Last week I lost my voice, and I found myself feeling very stuck inside my own head with no way to really communicate with others from my sick bed. (I tried texting, I tried instant messaging, believe me, I tried everything, because I wanted to talk and feel connected.) So instead I read, and one of the books I read was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby of his explorations of consciousness.
Bauby had suffered a stroke that cut his spinal cord off from his brain, and this left him with no mobility in his body other than the movement of his left eyelid, a condition known as "locked-in syndrome." He describes his condition in the first few paragraphs of the book, and the possibility of such extreme isolation is terrifying. Except that he immediately turns his situation upside-down, by saying something like "...my mind takes off like a butterfly. There is so much to do."
So much to do?!? And then he goes off on these journeys through consciousness, in the infinity of memory and imagination.
What inspired me so much about his memoir was the recognition that, no matter how stuck you may feel, no matter how much the circumstances of life limit you, consciousness always offers the possibility of an empowered engagement, the possibility of expansion.
Obviously, Bauby's example is extreme. But we all feel stuck sometimes, and not just feel stuck, but can be truly limited or oppressed by circumstances beyond our control. Yoga is the invitation to engage every experience toward empowerment and expansion. As Bauby shows us, that possibility is always open to us.
When you feel stuck in your asana practice, remember there's always a way to expand the experience, and a good place to start is by expanding the inside (Open to Grace), where the possibilities are vast, and expanding into the back body, which re-affirms this inner expansion.
This week, we're going to look at how to open space for the hips and lower back by aligning and strengthening the psoas muscle, particularly by moving into the back body through the actions of Pelvic and Kidney Loops.
The psoas muscle has two parts that function as antagonists. The lower psoas (from the middle of the lumbar to the lesser trochanter), when activated, will create more lordotic curve in the lower back. The upper part of the psoas (from the origin at T12 down to the middle of the lumbar) creates more extension in the lumbar spine. When both the inner upper thighs (lesser trochanter) and the middle of the lumbar/waistline move to the back plane of the body, the psoas lines up and you'll have optimal curve in the lumbar spine.
The action of expanding to the back waistline is the initiation of both the Pelvic and Kidney Loops. The Pelvic Loop flows back and down, toward the bottom of the sacrum/tailbone juncture; the Kidney Loop flows back and up, lifting the kidney area and the back ribs toward the heart. This split of energy creates a huge expanse in the lower back, to support back bending, taking flight in arm balances, and a healthy opening of the hips.
- Open to Grace: The first expansion of Opening to Grace brings you into remembrance of the ways in which you are connected to more than just yourself. The fullness of the inner body that comes with Opening to Grace is important to establish and maintain as you add the other actions.
- Muscle Energy: Draw all of the parts of your body into connection, especially by hugging the legs and hips to the midline. This strength in the outer shins and tone on the inner thighs is the power you'll need to open up Inner Spiral.
- Inner Spiral, by taking the inner upper thighs back and apart, helps to align the lower fibers of the psoas, which attach at the lesser trochanter of the thigh bones. Inner Spiral will create an increased lordotic curve in the lumbar spine, and this should be an even curve from the top of the sacrum all the way up through the lower back. Often, however, the sacrum and L5-L4 vetebrae are less mobile, and so the curve in the back happens more at the top of the lumbar region. Keeping the fullness of the back body established with the first principle, and really activating Inner Spiral from the power of the upper thighs, will help create a more even lumbar curve.
- Kidney/Pelvic Loops: Both of these loops start at the middle of the lumbar (in line with a point below the navel) and flow back, so they bring you back into a connection with the back body. This is initiation is activated in part by the upper fibers of the psoas, which lengthen the lumbar spine. When they flow back, the energy splits in two directions: pelvic loop draws the waistline back and down (toward the bottom of the sacrum) and kidney loop draws the waistline back and up, lifting the back ribs and kidney area. In this way, the two loops create a vast spaciousness in the lower back that is crucial in both forward- and back-bending. In back-bending in particular, these two loops will make space in the kidney/adrenal area so they are not squeezed to intensely by the "bend" in the back (resulting in the well-known backbend headache); they also provide the support for a deepening shoulder loop in backbends.
- Organic Energy: When the pelvis is the focal point, the split of Organic Energy down through the tailbone, pelvis and legs, and up through the torso, head, and arms will lengthen the psoas in a healthy way. Organic Energy should extend up out of the pelvis as much through the back waistline as through the front.
- Lunge: start with your hands on your front knee (back knee lifted) and bow forward over your front leg. When you do this, you'll have greater access to Inner Spiral on the back leg (lifting the top of the back thigh strongly up to toward the sky). Keeping the back leg that lifted (this aligns the lower psoas and creates a lordotic curve in your lower back), press your hands into your front thigh to help lift the back waistline (below the navel) up. This fires and strengthens the upper psoas. Now split the energy of the two loops from the waistline down and from the waistline up to come upright. Watch that the back thighbone does not pop forward when you do (it's very easy for the butt muscles to override the power of the upper inner thighs). Lastly, stretch organically from the focal point (pelvis) down through the hips and legs and up through the torso and arms. I know, it's just a lunge, but if you get it lined up it's a great stretch for the lower psoas and strengthener for the upper fibers of the psoas.
- Anjaneyasana: in this pose, the pelvis will tend to tip more forward, so getting the waistline to move back is somewhat harder, but it's a good strengthener for the upper fibers of the psoas. You can use your hands on your front thigh to help get the power needed to lift the back waistline. Make sure that you keep the base of the back thigh bone (the part above the knee that's pressing into the floor) drawing forward and up, so that the thigh sets back.
- Downhill Skier: This is a modified form of utkatasana, with your hands on your knees instead of in the air. It's a good place to work on these actions symmetrically.
- Tadasana: Use a block between your inner thighs to help keep your awareness of the upper inner thighs drawing back. When you do inner spiral, watch that you don't pitch your torso forward. Isolate the inner upper thighs moving back, and the top of the sacrum will draw in and up along with the lumbar vertebrae. Now add the two loops, splitting the energy at the back of the waistline down and then up. Stretch your arms overhead and feel the support in the back. You can take this into a mini backbend, or even drop all the way back to urdhva dhanurasana.
- Parsvakonasana, Virabhadrasana 1, Virabhadrasana 3: All of the standing poses (these 3 are particularly good) for strengthening both the lower and upper fibers of the psoas). Make sure that the actions of the Kidney and Pelvic loops don't override the power of the thighs rooting back. In general, you'll find that the waistline on the front leg side will need to flow back at a faster rate than on the back leg side, particularly in Warrior 3.
- Handstand/Forearm stand: The inversions can be good indicators of the health of the psoas. (I learned this from Doug Keller's Yoga as Therapy book.) If the upper fibers of the psoas are weak or not engaged, the result in inversions will be the well-known "banana back." Try doing your inversions at a wall, about a shin's distance away from the wall so that when you kick up, you can place your feet on the wall with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Once there, hug your legs in and turn your inner thighs back, so you start with natural curve in the lower back and the lower fibers of the psoas are lined up. Then keeping that, draw your waistline back and split the flow of energy down (through the back ribs) and up (through the tailbone) to create length and space in your lower back. Then work to straighten the legs toward balance.
- Handstand leg lifts: OK, now if you really want to build some strength in the upper part of the psoas, try a handstand as close to the wall as you can get, bringing both heels to the wall with straight legs. Keep one heel at the wall while bringing the other in a split down to at least 90 degrees (or toes to touch the floor). To keep from toppling out of the pose, you'll have to draw the waistline back strongly and lift up through the bottom of the sacrum/tailbone area from there. Once you've done the splits, bring the leg back up (this is the hard part), and do the other side.
- Pigeon prep pose: These poses where the hip is externally rotated and flexed (pigeon front leg, baby cradle, agni stambasana, etc.) can be incredibly opening for the psoas, or they can easily pinch the psoas and hip flexors if done out of alignment. The key is to keep the inner thighs flowing back while lifting the waistline so that the front hip doesn't just collapse down onto the front thigh (jamming the hip flexors in the process). So in pigeon prep pose, try this: on the front leg side, manually turn the inner thigh in and back and wide (use your opposite hand, and you'll get the best leverage). Then, keeping that, press your other hand into the floor to help lift your waistline up and off that front thigh. Draw the front hip under as you lift the back ribs, and then extend more into the pose. When you're bowing forward in pigeon pose, make sure that the front of the pelvis and waistline does not collapse down onto the front thigh.
- Thigh stretches: I addressed this somewhat in a previous Nerd blog (5 Steps to a Deeper Thigh Stretch), but what's important to add here is that thigh stretches must include this action of drawing the waistline back to be strengthening for the upper psoas. Try a thigh stretch in pigeon pose, and notice what happens to the waistline when you bring the foot in with a strong action to root the thigh back toward the foot. In general, this will set the lower psoas into good alignment, but the bowl of the pelvis will tend to tip forward and the waistline will collapse forward. So to add the upper part, keep the foot in close and the back thighbone rooting back, and then add the actions of Pelvic and Kidney loops. When you do, the pelvis will tip upright and the waistline can flow back so far that you may be able to rest your waistline on the ball of your foot (this is the "shin pillars" variation).
- Supta virasana: One of the reasons this pose can be painful for the lower back is that it's easy for the lumbar spine to over-arch if the upper part of the psoas is weak. Try setting up the legs with the shins and feet lined up and the inner thighs flowing down (to get a natural curve in the lower back) and then just go back part way into the pose, resting your elbows on the floor. Keep your inner thighs flowing down, and then lift your pelvis up off the floor to get greater access to the Pelvic and Kidney Loop. Draw your waistline back, and lengthen the energy from the waistline out through the buttocks and knees and up through the back ribs. This will bring the spine to a more neutral curve. Then bring your pelvis back to the floor.
- Ustrasana: This is one of the best backbends to feel the opening of the lower back that comes from splitting the energy from the waistline down and up, I think because so much of the lower body is part of the foundation and that helps you to feel the rooting more. Try doing this with a block between your inner thighs to keep the awareness and action of Inner Spiral while you add the loops. (Backbends tend to push the thigh bones forward anyway, so it's very easy for these two loops to override the action of the inner thighs.) Squeeze the block and press the inner thighs back, and keeping that, fill up the back waistline. From the waistline flow down through the sacrum and up through the back ribs, so the lower back is expanded, and then come back into the pose, doing more of the backbend in the upper back. Once you're holding on to your ankles, recreate these same actions. Use the block to maintain inner spiral, and then expand the lower back from the waistline in 2 directions. You can take this into kapotasana or laghu vajrasana variations.
- Urdhva dhanurasana: In backbends, it's hard to feel the waistline flowing back, but you can really access the expansion of energy in two directions from the back waistline. (Think of backbends more as "back extensions" and you've got it.) Go into this pose in stages to really keep the expanded quality of the lower back: 1) place your hands and feet and just lift your pelvis off the floor. Here, hug the legs in and turn the inner thighs down, and then breathe into the back waistline. From the back waistline, extend energy downward (that's toward your knees and feet) so much that your knees come more forward and you get more weight in your feet. Keep anchored in the lower body and then from the waistline, lift the kidney area and back ribs toward your heart, and then curl more in the upper back. 2) Repeat once you've curled onto the top of your head. 3) Repeat again once you're in the full pose. THIS FEELS SO GOOD AND SPACIOUS IN THE LOWER BACK.
- Hip openers: All of the hip openers are great for practicing these actions. Indeed, if you feel stuck in your hips, expanding to the back body through the waistline will help you to find more freedom. As I noted in the pigeon pose description above, any hip opener (where the hip is externally rotated and in flexion) can be either great for the psoas or it can cause tweakiness. The main thing is to keep the inner thighs flowing down while making space by drawing the waistline back. Try baddhakonasana and agni stambasana, for example, to feel this.
- Janu Sirsasana (and other forward bends): The same is true for forward bends. If the waistline collapses onto the front thigh, the energy will get stuck. In janu sirsasana, bow forward and hold the foot from the inside with your opposite hand. Place your front hand on fingertips just wide of the front knee. With the front leg straight and the thigh rooting down into the floor, press strongly through your fingertips into the floor to lift the waistline up and off the front thigh. That's the upper psoas toning. Keep the lift as you draw down through the back of the pelvis and up through the back ribs. Then bow forward fully into the pose, without letting the front waistline drop down.