Few things cause the spine to tingle with delight like a long-held deep spinal twist. From coccyx (our tailbone) to crown, spinal twists have the power to wring out the day’s worries along with the accumulation of toxins— Or so we’ve been told. But is there any hard science to back it up? Well, sorta . . .
What we’ve been told spinal twists do:
You’d be hard-pressed to find a student of yoga who hasn’t heard of the detoxifying benefits of spinal twists and equally challenged to find a teacher who hasn’t spoken the words themselves (I’m one!). Let’s unpack this popular claim and see if it warrants real merit.
In my first first teacher training program, I remember our instructor guiding us through a basic spinal twist, using the “dishrag” metaphor: “Inhale and sit tall, lengthening your spine. Exhale and imagine wringing out a wet dishcloth as you spiral into the twist.” Obviously, the spine is what's being wrung out in this poignant description, and it works well metaphorically— “metaphorically” being the key.
What spinal twists actually do:
In fact, while your spine might feel like it’s being wrung out, the truth is that neither it nor the internal organs undergo a “wringing” effect, and if they do, you’re more likely to land in a hospital than a yoga class. Each of our organs has an optimum level of mobility, and more is not necessarily better in every instance. Increasing the mobility of our heart, for example, decreases it’s level of efficiency. And while rotating the spine (or the rib cage, for that matter) can cause the organs to move in relation to each other, this movement bears little resemblance to the “wringing” that is often described.
Having said that, there are many reasons to practice spinal twists that are backed up by science. And some of these do impact the overall health and efficiency of the organs, including the liver, which is responsible for filtering and removing waste products from the blood. Spinal twists work to “lengthen” the spine, which means they create space between the vertebrae, fending off the hardening of tissue that occurs with disuse and keeping the spine supple. They stretch the muscles of the back and strengthen the internal obliques. Having the strength and flexibility to sit upright, without slouching, encourages and supports deep breathing, which plays a critical role in the process of detoxification.
So in a sense, there is a connection between spinal twists and detoxification, though it may not be the one you’re familiar with.
Bringing some science to the mat can make for a more educated and enlightening practice.
Enjoy the exploration, and see you on the mat!