Standing Spinal Twist
When I first taught the standing spinal twist, a lot of my students did not have very good hip bone or pelvis awareness. And so doing a standing twist with torso upright, feel about hip width apart and knees straight (feet parallel and pointing straight ahead), I'd have them turn ribcage and pelvis to one side together. Then, while keeping the ribcage turned to the side, turn their pelvis so that it faced the front. It's actually quite a good exercise for the abs, and it did help my students gain a bit more awareness of their hips and pelvis.
Turning the Pelvis While Twisting
Nowadays, teaching more or less the same pose, I teach my students to: first turn their pelvis and ribcage and then to activate their hips prior to lengthening their spine and then gradually deepen the spinal twisting action.
So rather than keeping their hips facing the front, in this spinal twist the pelvis is allowed to turn in the direction of twist.
Generally, after a brief hold, the instruction is to relax while holding the twist, then again, activate the hips, lengthen the spine and deepen the twist.
One of the key actions is to make the muscles of the hip joint active.
For myself, I find that activating the hips, and making the spine feel long makes it easier to deepen the spinal twist comfortably.
Why Activate the Hips While Doing a Spinal Twist?
Why activate the hip muscles prior to deepening the spinal twist?
One reason may be that by activating the hip joint muscles first, the hip bones and sacrum are stabilized. This gives the spinal muscles a fixed end point from which they can then work to effectively twist the spine.
The spinal lengthening is also an important step. This isn't so much about straightening the spine but making it feel long. In general, the act of "feeling" the spine turns the muscles of the spine on.
When lengthening the spine, the muscles of the spine work against each other to make the spine feel long. This helps to make the vertebral joints of the spine stable and controllable.
That same action, using muscles against each other, also gives the spine "feel".
Learning to Stabilize the Whole Spine
When first teaching spine lengthening, I break it down into sections, cervical, thoracic (sometimes upper and then lower thoracic), lumbar and sacrum together. The idea is to have students learn to feel the entire spine section by section.
And generally, they can continue to practice lengthening their entire spine section by section until it becomes easy to do it without the "section by section" focus.
This method for feeling the spine can mean that they are activating the smaller muscles along the entire length of the spine. With these smaller muscles activated, it is then easier to deepen the twist of the whole spine.
If there are sections where there is difficulty feeling or creating sensation, then the simple instruction is to play with it, make adjustments so that you can feel it.
As an example of this, if you are trying to locate something in the dark by feel, you don't stand still, you move your arm or your foot until you make contact. In the same way, if you can't feel a part of your spine (or any part of your body), then try making adjustments. Move your body until you can feel the part in question.
And if something doesn't quite feel right, then again, make adjustments. And if you aren't sure about how something should feel, then again, repeat some small simple movements so that you experience a range of sensations, and based on that experience, pick the position that feels best.
Lengthening the Cervical Spine
So for example, when lengthening the cervical spine, the general instruction is to move the head backwards and upwards, or to move the ear holes away from the shoulders but while keeping the head level front to back. The adjustment can be to lift or lower the shin slightly. Try to make the back of your neck feel "open" or "long".
Lengthening the Thoracic Spine
When first learning thoracic spine awareness the suggestion can be to focus on lifting the ribs and creating space between them. Try lifting the fronts of the ribs more. And vary that by trying to lift the backs of the ribs.
If you have some thoracic spine (or spinal erector) awareness, try bending your thoracic spine forwards or backwards.
Lengthening the Lumbar Spine and Sacrum
For lengthening the lumbar spine the general instruction is to drop or lift the sacrum.
Rather than telling my students exactly what to do, I often like to give guidelines. So for example: "Try lifting or lowering your sacrum repeatedly and then use the position where you lumbar spine feels long."
In general, whenever I tell my students to lengthen their lumbar spine, I also ask them to lengthen their Sacrum also, as if the lumbar spine and sacrum are one element.
Rather than Thinking, Learning to Feel
The idea of making adjustments and feeling rather than following a fixed set of alignment instructions ideally means that instead of thinking about what to do in a pose students work towards feeling what to do in a pose.
Activating the Hips in a Spinal Twist
So what about activating the hips in the standing spinal twist? A very simple action would be to activate the buttocks, the gluteus maximus. Someone asked me whether activating the glutes meant squeezing them together?
Activating the Extensor Function of the Glutes Without External Rotation
There is a glute activation exercise where you imagine squeezing a coin between your butt cheeks. This generally results in the buttocks squeezing towards each other. And you'll may notice when doing this that your thighs roll outwards as you do so.
While one "function" of the glutes is to externally rotate the thighs relative to the hip bones, they also can act as a hip extensor, moving the femur rearwards relative to the pelvis or tilting the pelvis rearwards relative to the femur.
In this case there can still be a "squeezing" sensation, but the squeeze is the squeeze of muscle activation, making the muscle feel strong. And so a simple method for preventing your butt cheeks from moving towards each other when activating them is to simply keep the thighs from rotating inwards.
Stabilizing the Hips with the Gluteus Maximus
Squeezing the buttocks, or perhaps I should say "activating the buttocks" tends to activate a whole lot more than just the buttocks, particularly if the squeeze is done while allowing any movement.
Because the gluteus maximus extends (and externally rotates) the femur, opposing muscles have to activate, muscles that flex (bend forwards) and internally rotate the hip. All of these muscles acting against each other can help you get a feel for your hip bone and even hip joint while also stabilizing the hip joint and SI Joint. And that gives the lower most spinal muscles a firm foundation from which to work on twisting the spinal vertebrae relative to each other.
Even Weight on Both Feet
When doing a standing spinal twist I generally remind students to stand with weight even on both feet. So if twisting to the right you find that your right foot is pressing down with slightly (or vastly) greater pressure, shift your upper body to the left with respect to your feet so that the pressure distribution is a little more even.
Avoiding Inner Knee Discomfort
Turning the right you may find that your left shin also turns right relative to the foot causing the inner arch of the left foot to flatten. If you find this creates a pulling sensation or stretch along the inside of the left knee you may find it more comfortable to roll your left shin outwards so that the knee is more comfortable.
Stabilizing the SI Joint while Doing a Spinal Twists
When lengthening the spine, I now tell my students to lengthen then sacrum and lumbar spine. While the sacrum is a reasonably solid mass and probably can't lengthen, the idea is more to have them feel the lumbar spine and sacrum as one connected whole.
There are multifidus muscles fibers or fascicles that connect to the back of the sacrum. The gluteus maximus muscle also has fibers that attach to the back of the sacrum. The piriformis muscle attaches to the front of the sacrum. "Feeling" the sacrum by "making it feel long" can help to activate these muscles. And so while twisting the spine, I'd suggest making sure that you continue to feel your sacrum as well as the rest of your spine while deepening the twist.
By feeling your sacrum as well as your lumbar spine you may help to stabilize your SI Joints.
If you can't feel it, or there is discomfort, experiment with lifting or lower the sacrum to find a more comfortable position, one that lends itself to twisting deeper in a way that feels good.
Using Your Latissimus Dorsai to create a Full Body Spinal Twist
The standing spinal twist can be turned into a "full body pose" by using the arms.
A simple action to include the arms is to make the arms feel long. Reach them down and out of the shoulders. You may find it feels better to reach them out from the body slightly. You may find that the act of creating a downwards pull on you arms causes you latissimus dorsai msucles to activate.
The latissimus dorsai muscle has some fibers that attach to the gluteus maximus. But it also attaches to a good portion of the lower half of the spine and so you may find that activating this muscle helps you twist deeper and or more comfortably.
You may find that you get a fuller activation of the lats if you also spread your shoulder blades (protract them).
Twisting to the right, try rotating the right arm outwards slightly. You could also rotate the left arm outwards, but you may find it feels "more right" to rotate that arm slightly inwards.
Should You Let your Pelvis Turn in All Spinal Twists?
Although I teach students to turn their pelvis in this standing full body spinal twist, I don't have them do that in all spinal twists. Some poses might not allow it. However, something that you can do in most, if not all spinal twists, is make your hips active, and when lengthening your spine prior to deepening your twist, make the entire spine feel long, including your sacrum.
And rather than taking my word for it, experiment.
Try lengthening your spine section by section, make adjustments and notice how your spine (and SI joints and hips) feel and use the actions that feel best for you at the time.
Sensational Leg Anatomy
For more on learning to feel and control the muscles of your legs, including different ways of activating the hip muscles, Sensational Leg Anatomy is a series of short videos, each focusing on specific exercises for learning to feel and control the muscles of the legs from the hip bones down to the toes. These are all exercises that I use in my own classes to teach my students to better feel and control their body.