It is very common in a yoga class to speak of twists as a way to wring out the toxins in the body. You’ll even see and hear that mentioned in the practice I feature below with Adriene and the short seated chair twist video. It is what we all learned in yoga teacher training and I have shared that in my yoga classes in the past. If you do a google search for detox and yoga there are hundreds of videos and articles repeating this information.
So is it true? Do twists detoxify the body’s internal organs as Iyengar claimed?
This kind of claim is a gray area in the practice of yoga. Iyengar had no way to test this statement in his time, and I have not yet seen the conclusive research about twists leading to a healthier liver or a method of physical detoxification for the body. (If you know of any, please let me know. )
My most reliable science yoga truths expert is Dr. Timothy McCall who wrote Yoga as Medicine, The Yogic Prescriptions for Health and Healing. He was a medical doctor first and now is an expert in yoga therapy, teaching it around the world.
When I consulted his writing he does not make the claim that twists detoxify. I did note however that in the 20 different medical conditions that Yoga for Medicine addresses, ranging from anxiety and panic attacks to high blood pressure and insomnia, in almost every one twists are part of the yoga therapy prescriptions.
So what is the real benefit of a twist? How can they be helpful for so many ailments?
Think of twists as a drink of water for your spine. McCall cites one of the general benefits of yoga as a way to “nourish intervertebral disks.” McCall describes intervertebral disks as the specialty cartilage in your spine. These spinal disks lack an independent blood supply so movement is required to deliver nutrients from nearby blood vessels to these disks. Think of twists as a drink of water for your spine. Or perhaps more like a watering can that helps transport water from your well to the plants in your garden.
“Twists and gentle elongation of the spine helps prevent the drying out of these disks, helping them to do their job as shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Cushioning the vertebrae protects the nerves exiting the spinal column from compression and impingement.”
A pose like a simple seated twist in a chair or a pose like ardha matsyendrasana, also called Half Lord of the Fishes, provides this added supply of nutrients to your spine. (I have never been able to figure this name out. Is it half a Lord or half a fish?)
There is something that gets highlighted here that has been important to me beyond if the twist as detox statement is true. I love science and the research behind why and how poses work. It’s complex and feels reliable. It’s also an illusion. Even if we could dissect one pose from the larger practice of yoga and pinpoint its particular benefits, that is not what yoga is about. Yoga is about joining, union, connecting, body and mind, breath and movement. Many other poses, besides twists also nourish intervertebral disks. Yoga is a practice of being whole.
While the science is not there to say twisted wring out the internal organs or detoxify the liver, the metaphor of that wringing feels real to me. In the past few years, I have continued to dig into research AND simultaneously to simplify my practices, of yoga, breathwork, mindfulness and meditation.
Just because there is science to back something does not ensure the results. If I do A, it does not always produce B. No matter what the science says. Also, I am unwilling to wait for science to prove something before I will explore. With yoga, I have found a much better compass to guide my practice. I ask myself one question. “How does this feel in my body?”
It takes an attitude of open curiosity to explore a pose and see how it feels, the physical sensations and the emotions that also come along with the movement to get into and hold that shape. It has taken some serious maturing to go from thinking about how I looked in the pose, or if I was “doing it right,” to arrive at this new way of navigating yoga, and life.
The question is not about the short term pleasure but about the inquiry of feeling, of being with what is, of accepting, embracing and allowing those feelings, and that moment.
I love the sensation of the spiraling muscles around my core squeezing in and then releasing. It’s simple. My truth is that twists feel good. That’s all I need.