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Five Pillars Yoga

Yoga Lab: Twists + Binds

Benefits and Tips

One of my favorite teachers calls the process of working up to certain poses “putting deposits in the bank of your practice.” A couple tentative hops here, a few ungraceful falls there, some solo time working with a spotter or the wall and suddenly, without even really trying, you find your hips over your shoulders, hovering for a moment in handstand.

I love this analogy. One because I have found it to be completely true in my own practice, and two because of the reminder that we do not step on the mat and — ta-da! — land in camera-ready yoga asanas (even yogi supe Christy Turlington, below, has a regular practice). Another favorite teacher posits that we should do what we need to on the mat to increase consciousness; in other words, modify poses as needed to stay fully present and engaged. How boring would yoga be if we did every pose perfectly, without effort or concentration, every time?

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This brings us to Bird of Paradise, a pose we are slowly working toward. A few weeks ago we broke down Utthita Parsvakonasana, a foundational pose for its upright sister, and today we take on twists and binds in preparation of going full Svarga Dvijasana.

Spinal Mobility

Healthy spine = healthy body. The spine moves in six directions and needs to explore all six of them to stay strong and supple. Twists are key for decompressing the vertebrae and keeping the discs between them hydrated. The more space and cushion between the vertebrae the less likely they are to harden or fuse.

Binds take twists to the next level. Think of Bound Seated Spinal Twist: The linking of the arms creates an organic container for the torso to move within; as the shoulders open the yogi can use herself like a pulley system, guiding her top arm down with the fingers of the opposite hand to deepen the twist even more.

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Binds are major shoulder openers. To prepare for Bird of Paradise or other bound poses, try a forward fold with your hands behind you and interlaced. Draw your wrists together for a deeper opening along the shoulder girdle and draw your hands over your head toward the floor in front of you.

Another great prep for binds? Gomukhasana arms. The shoulders are rotating in opposite directions, with the bottom shoulder in an inward rotation and the upper arm moving outward. Try it first with a strap then work toward joining the fingers together without sacrificing the heart opener.

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Energy Boost

It’s basically impossible to take a twist or a bind when slumping or slouching. In order to fully rotate, the spine needs to be super long; this lengthening action creates space between the vertebrae, creating a clear channel through which energy can flow and unblocking anything that might be stuck. As the spine elongates, the Central Nervous System perks up and the mind clears.

In a twisted bind, the shoulders rotate, the wrists revolve and the collarbones widen, creating a sky-facing heart opener. It just feels nice.

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Good Digestion

Twists and binds are widely touted as improving digestion and massaging our internal organs. While the internal organ massage piece is a bit controversial, the action of a twist — when properly executed from the base of the abdomen and spine and not from the shoulders and the neck — absolutely fires up and brings heat to the belly, a boon for toxin elimination and regularity.

New Perspective

In a twist you are facing in one direction but looking in another. There are many ways to unpack this, but the key lesson for me here is about polarity: To move forward you must know what it is to move backward. To reach up you must be able to ground down.

And if you can put your leg behind your back and grab on to it from behind while folding forward, then that’s great, too.

Photos: One-armed balance bind; Christy Turlington; bound seated spinal twist; Gomukhasnabound eagle; bound forward fold