense the twist, the more difficult it can be to remember and establish a steady cadence for the breath. Starting in more open twisting positions, such as gentle seated twists and variations on Low Lunge, gives us an opportunity to feel spacious and stable in the rhythm of the breath before we start crossing arms and hooking elbows over opposite knees.
3. The importance of twisting from your center
Twists also impart the energetic lesson of how to move from an integrated, centered place. It can be tempting for us to move from their limbs or neck when twisting. Though this may give the illusion of going further into the twist, it actually creates misalignment in that central “staircase.” When we initiate the twist from our limbs, we lose connection to the line of the spine from the crown to the tailbone. If “deepening into the twist” is our only objective, the twist itself is often sacrificed in favor of some kind of side bend. And if we crank our neck, we take it out of alignment with the rest of the spine.
A go-to yoga sequence for twists
This practice, centered on twists, also leads up to a peak pose of Revolved Triangle. You’ll experience elements of each throughout the sequence in a gradual progression. (Please note: If you have students who are pregnant or experiencing back issues, this may not be an appropriate sequence.)
Parivrtta Sukhasana (Revolved Easy Pose)
This seated twist teaches us how to align the spine using the floor as a leveler for our pelvis.
How to: Sit on a blanket in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) with your right shin outside of your left.. Stack your ankles and knees. On an inhalation, lengthen your spine; as you exhale, twist to the right. You may cross your left arm or hand over your right thigh and use that as a lever to twist deeper, or your left hand can stay in front of your legs. Prop your right hand on a block or your fingertips behind your right hip to ensure you are keeping your spine upright as you twist around that length. Keep in mind that having that back hand elevated may cause your back shoulder to hike up. Bending your back elbow can ensure the muscles of the neck don’t bunch and you keep space to be able to turn your head. Hold for 5 breaths. Exhale as you unravel your spine. Switch the crossing of your shins so that your left shin is forward and take the direction of your twist to the left.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana (Twisting Low Lunge)
Twisting Low Lunge is an accessible twist to do early in your practice. Your bottom hand is positioned on the inside of the front leg, leaving more room for the belly to expand with breath.
How to: From Sukhasana, come into Tabletop. Take a few Cat and Cows to warm up the spine. From Tabletop, inhale and extend your right leg straight behind you. Exhale and step it as far forward as you can into Low Lunge. (You might need to inch your foot forward so it’s beneath your knee.) Place your hands beneath your shoulders on the mat or blocks. Inhale first, then exhale and reach your right arm toward the ceiling, twisting your rib cage. Stay here for 5 breaths. Exhale as you return your right hand to the floor. Step back to Tabletop and repeat on your left side.
Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana (Revolved Wide-Legged Forward Fold)
This twisting version of Prasarita Padottanasana is an excellent way to help students prepare their bodies for the peak pose. It’s accessible to most people, including beginners and pregnant people, because there isn’t compression of the abdomen. The legs are symmetrical, which can feel more stable for some people. It also stretches the hamstrings, which is essential for coming into Revolved Triangle.
How to: From Tabletop, tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for a few breaths. Then walk your hands toward your feet and slowly come to standing. Turn to face the long side of your mat and place 2 blocks in front of you. Inhale your arms straight out to the sides and step your feet as wide as your wrists. Bring your hands to your hips. Inhale and lift your chest, exhale and fold forward, placing your hands on blocks situated just beneath your shoulders in Prasarita Padottanasana. Turn your blocks to whatever level you need and even come up to fingertips on the blocks so your spine is in line with your pelvis. Inhale and lengthen your spine, exhale and twist your torso to the right as you reach your right arm toward the ceiling. If it’s comfortable, you can turn your neck to look up to your top hand. Instead, allow your left hip to drop lower than your right as trying to level your pelvis can create compression of your sacroiliac joint. Stay here for 8 breaths. On your final exhalation, return your right hand to the block. Repeat on your left side before you come back to center. Turn and step to the front of the mat in Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved or Twisting Chair Pose)
In Twisting Chair pose, you can explore cause and effect in twisting. When you play with the alignment of your hips, you can observe how that affects the relative length in your spine. For example, if you send the hip that’s on the side you are twisting toward way back toward your posterior, it will lengthen one side of your spine. If you let your opposite hip hike forward toward your knee, it will shorten that side of the spine. You can also play with the effect of your arms on your twist. If your hands are in prayer and you press your top hand more strongly into your bottom, you can create leverage to twist more deeply.
How to: From Mountain Pose, Slowly rise and stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet together or a few inches apart for stability. Inhale and raise your arms in line with your ears. On an exhalation, bend your knees deeply and shift your hips back into Utkatasana (Chair Pose). Bring your hands to prayer position at your heart and pause. Inhale first, lengthening your spine and, on your exhale, twist to the right. You might want to separate your hands briefly so you can use your right hand to get your left elbow as stable against outer right thigh as possible, then bring your hands back together. On each inhalation, lengthen from your crown to your tailbone. Exhale as you press your hands together to twist your torso further, initiating the twist from your upper spine and rib cage. Try to align your thumbs with your sternum. Look up toward the sky or keep your chin level with your chest. Breathe and twist for 8 breaths. After your final exhale, release the twist, straighten your legs, and fold for a breath in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Come back into Chair first, before doing your left side. Come back to standing and straighten your legs to come into Mountain Pose.
You may choose to open your arms wide in this twist, but keep in mind that the purpose of the hooked elbow is to deepen the twist. If you lose the connection of your elbow to your outer thigh when you straighten your arms, then it may not be the best choice for you.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
We call a posture a “peak pose” in a sequence because it’s the one that requires you to be the most prepared. It is by no means the goal of the class, which, in this case, is to maintain our center as things move around us. And it is definitely not the most important pose of class. That is—and always will be—Savasana or seated meditation at the end.
How to: From at the top of your mat. Have your blocks within reach. Place your hands on your hips and step your left foot back about three feet. Rather than keeping your heels in line with one another, bring them a few inches apart. Your back toes should be angled forward slightly. If you feel any restriction along your achilles tendon, connecting your calf to your heel, keep your back heel lifted and place a rolled blanket underneath it. On an inhale, lift your left arm to the ceiling, lengthening your spine. As you exhale, hinge forward at your hip crease. Place your left hand on the inside of your right foot for a less intense twist or the outside for a more intense twist. You can place your hand or fingertips on the floor or on a block, whichever allows you the most space to breathe. As you inhale, lengthen your spine, and as you exhale, reach your right arm toward the ceiling and turn your right ribs in the same direction. Remember that central line of the staircase and keep your crown in line with your tail. You may consider looking up if you’re able to keep this alignment. Stay here for 8 breaths. To come out, release both hands to the floor and fold forward for a moment. Bring your hands to your hips and inhale as you lift your torso upright. On an exhalation, step your back foot to the top of the mat to stand in Tadasana. Repeat on your left side.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Twists are commonly sequenced prior to backbends because they warm up the spine. Backbending after a twist practice also works well as a counter-pose to the closed or compressive twists in this sequence. This pose is expansive for the chest, lungs, and front thighs.
How to: From standing at the front of the mat, come to the floor however you would like. You may want to take a shortened Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A). Lie down on the mat. Bend your knees and place your feet hip-width apart and align your knees above your ankles. On an inhalation, lift your hips. Roll or shimmy your upper arms underneath you and either grab the edges of the mat or interlace your fingers (or hold a strap) behind your back. Try to get as high on your outer upper arms as possible. Remain here for 5 breaths. At the end of your last exhalation, release your arms and lower your hips. Repeat one more round or grab a block, place it under your sacrum, and rest instead. When you’re done, release your back to the mat.
Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Waterfall Pose)
Because of how much spinal mobility we experience after twisting, it can be helpful to finish with poses that stabilize your low belly and transverse abdominus. In addition to working the abdominals, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana activates the psoas, which is the primary muscle that draws our legs toward our torso. This makes it a reliable pose for core stabilization.
How to: From lying on your mat, lift your legs and straighten them toward the ceiling straight above your hips. If straightening your legs causes your lower back to round or feel restricted, bend your knees anywhere from slightly to 90 degrees. You want your lower back to feel as neutral and evenly long as possible. Release your arms to the mat alongside your body, palms facing down.
On an inhalation, keep your legs together as you lower them until they hover an inch above the mat. On your exhalation, draw your legs back up above your pelvis. Continue on this breath cadence—inhale to lower and exhale to lift—for 5 full rounds. If your lower back feels unstable, you can do this with your knees bent or try lowering one leg at a time. After your final round, hug your knees into your chest.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
It’s always fun to get creative with Savasana after themed go-to practices, like doing a grounding version when you have worked inversions, or bending knees out to the side as a hip-opener after you have done a lot of straight-legged poses. But after such a deep twisting practice, it not only feels aligning but somewhat freeing to do the traditional version of Savasana. It’s the ultimate counter to all of the compressive shapes we have taken.
How to: Stretch your legs straight and slightly wider than your hips. Relax your arms by your sides, palms facing up. If you are comfortable closing your eyes, consider covering them with a towel or eye pillow. Take a few deep breaths, allowing the floor to completely support your body. Observe the softening of your muscles, face, and jaw. Bathe in the effects of your hard work. Remain here for 5 minutes if possible.
When you are ready to move, reach your arms overhead. Pull your knees in toward your chest, roll to one side, and come to sit. Observe if you can still feel that central line of the body and perhaps set the intention to remain connected to your center today, regardless of what is happening outside of you.
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.