During fifteen years of yoga teaching, my focus has evolved and changed to centre on movement and integration of the spine. This focus now underpins the majority of my teaching, as I believe the spine is essential in terms of physiological health and the development of awareness. My approach will bring new depth to the evolution of your yoga practice.
Interestingly, the word ‘evolve’ means to unfold – and our spine has certainly unfolded, both in terms of embryological development – as we move from womb, to baby, to adult – and also, long ago, as our species came into being.
Though the exact lineage is uncertain, our distant ancestors came from the sea – with a fluid, laterally moving spine – to become creatures on the land, reptiles on all fours, then passing through a transformation from apes to what could now be recognised as bipedal ‘man’.
As our mobility evolved from fins to four feet and then two feet, our spine has had to withstand gravity in very different directions, with fundamentally the same physical body.
Spine watch is so valuable
As valuable as many traditional and modern yoga classes can be, at times the spine seems to be overlooked in terms of its importance, or perhaps just taken for granted, even though it’s clearly so central to our movement. The linking movements tend to be de-prioritised in favour of individual asanas, or poses.
Poses are taught in a way to gain strength or flexibility, but I notice that paying attention to the movement between poses, or within them, can be helpful to re-discover the mobility and fluidity in the spine. As ever, there is a balance to be struck between too much space between the vertebra that the body collapses and tightly bound so that the spine becomes rigid. I advocate a healthy balance.
For instance, if we look at the way a healthy baby moves, it has a wide range of movement and deep strength, a sense of tensegrity – a balance of space and tension. The baby’s body and breath work together as a whole system, everything is connected through the connective tissues and the spine is a stem of support from which the movement originates.
Explore for yourself – as you draw breath in through your windpipe, to your lungs, feel your belly inflating like a balloon and as the pressure increases, there is a sense of expansion.
On the exhale, sense the deflation which allows a lengthening and support of the spine, also a deep connection to the pelvic floor. Awareness of breath is essential for keeping in touch with this constant and natural movement of the diaphragm.
This conscious play of the breath, whilst moving consciously, can transform any yoga practice to a slow, mindful and intimate experience. Approaching your movement practice as an exploration, rather than something that has to be achieved, can really shift the way you practice to a place of nourishment and discovery. It takes the emphasis away from what it looks like on the outside and into a personal experience of moment-to-moment sensation.
Shifting attention in this way can really give freedom and allow the practitioner to experience what their spine is doing, which can be lost at times in a prescribed set of asanas, or from a habit of pushing.
Our overall posture can be disturbed through the demands of everyday living. The chest is often collapsed and the pelvis drawn under from sitting badly for long periods of time. Our excessive use of electronic devices can lead to a chin being thrown forwards and compression at the back of a neck.
We are often weighed down, through stress and tension, and this can cause a relative collapse of the spine and a congested abdomen, not allowing for any space in the front of our body for the natural expansion and release of the diaphragm.
As yoga practitioners and teachers, if we can’t address this need to open the spine and allow space for breathing, then how can the tensegrity of the spine return? I find myself questioning why postures and movement are layered upon a spine that does not have space to move and a collapsed abdomen that cannot find its natural tone.
When teaching, I include elements of primal movement to honour how we have developed as organisms and to allow the body to be with the memory of how our spine has unfolded.
“Do not kill the instinct of the body, for the glory of the pose. Do not look at your body as a stranger, but adopt a friendly approach towards it” – Vanda Scaravelli.