This week I’ve been studying all of the amazing support systems of the human body. Not just the physical ones that seem so obvious, like our spines, but the more subtle support systems of our breath, our emotional and our energetic body. From a physical “anatomy-only” perspective, the causes of back pain can be many. We have loading injuries to the bones and discs themselves, age-related degeneration, extra bone growth where we don’t need it, disc pathology, facet joint dysfunction, instability, immobility and the list goes on. But what about what’s happening inside the emotional body and the energetic body? Where else in our lives do we feel unsupported? Guess what happens when the root system of our body becomes undernourished?
How many times have you come up with a great idea at work only to get shot down? Maybe you talked to your family about a new business venture and you were met with negativity and doubt from those you love or even yourself? Life is full of disappointments and to feel let down by the very people in our lives we thought would always be there for us can be a frequent event. When the emotion lingers long enough to become a thought, and longer still to become a belief, the physical body can, and often does, begin to match that belief system.
Everyone wants to feel the support of family, friends, teammates and co-workers and sadly, it isn’t always there. But what if you had the ability to change the environment inside your body whenever you felt unsupported, let down by those you love and let down by your own spine? How can you cultivate support in EVERY aspect of your life?
In Yoga, we often hear some version of the phrase, “Get grounded.”, but what does that really mean? Am I really ungrounded? Think of the floor, your mat or the ground as your never yielding support system. Unless you live in an earthquake prone area of the country, you can be fairly certain that it will always be there. When I’m working with a client, this connection is vital, not just in an obvious posture where balance is required like Vrikshasana (tree), but I’m helping them cultivate that connection in every pose leading up to Vrikshasana. Sitting in simple cross-legged is a nice example of how you can integrate this concept not just in the physical body, but in the subtle body (emotions, energy, breath) as well. As you sit in this posture, notice your sit bones supporting you. Notice how much of your legs are touching the ground. If you sit on the edge of a folded blanket, perhaps more of the legs can touch something, helping you to relax more and feel safer. Maybe even touch your fingertips to the floor and feel that as well. Close your eyes and imagine that all of the places touching down represent the people in your life. Breathe.
Now begin to imagine roots extending from your sit bones into the ground beneath you, firm and solid. Imagine these roots emanating from your shins as well into the ground and from your fingertips as well. Imagine these roots extending to all the people in class with you today or to the very ends of the floor in all directions. Connecting even further to this gigantic earth, can you spread the root system even further? Imagine you, this small person, can have a root system the size of the earth! Can you even imagine placing the person whom you most need support from right now in the room with you? Feel that. Notice what changes in your body..in your energy and in your emotions.
It’s easy for us to reach those roots and tendrils out to those we love. It’s not so easy though, to do that for those that have harmed us in some way. I say, “Do it anyway.” I’m a firm believer in the “Fake it ‘Til You Make It” program. If you can learn to extend the roots when sitting or lying down, imagining that support from the floor that has always been there; that support that will never, ever leave you. Guess what? Things start to shift.
This can be a really tough exercise for many people. We spend so much time up in our heads, constantly thinking, analyzing, figuring. It’s easy to see how we could lose our connection to earth and to our support system. We walk around all day in shoes in a paved world and our poor feet have not only lost sensation, but they have lost the strength of the musculature and the support of the plantar fascia. The foot is this marvelous system of 26 bones, 33 articulations and over 100 muscles! We have dumbed all of that down and essentially casted the foot. So many of my clients tell me they have bony feet or that their feet are too small to support them. What we have is an epidemic of dumb feet! They don’t know what to do! They’ve been fired and they want their job back. Only you can educate them and the way we learn this all over again is to take off the shoes and the socks and re-discover your feet again on your Yoga mat. Once you start to develop the musculature, you can begin some short walks around the house barefoot. Eventually take your bare feet out to the grass and wake up your roots! Take yourself on a hike where you can take your shoes off and let the feet swim in the cool river while your palms touch the earth as well.
If you can go about your Yoga practice with that same idea in EVERY pose (building them from the ground up, cultivating the support from the parts of you that are touching, sending roots emanating to the earth from the parts that are almost touching…reaching), you can change the internal environment and as you practice this regularly there are some things that you will begin to notice. That support that was always there, the support that you forgot to ask for or that you may have been pushing away for years…it starts to emerge. We create in the world what we put out there. I say put down some more roots.
In every posture, you are the tree setting down your roots first. Notice the expansion from that grounded place. How far can you reach while still feeling connected to the earth? Inhale and feel the expansion. Exhale into the ground. When you close your practice in Shavasana (corpse pose), take inventory again. Notice the heels, the backs of the shins and thighs, the hips, the back of the heart as an everlasting shelf for your heart and lastly the back of the head. Continue to scan all the way back down as well before dissolving into the earth. Can you melt all the way in to allow the entire earth to support you?
Go ahead and enjoy that. I’ve got your back.
In our anatomy segment this week, let’s take a closer look at my favorite ligament, the PLL (Posterior Longitudinal Ligament) and why you should take responsibility for it’s integrity before major spinal problems arise.
I see an interesting array of posture in my profession. I also hear interesting stories of people who work from home..on their Laptops, in bed, slumped and propped with pillows for 10 hours a day.
In the above image, we are looking at you from the front. The posterior longitudinal ligament is situated inside the vertebral canal, and runs along the entire posterior surfaces of the bodies(the chunky part) of the vertebræ, from the body of C2 (axis), where it is continuous with the membrana tectoria, all the way down to the sacrum. In the lumbar spine, it gets nice and thick and broadens just behind each intervertebral disc.
When you flex your spine to touch your toes, the nucleus of the intervertebral disc acts like the bubble in your Leveler tool. It moves posteriorly and hopefully bumps into a nice, healthy, broad PLL. The PLL acts as a block to the posteriorly moving nucleus of that disc and you get to get up the next day!
Let’s consider the integrity of Mr. Couch Potato’s PLL (above) or that of the dude working from bed or slumped at his desk. That PLL is no longer nice and broad and taught. It’s overstretched and slack! Maybe our poor example is the weekend warrior at the gym rushing through hamstring stretches like these:
In each of these examples, the only thing being over stretched is the PLL! Add to these above positions the unnatural effort of bearing down and holding the breath and…well…just call the EMTs because that disc is going to blow right through the slack PLL and into the spinal canal or laterally into the nerve root. Maybe you actually make it home from the gym and later just reach across the table for something. That’s usually the story I hear, “I don’t know what I did! I just reached for my Coke!” If our postural habits and lack of good Wellness Education (WE) continue long enough, eventually we tip the scale. The absolute key here is prevention and education. Once that PLL is overstretched, we have a problem and 23 discs to protect!
It is vital that you keep your spine erect and long in all forward bends. As PTs, Pilates and Yoga Teachers and Yoga Therapists, we must insist.
When you stretch the hamstrings with this in mind, you probably won’t go anywhere near as far as you are used to…and that’s wonderful!
Most of us will never enjoy this full expression of Janushirshasana in our bodies, however between sitting at your desk and the above posture is a whole range of exploration! All of the forward bends in Yoga can be fully adapted by your Yoga Therapist to meet your needs. It is not even a requirement to be able to get down on the floor! The forward bends facilitate introspection. In addition you are stretching all the musculature in the posterior leg and spine (gastrocnemius, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and latisimus dorsi). Far from a passive event, you will be strengthening the quadriceps, the abdominals, lower and middle trapezius as well as the erector spinae to hold the proper alignment.
Janushirshasana with Props (blanket under hips and small bolster under knee). The Bolster creates slack in the hamstrings, allowing me to elongate the spine. The blanket tips my pelvis forward a bit taking out any slump. The strap helps me engage my middle and lower trapezius to further elongate tailbone to crown with an open chest.
Janushirshasana without props:
If it is your regular practice to push through an overly flexed spine in Janushirshasana or Paschimotanasana, try backing off a bit and use the props to help you go deeper into reflection instead of deeper into pain and resistance.
Preserve the integrity of the PLL and of your intervertebral discs. They will thank you for many years and you won’t have to walk around with your PLL showing!