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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Spine's Serpentine Path

Teaching in Louisville, KY last weekend, I found myself practicing in front of a mirror for the first time in a long time. The mirror can be a useful teaching tool once in a while, and I had some insights into how to create a more fluid curve in the spine.

The spine is a pathway for the shushumna nadi, a current of energy that runs inside the vertebral column. In many traditions, this is the path of Kundalini, the serpent power coiled at the base of the spine that can be awakened and raised through a practice of yoga. In the Rajanaka tradition, Kundalini is already awake: your birth was the dynamic unfolding of Kundalini into the form of embodied power. So rather than trying to awaken Kundalini, yoga is to align to the empowered self. Enlightenment is not an attainment, it's a recognition.

The pathway of Kundalini, then, is a circuitry that you can create and empower, rather than a ladder that you must ascend. Sometimes you'll want to make the heroic leap from the mind back down to the heart, or from the heart to the throat (the place of self-expression), or from the waters of the belly to the root of yourself.

So, too, in working to align the spine.

In its optimal alignment, the spine normally has four curves: the tailbone tucks under (a kyphotic curve), the top of the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae draw in to the body (a lordotic curve), the thoracic spine is kyphotic and the cervical spine is lordotic.

In Stage 1 forward bends (where the hips are bent to just 90 degrees), the spine is in its neutral position and, in alignment, will have these four curves. And as you move from Stage 1 to full form forward bends, the entire spine should round at an even rate.

What I was noticing in the mirror in Louisville was that exactly the opposite was happening in my body, and this is common. Tight hamstrings will tend to pull the pelvis under when the legs are extended and the hips flexed, and this reverses the curve in the lumbar spine (the vertebrae will stick out). Even if the hamstrings are not tight, if the upper back is really mobile and moves toward a flat spine (rather than kyphosis), it will push the lumbar vertebrae out. This is particularly true in seated forward bends, where the pelvis and legs are all part of the foundation: the lower part of the spine gets more stuck, while the upper part, because it doesn't have the resistance of the floor, pushes in at a faster rate.

Take inventory:
Before doing full form forward bends, check in at Stage 1 to be sure that you can get all 4 curves in the spine. Try this first seated in upavista konasana, just to feel.

Notice what parts of the spine are sticking out and what parts are moving in to the body, and then see how that relates to the optimal curves of the spine. You don't need a mirror for this. Just run your fingers up your vertebrae from the top of the sacrum up towards your upper back.

Because of the reasons mentioned above, most people will find that the upper back is pushing in faster than the lower back, creating reverse curves in the lumbar and thoracic spine.

Connecting the Circuitry:
In order to line up the spine optimally in a neutral place and for forward bending, the strategy will be to stabilize the hyper-mobile part in order to gain access to a deeper opening in the part that is more stuck, like this:

  • Set up in Stage 1 of the forward bend
  • Back out of the hyper-mobile part of your spine by breathing and even rounding back. For most people, this will be the thoracic spine, but you'll see what it is for you.
  • Keeping that part stable (moving back), charge your inner thighs by hugging the legs to the midline and then turn the inner thighs in, back and apart (Inner Spiral). This action will draw the top of the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae into the body, creating a natural curve. If you still feel stuck in the lower back area, back off even more through the upper back -- you might have to lean back past 90 degrees in the pelvis to gain access to the action of the thighs.
  • Once the lumbar vertebrae have moved in to the body, draw your tailbone down and lift the spine up and out of the pelvis
  • In moving deeper into the forward bend, extend the whole spine evenly. Notice whether the neck or the upper back are moving faster into the forward bend than the lower back, and if so, back out there, re-anchor the inner thighs, and then extend again. You can use your fingertips on the floor in front of you pressing down to help move th mobile part of your spine back.
Use the principles outlined above to create a more even, fluid curve in the spine in these poses. If you have a mirror, use it to watch the curves (if not, you can just feel your vertebrae with your fingertips)
  • Cat/Cow
  • Downward-facing dog with the hands on the wall (L-pose): the upper back (and neck) will tend to be more mobile here, pressing toward the floor with gravity, to stabilize these areas by backing out of the pose and then move into the lower body.
  • Downward-facing dog
  • Prasarita padottanasana
  • Parsvakonasana: notice how if you lean forward in your upper body to get the thighs back, this is more form than action, and won't be very effective in getting curve in the lower back. Keep your upper back in line (even puff out through the back lungs), and then access your inner thighs and use them to create lumbar curve.
  • Parsvottanasana: start standing upright, and bring your spine just to horizontal first (this is stage 1); back out of the upper back until you can use your legs to draw the lower back into the body, then come into the forward bend. Use blocks for your hands, or bring your hands to a wall, if you need.
  • Prasarita padottanasana toward press handstand: I finally figured out that this is the key to pressing up into handstand. You have to move your spine from forward bend to neutral, and getting the low back to draw in and up is essential
  • Supta virasana: notice how the lower back here tends to be arched more than the rest; lift your pelvis up off the floor to extend the tailbone more and lift up through the kidney area so that the tailbone and upper back curves are kyphotic.
  • Upavista konasana: I don't recommend using padding under the pelvis to accommodate tight hamstrings in seated forward bends, because it tends to move the legs toward hyperextension. Try instead to just get Stage 1 upavista konasana, with natural curves in the spine. If your hamstrings are really tight, you may have to lean backwards quite a bit in the upper back, then use your legs strongly (hug the midline, inner spiral) to get the inner thighs to flow down, the pelvis to tip upright, and the lumbar vertebrae to draw in and up.
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/krounchasana
  • Dandasana: For me, this is one of the most challenging poses of all. With the legs straight ahead, you don't have the space that upavista konasana affords, and with your pelvis and legs on the floor as part of the foundation, there's limited mobility. Work this one with the legs separated sitting bone distance apart, and put a block between your feet or your shins as resistance for hugging the midline. Then go through all of the steps above, leaning back as much as you need to in your upper back to make space to access your inner thighs.
  • Pascimottanasana: Once you're able to get natural curves in the spine in dandasana, come forward into pascimottanasana.

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