Holy Cow! Yoga has blown my mind and changed me radically…again.
In keeping with an exploration of deeper core awareness and stability in my own yoga practice and in the classes I teach (see YogiPod blog post ‘Invitation To Hardcore Yogis’), I am experiencing a radical shift of sustained core awareness which has been my physical weak link forever. It all started earlier this year while touring India with Certified Anusara Yoga Teacher Desiree Rumbaugh and a bunch of other serious hatha (mostly Anusara advocate) yogis. The physical theme of Desiree’s teachings was working with T-12 (the 12th vertebrae in the thoracic region of the spine). Specifically we worked a lot on moving awareness into T-12 and moving T-12 back. In the front of the body the action translates as ‘don’t let your ribs poke out’. It also addresses anterior tilt of the pelvis (sway back). T-12 is the precise point of the most flexible (i.e. weakest) place in my back hence I have a super bendy sway back. Anybody with me here? This hyper-mobile / weak spot has allowed me to get into deep (some might say impressive looking) back bending postures for as long as I have been practicing asana yoga. For the better part of a decade of practice, this same spot has caused me a ‘crunchy’ discomfort in my swayed backbends (including warrior 1, crescent lunge, pigeon, and even seated meditation) which I have largely ignored. For years in my yoga practice I was falsely self programmed to think that back bending postures are supposed to feel (what I now register as) painful. Misalignments in poses eventually spill out and pan out as injury and pain in the body which is the source of a mountain of problems.
For a long time I harbored this pain in my body and misunderstanding of the asana in silence and shame. Who is suffering in their yoga practice in this way? I now raise my hand in a gesture of ‘present’.
T-12 is the ‘ground zero’ of weakness from where ‘sway back’ posture originates. In my body it is one of the major causes of an historically, nearly nonexistent abdomino-pelvic relationship, core awareness, or stability. For those of us who have this body type, It also makes for an unattractive lower belly that just kind of dumps forward. To compensate, we sway backers are familiar with sucking our bellies in which is simply a chronic state of stressful clenching. All of which leads to the alarming state of the inner body of this area which houses the vital organs of digestion and reproduction and hormone production. Stress, weakness, and lack of tone in the pelvis leaves these fragile bodily systems unsupported, ultimately leading to collapse and early dysfunction. Hellacious.
The radical and simple body/mind gateway I have found to bring awareness and strength to the deep core is by changing the way I practice and teach basic cat/cow pose (table-top position on hands and knees. Cow tilt-inhale arch the spine. Cat tilt- exhale deeply round the spine with a gaze back at the navel). The super flexible part of my back allows me a VERY deep cow tilt which I used to exploit with vigor-not a good thing. The weakness at T-12 also loves and craves the highly rounded, strongly rooted cat tilt which fills the void of collapse around my kidneys – a very good thing. The lesson here is: I (and all of you other beautiful sway backed yogis) need not practice or encourage any more flexibility in the T-12 zone (i.e. be aware of and correct cow tilt /anterior pelvic tilt/ sway back in your pelvis in most of your poses). Rather, we need to practice sustained pelvic stabilization or cat tilt in poses. My new way to approach cat/cow is to keep the strong cat tilt of the pelvis and take the movement of cow into the upper part of the spine, chest, and shoulders – where flexibility is needed. Here’s how I do it…on all fours, I broaden my collar bones, deeply melt my heart and keep my arm bones plugged into their shoulder sockets WHILE maintaining cat tilt in my pelvis. It was SO awkward at first. Stuff barely moved. But then I felt distant, unknown, deep muscles, opening up…hello psoas, nice to finally meet you first-hand, I’ve only heard so much about you. After applying and practicing this new action/insight into mindful movement (yoga, jogging, cycling, standing at the sink washing dishes, in line at the P.O., playing with babies etc) for a couple of weeks, I find my tendency to default into sway back is waning. Strengthening sustained awareness is the first step to building physical strength, and that’s where consistent time on the mat becomes vital even if it’s 20 minutes a day. My sway back is changing incrementally, everyday. I am experiencing freedom from a persistent sensation that I now understand to be pain. This is just one of the priceless gifts of yoga practice.
By maintaining stability in my pelvic tilt I am gaining more (hard won) flexibility in my upper back – which feels like a freaking wonder drug. The middle of my upper back has literally been locked up like a concrete and steel bank vault for a long as I have known myself.
The real treasures of my heart: compassion, love, creativity, clarity, freedom, beauty, joy, and a vibrant pulse of life, have also been locked up in there. Fifteen years into asana yoga practice and I am finally understanding what ‘heart opening back bend’ really means. A beginner once more!
The essence of this physical yoga practice is not about how flexible we are or how amazing our poses are, but rather how fully connected to our source we become . This connection to our essence provides stability and sanity and clarity. It is the ultimate aim of yoga. As a result of the consistent faithful practices of mindful movement, skillful breathing, and sincere self- inquiry with the intention to align with the higher Good, we create the conditions for our Light to shine with a sparkly brilliance that illuminates everything around us attracting and encouraging the light of all people to burn as brightly.
Get on a mat and find your Holy Cat!
- YogiPod is written by Melanie Buffett
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