It’s a rare day when a Kundalini Yoga class doesn’t include spinal flex, so why all the emphasis on working with the spine?
The spinal column houses the spinal cord, the main pathway for controlling and connecting to our limbs, muscles and other organs. The spinal cord is housed in a space filled with spinal fluid. In order to maintain our health the spinal fluid removes waste products from the nervous system and brings nutrients to it via the movement of the spine. So, spinal flexes help to pump the spinal fluid along the spinal column to help facilitate nourishing and detoxing the nervous system. This pumping also helps to keep the disks between the vertebrae nourished and cushy to keep the spine steady and flexible.
The spine is also connected to many muscles throughout the core and the back as well as the hips. Since the spine is mainly for structuring the body and protecting the nervous system, most of our back problems are related to the back muscles. There is of course the possibility of a pinched nerve, but much back pain is the result of bad posture and other muscle quirks resulting from injuries and even emotional trauma. Spinal flexes can help to loosen up some of the tight muscles along the spine.
Since many of us spend time sitting in chairs at the office our thighs and psoas muscles (muscles that connect from the spine to through the pelvis and into the thigh bone) become shortened and over worked while our abdomens and lower backs weaken from lack of use. No wonder we can begin to slump as we age! The same goes for our chest and neck becoming too tight while the hamstrings and front of the neck are weakened. When one part of our body goes out of balance it often takes other areas with it, adding to small problems overtime and creating larger problems down the line.
Some of the best things for strengthening the abdominal muscles to release back pain are leg lifts, sit-ups and stretch pose. These can be very painful to someone who has almost no abdominal strength to begin with, so it’s important to focus on correct posture for these. There is a very important component to doing these postures correctly to avoid further agitating the back pain and abdominal weakness. For leg lifts and stretch pose it’s important to keep the lower back pressed straight against the ground using only the abdominal muscles. Do what now? That means unclenching your bum and releasing the thighs and focusing on the abdomen. This can be difficult at first, but try, try again and remember to rest in between! When you are doing leg lifts and stretch pose and the lower back to lifts from the ground the psoas muscles are lifting your legs, causing them to strengthen more without working the abdominals, so it’s better to limit yourself to the time for these postures to how long you can keep the lower back on the floor and just visualize the rest. Setting your intention is important and you can build strength slowly and surely. Another helpful alternate is to place your fists or hands underneath your hips to help tilt the pelvis so the lower back stays on the floor. This can help you get through some of the tougher postures for a little bit longer while keeping the lower back on the floor.
To better understand the functioning of the body in yoga postures, you can read Guru Prem’s Divine Alignment, where he discusses the different tilts of the pelvis to help you understand them in relation to your own body.
Sadhana Guidelines contains kriyas for working the spine and strengthening the abdomen and is a great resource.