wisdom from my teacher: “Spinal Exercise”

Here is the latest newsletter from my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, the yoga master I met in 2003 who inspired me to travel to the heart of yoga.  Here also are links to his newsletters from 2009 and 2010, a wealth of yoga information from the longest standing student of Sri Krishnamacharya:

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 1

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 2

Each volume has a search function, so you can search for “mudra”, for example, and find 15 references.  Thanks to Krisztian Krutzler for preparing these downloadable docs.

If you are in the Chicago area and want to study with a true  yoga master, come to the Chicago Yoga Center, September 9-18.  Ramaswamiji will offer a two hour program on mantras on the 9th and a 10 hour program on the last two chapters of the Yoga Sutras on 10th and 11th. There is also a 25 hour certificate program on Core Vinyasakrama asanas and a 10 hour program on asana, pranayama and meditation on the 17th and 18th.

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SPINAL EXERCISE, THE BOTTOM OF IT

I have not been writing about Asanas for quite sometime.  I have covered a lot of ground in my Vinyasakrama book and also in the earlier book, Yoga for Three Stages of Life.  I thought though I could write about asana again- of course, nothing entirely new but a
different angle.

It is said that one of the main aims of asana and pranayama practice (Hata Yoga) is to maintain the health of the backbone.  It is a common refrain that one is as old as the condition of the backbone.  And some of the most charming postures of yoga involve the many positions of the spine.  Parsva Bhangi, Matsyendrasana, Akunchanasana, Kapotasana.  Paschimatanasana and a host of other poses bring out the majesty and
the versatility of one of God’s marvelous engineering creations called the spine.

The spine has been the center of attention of several systems, like the chiropractics. Among Yogis, Kundalini Yoga and Hata Yoga can be considered to be spine centric.  The one bone assembly, the backbone is not straight but one that is curved back(kyphosis) and forward (lordosis) and the yogis try to make it straight at least during the time they sit and meditate so that the Kundalini is aroused and moved through the sushumna in the spinal column as per the Kundalini Yoga or the integrated prana moves through the sushumna as the Hatayogis explain hatayoga.

The spine can be divided into different sections for study and practice.  The bottom is the tailbone or coccyx which is curved and has three to five tiny vertebrae.  It stays beneath the pelvis.  There is some mobility in it but we do not pay much attention to it until one
falls on the butts.  A few years back, already an old man, I tried to carry a teapoy down the stairs in my house.  I was wearing hard slippers and as I overstepped a step I slipped (I had the slippers on, you see) and fell heavily on my butts.  The teapoy (tea table) broke and we had to discard it.  I was in great pain.  My wife took me to a hospital immediately for a precautionary X ray which did not reveal any damage (not broken like the furniture).  But the orthopedist warned me that I may have some recurring pain in the coccyx region when I sit for a long time.  For a period of time whenever I did long travel, like from NJ to Los Angeles, I used to feel a lot of pain sitting.  So I know where the tailbone is.

The backbone although it is one assembly has different sections each having its own idiosyncrasy, so when exercising the backbone one has to pay attention to each section. The tailbone/coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and cervical sections have their distinct characteristics.  The muladhara chakra is associated with coccyx, the svadhishtana
chakra is linked to the sacral region, the manipuraka with the lumbar region, then we have anahata with the thoracic spine and the vishuddhi chakra is in the cervical region.  The spinal column descends from the occipital region and we have the aajna chakra in that region and the sahasrara is in the cranial region.  The tailbone is the baby of the
assembly at the bottom and tucked nicely but is surrounded by heavy muscles and tissues and protected well.  It has some mobility.  Since it is the root of the spine it is also known among Yogis as the Mula.  Since both Hata Yoga and Kundalini Yoga are predominantly connected with the spine the mula becomes an important aspect of yoga. When one wants to work with the spine, it, the coccyx, should be firmly anchored.

Let us consider the example of the fishing rod (old times).  It has a flexible pole, a string and the bait. (sorry I could not think of an ahimsa example).  One holds the pole at the far end and when the bait is taken, the pole bends. The fisherman will have to hold the pole firmly so that the pole can bend to the extent required, even though there will be some play or movement in the hand of the holder.  Further he has to hold at the farthest point, holding a bit inside the pole reduces the leverage and the pole will not bend sufficiently.

The coccyx and sacrum (sacro-coccygeal section) are at the bottom of the backbone. The coccyx is at the very end of the spine.  It represents a vestigial tail (hence the common term tailbone) and consists of three to five very small bones fused together. There is limited movement between these bones permitted by fibrous joints and ligaments. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity and where it is ‘inserted’ like a bone wedged between the two hip bones. Its upper part  is connected to the last lumbar vertebra and the bottom part to
the coccyx.   In children it consists normally of five unfused vertebrae which begin fusing around 16 years and become completely fused around 26.  It is kyphotic (curved, concavity facing forward). Even so, it is now an established fact that the sacrum moves between the ilia by both ambulatory and respiratory motions.  It would therefore point to the
logic of the use of fuller breathing in vinyasa movements as in Vinyasa Krama.

So the mula or the tail bone will have to be held firmly during the spinal exercises.  And the yogis used the well known technique called mulabandha which is contracting a few groups of muscles surrounding the tailbone:  the perineum, rectum and the gluteal muscles.  All
spinal movements, the forward bend,the rounded back, the turn, the back bend, the side bend, all will be better if the mula is gripped firmly and engaged.

Now let us consider the different types of spinal movements.  The turning or twisting movement has to emanate from the mula and my Guru had a couple of asana vinyasas to provide for this movement.  The Jataraparivrittis efficiently engage the tailbone and the next
immediate section sacrum.  Please refer to my book The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga (pages 105,106,119,121,122).  Tatakamudra (page 105) by anchoring the sacro-coccygial portion of the spine helps to stretch it. These are some of the very early exercises my Guru used to teach to almost all the students.

For the back bending exercises it is necessary to protect the lumbar spine. Towards that, the flexibility and the strength of the sacro-coccygeal region is to be necessarily cultivated. The pelvic push is efficiently facilitated by a simple but effective asana called dwipadapeetam (pages109-115) or desk pose.  This posture which is casually practiced with the feet apart and thighs spread out leaves out the the spine in the pelvic region. Hence it is necessary to keep the feet together, tighten the gluteal muscles, draw in the rectum and gently push the tailbone/sacrum up and feel a healthy stretch at the
bottom of the spine. Any back bending done without fully involving the sacro coccygial region is a less efficient back bend and tends to put more strain on the lumbar spine. Again my Guru used this posture to teach to almost anyone.  This upward pelvic push is to be done on inhalation generally but, it can be done while exhaling smoothly by the elderly, the obese, the pregnant, the highly strung etc.  Because the feet and back of the head are well anchored it becomes easy to control the back bend very well and one can improve the stretch step by step.  Other poses that are in this group would be catushpada peetam
or Table pose ( page79 ) and Purvatanasana or the anterior stretch pose (pages78,79). The other back-bends in the prone poses such as Bhujangasana, dhanurasana and salabhasana (pages 138-145) also may be done with the thighs and feet together to keep the sacrum and tailbone engaged and stretchered.  To ensure this condition, the teacher may ask the student to keep the feet and thighs together by placing a piece of paper between the feet  and not let the paper drop to the floor while raising the legs up in asana like Salabhasana.  In these prone exercises keeping the legs together enables to exercise all parts of the spine, especially the oft neglected sacro-coccygeal area.

The sacral/pelvic tilt also is an important movement in the context of forward bending.  This is achieved best in balasana or forward bend in Vajrasana (page 179,180) first and then in paschimatanasana (page 75-77) or the posterior stretch pose.  Those who are able to engage the muscles surrounding the sacrum and coccyx are able to achieve a good forward bend facilitated by the tilting or tipping of the pelvis. One procedure that will be helpful is for the teacher or a friend to support the sacrum with both the hands and push forward and down on exhalation and allow the subject to return to dandasana on inhalation while still maintaining the healthy pressure.  It may be good to maintain the pressure for a while in the posture pushing forward and down on each long exhalation and then holding it on inhalation.  Over a period the practitioner would be able to use the group of muscles at the base of the spine and stretch the muscles of the sacral region.

Then we have the important movement of lifting and holding the tailbone/sacrum up, by pulling up the waist and hips.  Here the muscles of the hip joints are brought into play.  This can be done in the beginning of tadansana sequence itself.  When the subject raises the
arms (page 4-5), he or she can get a partner to hold the pelvic girdle below the hip joints and push the pelvis up.  This helps to stretch the pelvic and hip muscles up and along with that the sacrum and tail bone also move up a little bit and it will be easy to stretch the
supporting musculature.  One can do the movements a few times with the helper holding the pelvis up a little while the arms are brought down on exhalation and pulling the pelvis up when one raises the arms on inhalation.  Over a period of time the practitioner, while raising the arms, will engage the hip muscles and gently pull the pelvis along with the sacro coccygeal portion of the spine. Sri Krishnamacharya would frequently exhort the student to pull up and hold the hips up in several seated postures like parvatanasana (page 196) and dandasana (page 39).  He would say in Tamil “iduppai thooki pidiyungo” or “Pull up the waist/hips and hold it up”.

I think it is good to use these simple asana and vinyasa procedures to prepare the bottom of the spine.  These simple procedures help to maintain a good flexibility and the tone of the supporting musculature at the bottom end of the spine. My Guru taught many of these simple and doable procedures almost to all levels of yoga abhyasis.  He would
appropriately alter the breathing to langhanakriya so that some of the overweight, older, tense and pregnant (except prone poses in pregnancy) abhyasis could do these procedures.  These are good preparatory exercises that will be helpful in getting a good control over the sacro-coccygeal spine that will help in doing some of the more difficult and charming spine-centric asanas like ushtrasana/kapotasana, triyangmukha uttanasana (backbends), paschimatanasana (forward bend), matsyendtasana (spinal twist), akunchanasana(rounding the spine), parsva bhangi(side bend) and other spine centric asanas and vinysasas.

The term Cakra is well known to Yogis.  Cakra means a wheel in normal usage.  The Samkhyas refer to the potter’s wheel as cakra while describing the post kaivalya time of the yogi. The seven cakras are usually represented as wheels.  Brahmananda, the commentator of the Hatayogapradeepika, refers to cakras as Nadicakra in the context of
nadis. He calls it a collection/group of nadis or nadi samooha.

Several contemporary yogis relate this concept of nadi samooha to ganglia or plexus.  A wheel also is an assembly of different parts, like the hub, spokes, rim and a tyre.  Since Nadis can also refer to blood vessels, the heart itself is referred to as hrdaya cakra.  The
Chaedogya Upanishad of Sama Veda mentions that there are 101 nadis that emanate from the heart.  It is possible then that cakra could mean an organ in this context.  The anahata cakra refers to a cakra that produces a sound without being struck by another agent.  The heart produces the sound by itself.  So anahata cakra could mean the heart cakra or the heart.  In the Suryanamaskara mantra of Yajurveda, there is a mantra which refers to the human body as “ashta cakra, nava dvaara.”  The nava or nine dvaaraas or openings are the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils and the mouth in the face plus the other two openings.  While explaining the meaning of the eight cakras, Sayana, the well known commentator of the vedas, refers to the cakras as different arrangements of cells or different tissues (humors) in the body as tvak (skin), carma (dermis), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), medhas (fat), asti (bone), majja (marrow), sukla (seman)/
sonita (uterine secretions).

Thus the term cakra could indicate a group, collection, village of some tissues or an assembly.  It is also suggested by some scholars that the cakra w.r.t the spinal column could refer to different parts of the backbone itself, each section having its own unique
arrangements of bones: the coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic, cervical and occipital.  And the entire spine with the cranium looks like a kundalini or a cobra with the beautiful wavy body curvatures.

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