About Face

About Face

You are the future, the immense morning sky
turning red over the prairies of eternity.
You are the rooster-crow after the night of time,
the dew, the early devotions, and the Daughter,
the Guest, the Ancient Mother, and Death.

You are the shape that changes its own shape,
that climbs out of fate, towering,
that which is never shouted for, and never mourned for,
and no more explored than a savage wood.

You are the meaning deepest inside things,
that never reveals the secret of its owner.
And how you look depends on where we are:
from a boat you are shore, from the shore a boat.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

Detoxifying. Cleansing. Stimulating. These are some of the actions that have become associated with twisting asanas in the modern yoga world. And not surprisingly, they feed into the cult of langhana (lightening/reducing) that seems to be the goal of all movement these days. Whether the goal is to lose weight, eliminate “toxins” from the liver (alcohol binges, food additives, endocrine-disrupting plastics—you pick), or be freed from negative emotions, twists will help you become a cleaner, shinier, better version of yourself—or so they say.

While twists—the theme for my teaching this June—indeed physically squeeze the digestive organs in the belly, I wouldn’t rely on yoga to achieve these lofty detoxification goals. If you want to lose weight, you have to adjust your diet and lifestyle; same for removing toxins from the liver. A few twists won’t make up for repeated unhealthy choices. As we say in Ayurveda, the best medicine is removing the cause of disease. And this is what twists can actually help us do, if not on a physical level then definitely on a spiritual level. In my practice, twists are the postures of reckoning. Of facing the (sometimes hard) truth. Of humility. 

***

Like a good yoga teacher, I’ll break down this idea into its component parts so we can fully embody the process that helped me arrive at this meaning. First is the physical humility of twists. Many twisting asanas use an external lever—like an arm or a belt—to facilitate the movement of the spine into the shape. The reality is, our thoracic spines are very limited in mobility—on purpose. Remember, this is the part of our body that houses our most vital organs, the heart and the lungs. If a lot of movement happened there, our nervous systems would be on even higher alert than they already are, making sure our centers of life stayed safe from harm. Instead, we have a handy dandy rib cage that ensures everyday stressors won’t threaten these organs. As such, when we twist, it’s unreasonable to force our upper backs into significant rotation. Even with the help of external levers, the degree of twist we experience is mostly an illusion. There are just too many bones, and joints with extremely small ranges of motion.

The parts of our spines with more mobility—our necks (cervical) and lower backs (lumbar)—bear the weight of these illusions. When excess rotation comes from these more vulnerable junctures in the pursuit of “achieving” the twist, we get injured. The bad rap that twists often have therefore has nothing to do with their reality: when we twist within our natural range of motion (which isn’t very much) and with proper muscular support, there’s little to no danger to the neck or lower back. Recognizing this truth, and expecting less from our twists, is a natural continuation of last month’s theme of inversions. When we set more realistic goals for ourselves, our success comes organically, without much effort, practically from within. Maybe this is why twists are such wonderful counter poses to inversions: They reinforce the limits of the goals we saw with new eyes upside-down, even after we’ve returned right-side up. 

Practicing twists in this more humble way has two parts, which we’ll be exploring in my classes all month. First is engaging the core, and using the muscles of the abdomen to do that squeezing action rather than relying on the delicate vertebrae of the lumbar spine. From strong abdominals, we can twist without the help of external levers—we might not go as far, but we’ll be initiating the action from inside rather than outside (a good place to start and work on goals, am I right?). By “strong core,” I don’t mean rock-hard abs. Rather, the core muscles that wrap around the whole trunk need to be supple. We need to be able to contract and relax with equal intensity. If we entertain the detox idea for a minute, we need a belly that’s juicy enough to be squeezed; you’re not going to get anything out of a rock no matter how much you twist it. 

A strong core also encourages one of the more energetic actions happening in twists, which makes them an ideal pose to practice in early summer. There is a yielding of the front body to the back body—of yang to yin. In June (in the northern hemisphere), we’ll be experiencing the summer solstice on the 20th, what’s considered the “peak of yang” in our cycle of the year. As the sun reaches its apex in terms of the amount of time it spends in the sky, we start to naturally crave more yin as a “counter pose” of sorts. The juicy fruits, bodies of water that seem to beckon us to their shores, and proclivity toward lazing about sur l’herbe that arrive in summer are no accidents: they’re nature’s medicine. Physiologically, we might notice that the outward, more forward movement of our energy that built up in spring has reached its peak, too. And while the sun will tempt us to keep expending energy outward—with a pressure and expectation to socialize, to make the most of the weather, to have as much fun as possible—having the humility to say no to more and yes to less is what will serve us in the long run. Nature is asking us to not put any excess pressure on our hearts as they work to cool us down. 

The core helps us do this in a physiological way. When we exhale deeply and the abdominals engage, we can allow the lower back to round and come into flexion (like cat pose). Now, before you panic about twisting in flexion, hear me out. Engaging the front of the spine to make more space for the back of the spine simply gives the body more room to move around itself. There’s less compression on the vertebral discs, and more support via the breath along the sacrum and SIJ. If the twist technically begins on the exhalation, then rising upwards with the inhalation feels much more natural—like the stem of a plant straightening as it fills with water from the roots. 

On the other end of the spinal spectrum, we have the neck. Which really isn’t a problem in and of itself, but because it’s attached to our heads (and sense organs) is somewhat of an accomplice to the delusional effects of deep twists. Often in an asana, turning the head is a kind of icing on the cake of the pose. As good as it feels to bring the twist fully along the length of the spine in this way, doing so contributes to our chasing after more/new/better/other—all that which lies outside of us. If only I twist one more degree, I’ll detox myself more, become a better yogi, achieve enlightenment, [you fill in the blank]. Our eyes will never stop leading us in that direction, since our senses are designed to project outward and keep us safe from danger. In a twist, however, there actually is a limit to what you can see. Let’s consider what you’d find if you were able to twist infinitely (or, as deeply as you wanted). The only place you’d go is…nowhere. You’d arrive back at yourself, gazing at your back body and the back of your own head. If we want to practice looking at ourselves, there might be a better way to do it than torquing our spines into a helix. 

To prevent the head from pulling us off our own spines, we can stay with a lesson from last month’s inversions: keeping the head and heart in alignment. There was seemingly more at stake to keeping the heart above the head upside-down, but isn’t there just as much at stake when we don’t support that alignment in an upright position? Letting the head twist farther than the heart (which we know has its limits) is a direct path to pain and disappointment. Instead, we might twist while keeping the head and heart stacked. Lock the gaze in the same direction as the sternum. You’ll not only realize, physically see, the limits of your heart (housed in the thoracic spine), but you’ll gain respect for the integrity of the whole spine—and that which lives there. 

***

Which leads me to the last piece—the peak pose—of this philosophical sequence. When we respect the lumbar spine via the core, and the cervical spine via the gaze and senses, we arrive at the deepest lesson of twists: the spine itself. There are many yogic maps that support the idea of the spine as the essence and home of the Self: the chakras, the nadis (ida, pingala, shushumna), kundalini, polyvagal theory, the srotomsi. The Self is both bound by time and outside of time. In the former sense, the spine is anchored by the pelvis—our origins—and evolves upward into the brain—our limitless imagination and cognition. If the root of the spine (in the pelvis) is our past and the head/neck is our future, then the spine itself is the present. We can only ever truly occupy the present moment, and twisting asks us to do that with humility and respect. We feel the weight of our past and the longing of our future simultaneously, but we stay here, in the spine, in the present. What gets “detoxified” in that posture isn’t the kinds of toxins we imagine: it’s the mental toxins that keep us addicted to the anywhere-but-here, whether we’re mired in the past or jetting toward the future. 

This is the alignment of a healthy, health-giving twist. Our past/pelvis goes with us, rather than being jammed down to the ground in a “neutral” or “even” alignment. Our eyes gaze outward but remain unattached to what they see, since the breath that motivates the twist is satisfying us completely—beginning with the emptiness of an exhalation, and filling us with Prana on an inhalation as we rise. Nothing out there can compare with, or would taste as delicious as, the satisfaction of now. 

Like the value of the present moment, twists can sometimes be overlooked as true postures because they often act as transitions between other groups of asanas. Backbends and forward bends, inversions, a “release” after core work. This is 100 percent true of twists, and where their value lies when we practice them from this humble attitude. The present, the now, is nothing but a transition. We will never be where we were, and we’ll never get to where we’re going. A twist—the transformation from one state to the next—is the Self. Nature is change. Indeed, this is the peak of our life force, the peak of yang. And we can savor the juice of our life not in a dynamic, active, outward-facing posture, but in the quietest, most intimate shape of turning inward, of being moved from within. The shape that takes us closer to the root of our body, mind, and spirit and the spiral of our Source—our heart—and lets us claim that root as our own.

***

As I’ve written about over the past few months, I’ve been a little leary about (okay, terrified by) the arrival of summer. I’ve been led astray by my senses the last two summers, totally losing hold of the anchor of my Self (pelvis, spine, heart, the whole shebang), and paid the price for my mind’s cravings with intense fall and winter illnesses. The good news is, the spiritual healing work I’ve been doing with all of you in practice this year so far has laid a very strong and juicy foundation (shout out to kapha!) for me as summer begins. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, and while parts of this process are still uncomfortable, I know it will be okay. Twisting will help me honor this transition from how-it-felt-to-be-in-my-body to how-it-feels-to-be-in-my-body. Twisting will validate the effort it takes to maintain my ojas, even when the sun begins its siren song of you can do more, out there. I know I can, sun, but I’m doing enough here, thank you very much. 

For me, the key to asserting this reality is redirecting the energetic flow from front to back and yang to yin, as I described earlier, as well as from top to bottom. Yielding power from the brain to the body—or, more specifically, bringing my strong mind back to its roots in the body, and more specifically still, the roots of both in the heart. My mind has been out there doing an amazing job protecting me from danger (real and imagined) for a long, long time. This summer, it’s getting the vacation all of me deserves..

This month’s twists will be a chance for me to reverse the spiral of my attention from outward to inward. To receive my own power rather than give it away. To travel—not far and wide, but near and deep. To arrive back home, where, although we might not want to admit it, the most exciting and revelatory adventures are always unfolding when we have the courage to see, and be, where we are.



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