Twists vs. Forward Bends: Which Work Better as Counterbalancing Yoga Poses?
Most yoga teachers are aware of the idea of counterbalancing poses (pratikriya, which literally means counteracting). It basically means that in the course of the practice we challenge the body, breath, and mind in some way, and we need to take steps to return them back to the state of balance.
Counterbalancing mechanisms can take many different forms, but when applied to asana practice, it usually means that we need to understand the demands of each particular posture. This gives us an idea of which part of the body gets stressed, so that we could choose a pose or poses that will de-stress it afterward.
In Viniyoga, counterbalancing in yoga is referred to as compensating postures. Viniyoga founder Gary Kraftsow describes the concept this way: “Such appropriate compensation usually involves a simple posture or group of postures that will neutralize the stress accumulated from the preceding ones, and accordingly, they relate to the specific areas of accumulated stress.”
The parts of the body that are stressed most often are the neck and the lower back, simply because these parts of the spine are not protected by the bony structures (like ribs protect the thoracic spine). This makes them more mobile, and as a result, less stable. So any pose, whether it’s a forward bend, back bend, twist or lateral bend, has the potential of stressing the neck or lower back if we are not careful.
This means that in the course of any yoga practice we need to pay special attention to what’s happening with our backs and necks, and insert poses that would neutralize the potential stress on those areas. Which poses would do that?
The Viniyoga tradition views forward bends as universal neutralizers for all other directional movements of the spine. The forward bends are considered “the hub of the wheel,” with back bends, lateral bends and twists forming the spokes of the wheel. It means that we would never place a back bend and lateral bend next to each other, or a backbend next to a twist. There always will be a forward bend of some sort in between.
What makes the forward bend uniquely qualified as counterbalancing yoga posture, i.e. a “universal neutralizer”?
1. The forward bend is the most familiar movement of your spine. We bend forward all the time in our daily lives to lean, lift and sit. Other directional movements of the spine happen infrequently. For example, we do some twisting motions, but they are usually combined with forward bending (for things like driving, unloading the dishwasher or doing laundry). We are bending back only if we are reading a book while lying on our stomach or doing some intentional backward stretching. We don’t do any lateral bending at all. As a result, forward bending is the most comfortable movement of the spine for most people.
2. The forward bend is the primary curve of your spine. In a fetus the entire spine is curved in one continuous forward bend. Secondary curves (cervical and lumbar) develop when a baby begins to crawl and then walk to distribute the weight more evenly and cushion the body from the impacts of running and walking.
3. Every part of your spine is able to bend forward to a great degree. Below is the image of the potential range of movement in your cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine in each one of the directional movements. For example, your lumbar spine is able to bend forward 60 degrees, while its ability to twist is only 5 degrees. This greatly increases our chances of affecting our lower back with a forward bend, as opposed to a twist.
Adapted from A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana by Mel Robin
4. The forward bend is a natural resting position for most people. Most of us sleep on our sides with our knees bent and hips flexed (this probably goes back to our days as a fetus). Very few of us would be comfortable sleeping in a twist, for example.
5. Forward bends are uniquely qualified to stretch our lower backs; that’s their entire mission. The primary intention of any forward bend is to stretch the lower back, and the secondary intention is to stretch other posterior structures, including the back of the neck.
6. Your body naturally craves a forward bend after a difficult posture. A natural reaction to a deep back bend—like Ustrasana (Camel Pose), for example—is to do Balasana (Child’s Pose). A natural response to a deep reclining twist is to hug the knees to the chest. It feels good.
Based on all the ideas listed above, forward bends are usually the safest movements for most people. Most people can hug the knees to the chest. In fact, life becomes really problematic if we lose our ability to bend forward because of an injury or disease. If that happens, every simple movement, like putting on your shoes or washing dishes can become a struggle. We need to maintain our ability to bend forward.
A Few Words About Twisting Yoga Postures
The phrase that I hear quite often is that “twists relieve tension in the spine.” I do not know what that means exactly, and I would appreciate if someone explained it to me. Does it refer to this fact described by Mel Robin? He says that in spinal twisting “the compressional force will tend to dehydrate the spinal discs as disk volume and spinal length decrease on twisting. On releasing from the twist, the discs and organs will rehydrate with fresh, healthful liquids again.”  Is that what we are talking about?
Here is the trick though. For that process to happen effectively, you need to lengthen the spine from both ends, or at least, have it in a neutral position. It works similarly to rinsing out a washcloth – you have to keep the fibers under tension by pulling on the washcloth from both ends. For most of us it is easier to return to neutral spine after a gentle forward bend (we do it all day long), than it is to do it after a back bend, for example.
Basically it makes me think of two vertebrae with a disk in between as of a pair of millstones. When they are parallel to each other and squish the disk evenly between them, all is well. But if they tilt a bit (like it happens with vertebrae when spineis not in a neutral position) and proceed to twist/grind like that, it spells potential trouble for the discs. Here’s an example: when you come out of a deep back bend, your spine doesn’t return to neutral right away. If you try to twist then and there, you might be grinding on those discs at an angle. Instead, if you hug the knees to the chest first, it is more likely that your spine will return to a neutral position and your twist will be safer after that. So to revisit the earlier statement that “twists relieve tension in the spine,” I would say that it depends on what came before the twist.
And another issue is that, to quote Mel Robin again, “When the spine is twisted, there is an unavoidable twisting of the sacral plate in the sacroiliac joint, which tends to misalign it and loosen the ligaments upon which it is otherwise dependent for stability.” This means that any twist carries a potential risk for the sacroiliac joints, so we need to prepare for them adequately and not do too many of them.
Twists are not nearly as easy and comfortable for many students as simple forward bends, and carry some significant risks with them, which for me disqualifies the twists as safe neutralizing poses by themselves; combined with simple forward bends they would work just fine. What do you think?
Study with Olga Kabel and YogaUOnline: Avoiding Yoga Injuries-Common Alignment Mistakes in Forward Bends and Twists.
This article was reprinted with permission from Sequencewiz.org.
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs, but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006 becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz- a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.
(1.) Gary Kraftsow Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga
(2.) Mel Robin A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana