Welcome to the 2nd of three articles on Spinal Twists! Find the first one here {but read them in any order}.

Spinal twists are often a yogi’s go-to for the upper spine {though a twist’s ultimate capacity is in its potential to cultivate inner quietude and bliss}. Yoga teachers use twists all the time to help with the neck pain that students commonly come in with.

Yoga teachers and students alike easily recognize that the things we do with our bodies {computers, smart phones, driving}, can be damaging to your neck {not to mention your mental state}, and you would hope that your yoga practice can help unwind these patterns.

But did you realize that your yoga alignments could also be exacerbating the issues of cervical spinal pressure?  

Let’s explore Jathara Parivrttanasana, a reclined spinal twist that keeps your body on the floor, offering the potential for deep body release. This is a commonly practiced reclined twist in all styles of yoga, and has three classical head positions which we can explore.

But first, let me introduce you to your cervical spine {the spine through the neck} and your thoracic spine {your spine through the ribcage}

First, our natural architecture – The vertebrae through the ribcage are naturally limited in their mobility. Why? Because they are attached to ribs, which are protecting vital organs – heart and lungs. Meanwhile the vertebrae through the neck are designed to be more mobile. Why? Imagine an ancient context… you can turn your head to see danger from a hiding place. And every day, we use this neck mobility to communicate, expressing the mind’s desires and aversions with a nod yes, shake no, or do that neutralizing Indian side-to-side wiggle.

Now, the common problem – The natural architecture described above gets over-exaggerated in most bodies. This means that the spine through the ribcage is MUCH tighter and more compressed than it was designed to be, and the neck becomes MUCH more hyper-mobile and unstable than it is supposed to be.

The more you OVER twist and OVER arch your neck… the more you’ll find 
1. The neck is more subject to pain and injury
2. The compression in the ribcage increases

Wait, what? Yes. The compression and “lockdown” of the ribcage ripples up and causes the neck to be more hyper-mobile and subject to injury and then this pattern trickles back down to cause more lockdown in the ribcage. This is how the body works. When one area is more stiff, a nearby area is at risk for excess mobility and when one area is more hyper-mobile the surrounding areas lock down more to provide the body with more protection and stability.

Think you don’t have this?  Well, even the ancient yogis recognized this pattern of deep layered tension around the heart, calling it a “granthi” {meaning “knot” in Sanskrit}. Because of our combined natural architecture + our common problem, many teachers and students unknowingly exacerbate the problem in yoga, one of the places people are trying to heal.

I invite you to check out the cover of any yoga magazine displaying a backbend – you’ll see a crunch in the waist and a crunch in the neck. Now take a look at the pelvis + ribcage. Straight lines. Yes, we can point to the natural architecture, but the damaging over-exaggeration in extreme yoga poses done without understanding is landing FAR TOO MANY yoga teachers on chiropractic tables at best and surgeons tables at worst.

To quote Katy Bowman“People who see themselves as hypermobile tend to participate in stretching and flexibility programs because it is easy for them. The problem is, when entering into stretches, those with hypermobile joints actually rearrange their bones to bypass the stretch. People with hypermobile joints actually have very (very, very!) tight muscles. This may seem confusing at first, until you learn to see what each bone is doing during a movement.”

Below are three head positions, and their effects. I encourage you to try them!

1. Head Away from Your Knees, aka “access the neck”

Lying in Jathara Parivrttanasana for about 30 seconds or more,  roll (don’t slide) your head slowly away from your knees. Notice the effects through your neck.

In this position, the focal point of the twist is your neck. But unfortunately, often it is just one already-mobile area of the neck. Like if you were to just crimp a garden hose in one spot. 

For some yogis, this head position will offer momentary neck tension relief by bringing movement and sensation to the cervical spine. But remember the anatomy lesson above? While this position may feel to practitioners like something more is happening {because the neck is moving more, and it looks more dramatic to the eye}, keeping the focal point in the neck runs the risk of crunching or over-stretching this already-weak and over-used region.  PLUS there is the secondary effect of actually exacerbating the very cause of the neck tension, with that trickle down effect I mentioned earlier. When the neck movement is over-exaggerated, the ribcage locks down more to provide stability. 

It’s valuable to know though, that this position will not resolve the underlying cause of neck and shoulder pain or tension. It can feel great to some, and again it can offer superficial and momentary relief, while satisfying the desire of practitioners who need to feel like they are going to the maximum angle in poses and “doing yoga” rather than letting yoga do them.

Plus, yogis who have already gotten a fair amount of decompression in the ribcage can use this angle to help “carry the changes” up the rest of the spine to the base of the skull. In this case, rather than a kink movement in just one segment of the neck, there is a potential for each vertebrae of the cervical spine to twist and decompress.

2. Head Toward Your Knees, aka “access the knot behind the heart”

Lying in Jathara Parivrttanasana for about 30 seconds or more,  roll (don’t slide) your head slowly toward your knees. Notice the effects through your neck.

You’ll find that is the most gentle angle for the body and the most comfortable for most people.  BUT what you may not be able to feel {yet} is the real reason to practice it this way,

This position draws the “focal point” of the pose DOWN, from the cervical spine into the thoracic spine, specifically, in the vertebrae between the shoulder blades, behind the heart – the granthi

Because this area is a knot, many students feel less in this head position, even though something more important is happening {it’s just that granthi areas are blind spots – they are numb – until they start to open up}. In this angle students avoid over-twisting the neck, which actually helps the neck to stabilize and LENGTHEN {yes, because when you overstretch the neck it becomes unstable and more compressed long-run}.

3. Your Head in the Midline, aka “access the flow from heart to mind”

After lying in Jathara Parivrttanasana for about 30 seconds or more, you can slowly roll (don’t slide) your head to the middle.  This can be the middle of your body, with your nose in line with your spine, or, if it’s easier for you, the middle of the room, with nose in line with ceiling.  Choose the angle that is comfortable for you.  Relax your neck while you are in this angle.  Notice the effects on your body and your overall state or presence. You can stay here for the rest of the pose.

This is the head-heart alignment that is ideal in seated meditation and is not unique to any particular style of yoga. You can cultivate it in Jathara Parivrttanasana, just as you can find it in Shavasana. Ultimately, we want to take this head-heart alignment from supine positions into seated + standing positions.

In this position, you may get a nice opening between your head and heart.  There is no real focal point, but rather, a passageway is re-opened between your head and your heart.

Other poses that give a similar kind of opening are seated meditation poses with a relaxed but aligned spine, head in line with the rest of the spine, like Sukhasana, Vajrāsana, Virasana and Svastikasana. In these poses, often during meditation, practitioners often experienced a natural re-alignig of head and heart, along with a deep inner peace.

To sum up…

In Option #1, if you turn your head away from your knees, you will get more twisting in your neck, but less opening behind your heart. In Option #2, with your head toward your knees, you get less movement in the neck, and more access to the ribcage {which is the starting point of neck and shoulder problems anyway}, with a related trickle-up release effect into the neck. In Option #3, you have the potential to open up the freeway of bliss between your heart and mind, aligning everything as it should be on the physical and subtle levels {when you are ready}. Want the benefits of all three? I suggest you start with 2, then play with the other two as your ribcage decompresses and your neck stabilizes. ​

Timeless teacher Adi Shankaracarya said:
​“Start with the heart. Meditate on the awareful being that is seated in the heart. Then, move your awareness upward, and the mind becomes quiet.”

Of all of yoga’s twists, “JP” can be the most effective twist for getting movement through the often-tight ribcage. The decompression through the ribcage accesses the tight area of the spine that really NEEDS release, opening up the knot around the heart, with a related effect into the neck. The most important benefit of this pose though is the quieting of the mind and the potential for freedom from effort recommended by Patanjali in the 2nd chapter of his yoga sutras in order to master a yoga pose. ​