Week 3: Twisting and balancing
Twists of all shapes and sizes are extremely beneficial and tie directly back to one of yoga’s most basic and central purposes: to maintain suppleness of the spine and general health of the central nervous system. The spine is the epitome of our core. It is our central axis and houses the all-important spinal cord. In one way or another, just about everything we want to accomplish physically requires the spinal cord. Twists penetrate deep into the body’s core, stimulating and toning internal organs, particularly the kidneys and liver, while creating suppleness and freedom in the spine, opening the chest, shoulders, neck and hips. Twisting helps maintain the normal length and resilience of the spine’s soft tissues and the health of the vertebral disks and facet joints of the spine, restoring the spine’s natural range of motion.
But where do twists really come from? The spine is the obvious answer. But the hips and shoulders play a key role in our ability to work deeper into the spine in twisting postures. This is one reason yoga pays such close attention to these two areas. Many poses force us to open our hips and shoulders so that we can eventually work more deeply into the spine. Tension in this area can have surprising ripple effects.
We find that in twisting our body more and more, we more easily unwind accumulated physical and emotional tension contained inside. Along with this release of tension, twists tend to bring the body-mind to a more neutral state.
Balances promote concentration and calm, they strengthen our muscles and build our coordination and balance, improving our ways of standing and walking as well as how we perform many other everyday activities. And these benefits might actually prolong our lives, helping us avoid the falls that often lead to injuries and death among the elderly.
Standing on one foot, we naturally drop extraneous thoughts to focus on the task at hand. That’s why these poses can instil a deep sense of calm even though they require intense, unwavering alertness.
When we balance, we align our body’s centre of gravity with the earth’s gravitational field. Quite literally, we place ourselves in physical equilibrium with a fundamental force of nature. But we can’t achieve this harmony by remaining absolutely still. Instead, we must refresh our balance moment after moment. The sustained effort to centre and re-centre, when successful, brings not only our flesh and bones into balance but also our nerve impulses, thoughts, emotions, and very consciousness. Hence, we feel calm. Equilibrium brings equanimity. Lack of equilibrium brings just the opposite. There is something uniquely frustrating about losing our balance in one-legged postures. It goes beyond the instinctive fear of falling and strikes directly at the ego. After all, we rarely tumble to the ground and hurt ourselves; we simply put our other foot down. Yet that simple act can be maddening.
Alignment: The Physics of Balance
The three essential elements of balance are alignment, strength, and attention. Alignment of the body with gravity is crucial; it makes balance physically possible. Strength gives us the power to create, hold, and adjust alignment. And attention continually monitors alignment so we know how to correct it from one moment to the next.
In many ways, balancing the body on one leg is much like balancing a seesaw. The same laws of physics apply: If you align the centre of gravity over the base of support, you balance. If you don’t, you don’t. It’s as simple as that. Of course, since your body is quite a bit more complicated than a seesaw, balance is often not so simple to achieve!