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In Her Father’s Light

(12.07.1944 – 12.16.2018)

by COLLEEN MORTON

August 28, 2007

Geeta Iyengar doesn’t tire easily. On the final day of the Iyengar Yoga Odyssey, a five-day conference in Pasadena, California, Geeta had invited some teachers to her hotel room for Indian food. “I was too tired to go,” laughed senior teacher Patricia Walden, who noted that the invitation symbolizes the way of the indefatigable daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar: “When Geeta is in Pune, she is serving all the time—her family, the institute, and her students.” It is precisely this kind of generosity and energy that propelled Geeta Iyengar across the United States in April and May on a month-long teaching tour.
Though most American yogis outside of the Iyengar community know B.K.S. Iyengar, fewer are familiar with Geeta Iyengar. Many within the Iyengar community, however, have studied repeatedly over the years with Geeta Iyengar in Pune, India, at the Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute where she and her brother Prashant teach the majority of classes. Many have read and recommended her groundbreaking book Yoga: A Gem for Women (Timeless Books, 1995). Many love and respect Geeta Iyengar, who is 57 this year, as an authoritative, compelling teacher in her own right. This was in evidence at the convention, where senior American Iyengar teachers took a decidedly supportive, reverential role, demonstrating postures for Iyengar and assisting the students in her daily Pranayama and asana classes. Some teachers were brought to tears as they publicly thanked Iyengar, after a question and answer session, for her generosity and wisdom.
Iyengar has not had an easy life. At the age of 9 she was diagnosed with a severe kidney disease. It was either do yoga or wait for death according to her father, since the family did not have sufficient funds for medicine. In 1973 Iyengar’s mother, Ramamani (for whom the institute is named), died suddenly. Now, as the presiding matriarch of the Iyengar household, Geeta cooks all of the meals and is responsible for much of the administrative work at the Institute. “She answers every letter she gets,” said an Iyengar teacher who attended the 80th birthday celebration for B.K.S. Iyengar in Pune in 1998.
At the celebration, when some of the participants present tried to turn the attention toward their beloved Geeta, who had also recently had a birthday, Geeta left the room, protesting that the proceedings were not about her and that she was unworthy of the honor. So I wonder what it must have felt like for Geeta Iyengar to arrive in Pasadena on opening night to a room full of chattering yogis who fell into silent veneration when she entered.
Geeta Iyengar has both her father’s famous stern bearing and respect for discipline and her mother’s compassion—of which she spoke fondly on Mother’s Day, on a rare personal note. Iyengar also has a sweet, quiet sense of humor. Several times during the convention, she joked playfully with the students about their laziness, the mind tricks that they willingly go along with to avoid facing their fears and limitations. And at other times, Iyengar was unrelentingly stern, no-nonsense, even impatient—as teachers of great devotion are when their students fail them for lack of commitment or effort. People say we are too strong or strict,” said Iyengar as we worked with the placement of the hands in Downward-Facing Dog. “But if you reach through the palms, I will not shout, ‘What is it that makes you not pay attention there?'” Each instruction Iyengar gives belies her conviction that we owe it to ourselves to give yoga our supreme, honest effort. Behind many of her instructions, there is the poetry of a tender heart: “Small mind: short, closed palms. Your hands should open to give.”
Iyengar’s hands are wide open. She is not interested in coddling the ego—her own or anyone else’s. She does not underestimate her understanding of the vast subject of yoga. “I know what I am doing,” she says, but adds, “and I know what Guruji (B.K.S Iyengar) has done.” It is the work of her guru that she wants to clarify in the minds of Americans—often too eager for answers, impervious to authority, or distracted in our bodies to get it. Her mission is clear: to stand, as she once put it, in her father’s light and to illumine the way for the rest of us.

Yoga Journal: You commented on the interest in yoga in the United States, “Let it not be a wildfire.” Can you explain this?
Geeta Iyengar: The rising interest in yoga and the enthusiasm are always welcome. For me a healthy yoga addiction is better than other addictions. The fire of yoga must remain burning without smoke in the spiritual heart throughout the practice, the sadhana. The interest of the practitioner, sadhaka, needs to be affirmative and dynamic. However, this interest should not be a wildfire burning down the forest; the interest in yoga should not be disoriented and disarrayed.
Often the seeker goes to different teachers and different schools of yoga without having the proper aim or background. Instead of getting a solid footing on the path and its subject matter, he acquires knowledge in bits and pieces. The body, mind, and intelligence remain muddled. Going to a new teacher before allowing oneself to practice and digest the methods learned from another teacher leads one toward more confusion than clarity. Learning first with one teacher and getting well-established in practice makes one able to discriminate with maturity.
Often pains, problems, discomforts, doubts, misunderstandings, and misconceptions arise because of lack of understanding. This further leads toward lack of inner penetration into oneself. Learning yoga cannot be like eating junk food. One has to stick to the method in order to absorb and assimilate the sadhana precisely and properly. Remember the adage, “The rolling stone gathers no moss.” It is the same with the roving yogic sadhaka.
YJ: You have pointed out that all of the students’ questions about yoga have been oriented toward disease. What are the implications of this, in your view?
GI: Yoga has become popular as a healing method since it has curative and preventative value. But its scope is wider than this. The healing and therapeutic value is a kind of positive side effect of sadhana, a by-product. From this healing process, the urge to go further, to go close to the unknown, may start sooner or later.
The interest and the vision of the sadhaka should not be limited only to therapy. Certainly one has to practice having in mind the disease one suffers from. The practice should not be antagonistic to the healing process. One has to know how to deal with one’s own body and mind so that problems are solved and diseases are overcome. One cannot neglect demands for health from the body and mind.
But at the same time one should not divert one’s attention from the basic yogic approach and the goal: to be closer to the core of being. To let the intelligence touch the inner body also. One has to learn to look inside oneself to find one’s emotional and mental state as well as one’s intellectual capacity. One has to learn to see the problems of mind, intelligence, I-consciousness, and egoism, which often need to be corrected to stay on the path of self-awareness anywhere and everywhere. One cannot remain eternally stuck at the physical pains and problems and physical well-being only.

While correcting the posture of the body in asana or the breathing method in pranayama,it is not merely the muscles, bones, or breath that we correct. We touch our consciousness in order to know its moods and modes. The involvement of consciousness in asana is articulated in such a way that the flow of consciousness remains sober and pure.
YJ: You are an Ayurvedic doctor. How much understanding of Ayurvedic principles is essential for yoga students?
GI: Well, any knowledge of healing sciences will be supportive in the practice of yoga, whether it is Ayurveda, modern medical science, or homeopathy. However, apart from the physical body, Ayurveda recognizes the moral, mental, psychological, and intellectual aspects of human beings. Therefore, if along with human anatomy, physiology, and neurology, one understands one’s constitutional structure—the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas; and the three humors: vata, pitta, and kapha—one can have a clear picture or X-ray of one’s body and mind.
Still this is objective knowledge about oneself. With this background of objective knowledge, yoga helps to transform that objective knowledge to subjective experiential knowledge of oneself. For instance, Guruji, my father, did not have a chance to study Ayurveda, but his own sadhana, his thorough practice, total involvement, deep penetration, and complete dedication in yoga helped him to know the body and the mind in depth. In fact, his way of practice, teaching, and treatment is based on his own experience. He used his physical and mental body as a laboratory, yet his line of treatment became universal.
It is only after studying Ayurveda that I realized how close Guruji’s experiences are to Ayurveda, as far as the treatment is concerned. I too studied Ayurveda after gaining sufficient understanding about yogic science. One should first concentrate on yoga since that is the main subject. But understanding the basics of the fundamental constitution of the human body-mind according to Ayurveda will be of great help in knowing oneself.
YJ: You have been encouraging students to come to an understanding of the poses through their own experience in their bodies. What should a student do when his or her own internal experience disagrees with what the teacher is teaching?
GI: I did not say that students should understand the asanas through their bodies. The body is the instrument. One has to have a thorough knowledge of the asanas. But while doing the asana or being in asana, one has to learn to experience one’s body—outer and inner. In order to penetrate consciousness, one’s awareness and intelligence need to penetrate the body as well as the mind so that both cooperate to awaken the inner consciousness.
And this is the yogic sadhana in a real sense. Now when I was asking the students to look into their asanas and feel their bodies—the body’s positioning, its response—in fact it was to help them learn the process of experiencing the placement of the mind and intelligence. This placement is the art of feeling oneself inside out and outside in.
When a teacher is teaching, it is true that the student has to obey in order to learn. But it does not mean that the student should not use his discrimination. When the internal experience of the student disagrees with the teacher’s teaching, the student has to analyze and work more, put more effort into understanding what the teacher is imparting. The student has to rub his intelligence a bit more strongly so that experiential knowledge of the teacher shines forth.
While teaching, this is what I ask the students to do. They have to learn to look within, feel themselves, sensitize themselves. It is not merely an outer performance. It is a method of grasping. It is an art of penetration. To teach the physical procedure of asana is simple, but to teach the mental process in the very asana is a meaningful and in-depth approach.

YJ: American readers will be interested to know what it was like for you being the daughter of such a brilliant teacher and a teacher yourself of your father’s techniques. You say he treated you “not as his daughter but as a pupil” in Yoga: A Gem for Women. Would you elaborate?
GI: Somebody asked me a while back how I felt being under the shadow of my father and I said instantly, “I am not under his shadow but under the light.”
When I teach my father’s techniques, he is no more my father but my guru. I follow my guru as any other disciple follows his guru. But it is certainly not a blind faith. Guruji’s brilliance in this path has proved the rightness and reality of the subject. His sadhana and experience have become not only a guideline but a beacon light for us. When I teach his techniques, I am sure that it is a proven path. While practicing myself, I have seen its value and result. In teaching, I have seen the results on the students.
When I was undergoing training with Guruji, he did not show his affection as a blind love toward his daughter. Yoga demands discipline. Guruji is affectionate and compassionate, but he would not compromise the discipline. He teaches how we as pupils of yoga need to discipline ourselves for our own benefit.
YJ: You spoke about how your mother was compassionate but stern when she was raising you. How would you define compassion in a teacher? How can a teacher teach with the right balance of compassion and discipline?
GI: Compassion and discipline are not two separate things. They are two sides of the same coin. Discipline without compassion may prove brutal and fatal, and compassion without discipline may prove ineffectual or destructive. A teacher needs the right balance.
While teaching, the teacher has to discipline the disciple. But his discipline cannot be a kind of hard and rigid rule because at the end the discipline is meant for the good of the pupil. The teacher should not burden the pupil with discipline. Rather the teacher wants the pupil to go on a right and righteous path. However, this change does not occur instantly. The compassion of the teacher lubricates the stiffness and strictness of the discipline so that the student follows the discipline smoothly.

Colleen Morton is Internet Content Director at Yoga Journal.

100th Anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Birth

Please enjoy this 20 min. preview of a film not yet available: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sadhaka-the-yoga-of-b-k-s-iyengar#/

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mr. Iyengar’s birth:
“Samadhi” and “Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar (1987 Harvard Demonstration)” will be shown.

11:05a and 11:30a respectively, December 15th, 2018

Irene B. French Community Center, Recreation Rm.
5701 Merriam Dr., Merriam, KS 66203
(entry faces Kessler Ln.; north of Johnson Dr., and west of I-35)

Bring a friend if you like. Snacks provided, so please RSVP.

Om Peace Amen
iyengaryogakc.com

The Multifidus in Action*

and in Yoga
by Doug Keller

The multifidus muscles come into play when you are: standing still, bending forward, twisting to either side, picking things up or lifting heavier objects, walking.

They are not active when you are: bending directly to one side or the other (no twisting of the spine involved), bending backwards when there is no resistance (such as when bending backwards while standing), lying down.

These muscles are at work through a specific range of movement, and also need to know when to let go. In a forward bend the multifidus muscles contract as you bend over until you are about 40°-70° –and then the back muscles normally relax as the ligaments take over.

Fist Steps
From our description of the kind of actions in which the multifidus muscles are active, it’s fairly easy to see that the majority of the basic hatha yoga āsanas will help strengthen them. The multifidus muscles are given a workout most when you are practicing forward bends and twists, as well as basic standing postures. They’re also strengthened when you do simple back-bending actions which involve resistance from gravity, such as in prone positions like Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana) in which you lift and extend your legs behind you.

If you do suffer from low back pain, you of course have reason to be careful before attempting such poses. Thus we should start with a couple of simple suggestions that are safest for relatively inexperienced students, and then look more deeply at the basic actions of the bandhas that can be incorporated into a more seasoned yogi’s practice.

The first step is a fairly familiar warmup that can be part of any practice:
1. Start on your hands and knees, placing a folded blanket under your knees if necessary. Keep your head in line with your spine and begin with a natural, neutral inward curve in your lower back.
2. As you exhale, extend your leg back, bringing it in line with your spine, the leg parallel to the floor and big toe pointing straight down. Keep your hips level and steady, and your abdomen firm to keep your lower back from moving.
3. Hold for a second, and then lower your knee to the floor as you inhale.
4. Alternate between the two legs, doing a few repetitions on each side, until you can work up to doing either a total of two minutes work, or twenty repetitions with each leg. Once a day for two or three days a week is plenty when you’re just starting out.

If you can manage this amount, then you add more weight and resistance to the exercise by including arm extensions:
–As you extend your right leg back, raise and extend your left arm forward at the same time, palm facing downward. Don’t lift the arm so much that it causes pinching in your shoulder or increased arching in your lower back.
–Lower your arm and leg down at the same time, and follow the same program of repetitions. As this becomes easier, light ankle weights can be added (starting with 1 lb. each); the weight is appropriate if you can manage 30 seconds of doing the exercise or 10 repetitions.
–Balance is of course more tricky in this version, and it has the added advantage of toning your lower abdominals and obliques as you work to steady your balance!

The next logical step is to take the same action into Downward Facing Dog Pose: step one foot a bit closer to the midline and lift the other leg until it is in line with your upper body. Keep your big toe pointing straight downward to keep your hips level. In this case there is no need to twist: your focus is on working the muscles at the back of the spine symmetrically. Firm your lower belly, gently pressing the muscles below your navel toward the spine, drawing them upward slightly as your tailbone lengthens back.

This last action in Downward Facing Dog Pose introduces us to the actions of the bandhas in conjunction with the multifidus muscles. This is where the deeper yoga begins.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications

What is a Multifidus?*

by Doug Keller

The name comes from a combination of the Latin words multus, meaning ‘many’, and findo, meaning ‘to cleave’. The name really refers to a group of many tiny individual muscles that ‘cleave’ the facet joints of the spine, interwoven from the top of the sacrum all the way up the base of the head. There are lots of multifidus muscles, each one crossing just two to five vertebrae each. As a whole, the multifidus muscles work together to provide stability to the spine, keeping the vertebrae in a safe position regardless of what the spine is being asked to do. And each multifidus has an individual job to do, controlling its own single segment of the spine.

And that can be the problem. In many cases of back pain, it’s just a single multifidus muscle – rather than the group – that is not working properly, and there is plenty of evidence linking failure of a single muscle to the specific area of back pain. And each multifidus is particularly vulnerable to a breakdown. Most muscles in the body are controlled by several nerves, which means that they have a backup to keep them running if one nerve fails. But the multifidus is rather unique, in that each of them is run by a single nerve from the spinal cord. If something happens to the nerve, the muscle stops functioning properly, like a single light going out on the Christmas tree. Since it lacks a backup, the multifidus is more prone to failure.

Why would this cause back pain? Because of the specific job entrusted to it. Each multifidus attaches directly to the joint capsule or tissue that surrounds the small facet joints at the back of the spine. When the multifidus contracts, it pulls backwards on this capsule, pulling the capsule or tissue that surrounds the small facet joints at the back of the spine. When the multifidus contracts, it pulls backward s on this capsule, pulling the capsule away from the bones of the joint so that it doesn’t get nipped or pinched by the vertebrae as you bend forward or twist. Since the capsule contains nerve endings, any pinching of the capsule will result in an attack of back pain, even if you’re doing simple everyday movements that never caused pain before.

But back pain from the multifidus does not arise only from pinching of the joint capsule. Often it is the muscle itself that is crying out in pain. Paradoxically, back pain often arises when the multifidus muscles don’t relax and release they’re supposed to! In the case of pregnant women – where the increasing weight of the child steadily increases the load on the spine – studies have found that the increased activity in the multifidus goes hand in hand with the increasing intensity of back pain that comes with pregnancy. In fact, measurements of increased activity in the multifidus provide a good predictor of which pregnant women will suffer from back pain.

In cases of disk herniation, we’re finding that the effect upon the mutifidus is also involved. Though the casual relationship is not fully understood, it’s been found that a herniated disk causes the multifidus to be overactive and contract more than it should. Moreover, the multifidus muscles in the area of the herniation have been shown to be much smaller (hence weaker) than normal. By the same token, studies have shown the exercises for the lower back muscles in cases of disk herniation have had high success rates in overcoming back pain.

An overworked multifidus muscle is weak and stressed, and even smaller or shrunken. A strong muscle, it seems, is also one that is able to relax and release when it ought to.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications

 

Multifidus Muscle Atrophy and Association with Low Back Pain

Dysfunction in the lumbar multifidus muscles is strongly associated with low back pain. The dysfunction can be caused by inhibition of pain by the spine. This dysfunction frequently persists even after the pain has disappeared. Such persistence may help explain the high recurrence rates of low back pain. Persistent lumbar multifidus dysfunction is diagnosed by atrophic replacement of the multifidus with fat, as visualized by magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound. One way to help recruit and strengthen the lumbar multifidus muscles is by tensing the pelvic floor muscles for a few seconds “as if stopping urination midstream”.
More at Wikipedia

Low Back Pain*

Part 1: Looking for a Common Cause
by Doug Keller

In recent years an intense search has been underway to find a single common denominator that might provide a key to the problem of low back pain. The results have been rather surprising, and the solutions they suggest point to one of the most fundamental actions taught by the original hatha yogis – called the Uḍḍīyāna Bandha – as central to a simple program for overcoming recurring low back pain.

Of course there are indeed quite a few things that can go wrong in the spine that we think of as causing back pain – such as a herniated or degenerated disk, nerve compression in the spine, or imbalances arising from scoliosis, a tilted pelvis, or one leg being shorter than the other. And indeed, one or more of these problems may present in your own spine… But the surprising thing is that although you may have these problems, they are not necessarily the cause of your back pain! In fact, you may have these conditions and not even suffer from back pain at all!

This was the finding of a range of studies chronicled by Jim Johnson in his book, The Multifidus Back Pain Solution. Studies using MRIs in the mid 80s and 90s took the novel approach of doing extensive imaging of people with no complaints of back pain – in addition to those who do suffer from it – and found that a surprising 24% of people with no back pain had spinal nerve compression, and a whopping 64% of people with no pain had abnormal disks. Additional studies show that things such as having one leg longer than the other or one hip higher than the other, a stiff and inflexible back, an increased curve in your lower back, scoliosis (except when the curve is 80° or more) or even a herniated disk is not necessarily the cause of back pain, simply because such conditions can be found in people with pain-free backs.

Perhaps there is something that all sore backs have in common despite their different stories – something that explains why or how one person with a ‘bad disk’ suffers from back pain, while another does not. Then we would be much closer to preventing recurrences of back pain by treating the true cause.

Researchers were actually quite successful in coming up with just such a common denominator: a particular set of muscles called the multifidus muscles (pronounced ‘məl-ˈtif-ə-dəs’). People who suffer acute back pain have been found to have noticeable abnormalities in these muscles, while people who are pain-free had no such abnormalities in their multifidus – even though they did have disk and other problems. This was the finding of a researcher named Haig, published in the journal Spine in 1995.

This led to experiments in which exercises aimed specifically at strengthening the multifidus muscles were given to one group, while (in keeping with good scientific method) a second ‘control’ group was given no such exercises or treatment. At the end of a year only 30% of the ‘exercise’ group had a recurrence of low back pain, while the ‘non-exercise’ group suffered an 84% recurrence rate. After three years, the numbers shifted only slightly: a 35% recurrence rate for the exercise group, and 75% recurrence rate for the control group. It seems the researchers were on to something.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications
http://www.doyoga.com/bookstore.html

Let’s Twist Again

by Julie Gudmestad

Twisting poses will help restore your spine’s natural range of motion, cleanse your organs, and stimulate circulation.
TRY ASKING SOME non yogis what they think happens in a yoga class, and at least one will answer that people get “all twisted up like a pretzel.” In fact, we yogis do twist a lot in a well-rounded yoga practice: We twist while sitting, standing, and standing on our heads. Because there is such an intriguing variety of twists, you might guess that twists provide an abundance of benefits. And they do. There are physiological benefits to the circulatory system and internal organs, structural benefits to the musculoskeletal system, and focusing benefits to your consciousness.

India yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar describes twists as a “squeeze-and-soak” action. The organs are compressed during a twist, flushing out blood filled with metabolic by-products and toxins. When we release the twist, fresh blood flows in, carrying oxygen and the building blocks for tissue healing. So from the physiological standpoint, twists stimulate circulation and have a cleansing and refreshing effect on the torso organs and associated glands.

While these physiological benefits are undeniably valuable, this column will focus primarily on the functions of and benefits to muscles and joints used in twists. Yoga twists involve the spine, as well as several major joints, including the hips and shoulders. In fact, full range of motion in spinal rotation is essential to many yoga poses. Unfortunately, many people lose full spinal rotation in the course of living a sedentary lifestyle. Some losses can occur if joints fuse due to trauma, surgery, or arthritis, but most range of motion loss comes from the shortening of soft tissues. If you don’t lengthen the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (connective tissues) to their full length at least a few times a week, they will gradually shorten and limit the nearby joint’s mobility. In the case of twisting, the limitation is usually in soft tissues around the spine, abdomen, rib cage, and hips. If you regularly practice yoga twists, there are some clear benefits to these same joints and soft tissues. Not only do you maintain the normal length and resilience of the soft tissues, but you also help to maintain the health of the discs and facet joints (the small pair of joints on the back of the spine where each two vertebrae overlap).

A Twist a Day
TO MAINTAIN OR RESTORE the normal spinal rotation, I recommend that you practice a simple spinal twist once or twice a day. (Note: If you have a spinal disc injury, consult your health-care provider before practicing twists of any kind.) A variation of the twist Bharadvāṇjāsana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Bharadvaja) done sitting on a chair is an excellent option because it is so easy to integrate into everyday life.

Even in such a basic twist, however, there are a few anatomical points to keep in mind. Most important is to elongate the spine; a slumped-over posture significantly limits spinal rotation. So begin by sitting sideways on a stable, armless chair, and take a moment to ground your sitting bones and draw your spine straight up toward the crown of your head. Also, make sure that your spine is perpendicular to the chair seat, neither listing to the side nor to the front or back. The second important point to remember is that each section of the spine has a different rotational mobility. The cervical (neck) vertebrae, for example, are the most mobile in twisting. Because the 12 thoracic (midback) vertebrae have ribs attached, they can’t twist as freely as the neck vertebrae. And because of the orientation of the lumbar (lower spine) facet joints, the rotation of these five vertebrae is the most limited. So to ensure that you don’t over twist in the more mobile parts of your spine, begin your seated twist by bringing your awareness into your lower back and beginning the twist from there. Let the twist gradually unfold up your spine, as though you were walking up a spiral staircase, so that each vertebra participates in the twist. If instead you twist quickly and without awareness, your neck will likely do most of the twisting, and whole sections of your spine can remain “stuck” and unmoving.

Once you’ve begun to rotate toward the back of the chair, you can use your hands on the corners of the chair back to deepen the twist in your spine and rib cage. Pull gently with the hand on the near corner and push with the hand on the far corner. Continue to sit tall, and don’t work so hard with the pulling hand that you draw that shoulder forward. As the twist unfolds all the way up into your neck, your head will turn, but be sure to keep your eyes and gaze soft. Hold the twist on each side for a minute or so, and use your breathing to help deepen the twist: On one exhalation, draw yourself taller; on the next exhalation, twist a bit more. With regular practice of this and other simple twists, your spine will regain its full potential for twisting.

Criss-Cross Action
NOW THAT YOU know the basics about restoring your spine’s rotational range of motion, let’s take a look at muscle activity in twists. Many, many muscle groups are involved in twists, contracting and shortening or stretching and lengthening. There are several groups of back muscles of varying length – the rotators, semi-spinalis, and multifidus—that contribute to spinal rotation. Some of the muscles that actively rotate the torso are quite small, like the intercostals, the layers of muscles between each two ribs. And several sets of muscles contribute to your ability to turn your head; the easiest to see is the sternocleidomastoids. The two SCMs sit on the front of your neck, forming a “V” starting at the top of the breastbone and running to the base of the skull just behind teach ear. Look in a mirror: If you turn your head to the right, you’ll see your left SCM contract, and vice versa.

Probably the most important muscle group in active twisting is the abdominal obliques. The obliques form two layers of muscle on either side of the better-known rectus abdominus, the “six-pack” muscle that runs vertically up the center of the abdomen from the public bone to the rib cage. The two internal obliques, left and right, originate primarily from the pelvis and travel diagonally up across the abdomen, while the two external obliques originate primarily from the lower rib cage and travel diagonally down across the abdomen. All of the obliques have strong attachments to the substantial fascia of the lower back and to the abdomen.

Take together, the four obliques form a diagonal cross that girdles the abdomen, and they have important functions in supporting the lower back, pelvis, and internal organs. The diagonal lines of the muscles also give them strong leverage in rotating the torso. When you turn to the right in Bharadvajasana, for example, the left external oblique will team with the right internal oblique to rotate your torso. At the same time, the opposite pair of obliques will have to lengthen. And so your twisting range of motion can be reduced by the inability of one pair (one external oblique and the other opposite internal oblique) to lengthen, while weakness in the opposite pair could limit your ability to actively draw yourself into the twist.

The obliques have a big part to play in yoga poses, and sometimes that role can be extremely demanding. Twisting arm balances such as Aṣṭāvakrāsana (Eight-angle Pose), and Pārśva Bakāsana (Side Crane Pose) require big work from he obliques. It you’re not quite ready for the difficulties of arm balances, you can still challenge your obliques in standing poses like Trikoṇāsana (Triangle Pose), Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose), Pārśvakoṇāsana (Side Angle Pose), and Parivṛtta Trikoṇāsana (Revolved Triangle Pose). Each of these poses requires a strong rotation of the torso against the pull of gravity. For example, when you perform Trikonasana to the right, your muscles actively twist your trunk and neck to the left so that your heart looks straight ahead, not at the floor, and your eyes look up at your left hand. But when you do Parivṛtta Trikoṇāsana to the right, your torso and neck twist strongly to the right, requiring strong contractions of the obliques, the spinal rotators, the intercostals, and the left sternocleidomastoid.

In addition to the regular practice of standing poses, you can help keep your obliques strong by practicing the full or modified versions of Jāṭharaparivṛttāsana (Revolved Abdomen Poses). For the modified, milder version, lie on your back, with arms stretched out to the sides at shoulder height and knees pulled up toward your chest. Exhaling, smoothly drop both knees tone side, keeping your knees pulled up toward your arm. On your next exhalation, lift your legs back up toward your chest, flattening your back waist into the floor. For the full pose, lie on your back, arms outstretched again, and stretch your legs straight up toward the ceiling. Lower your straight legs toward the floor on one side (for the maximum challenge, don’t quite touch the floor). Keep stretching out through the soles of the feet; also, when you lift the legs back up to vertical, be sure to press the lower back flat. Since this can be quite a challenging pose, you may want to consult with your health-care provider before trying this if you have lower back or sacroiliac problems.

Now that you know how to reap the physiological and structural benefits of twists, you might also notice the centering benefits to your consciousness. As the layers of muscle and bone revolve deeply, your attention is drawn into the stable, unmoving center of the pose. And this ability to stay centered as the hubbub of the world swirls around you will pay obvious dividends in the yoga of daily living.

Published in Yoga Journal, January/February 2003