by Celia McCoy, E-RYT 200, RYT 500
I am naturally bendy. Lots of people who are drawn to yoga are. The first 6 years of my yoga practice were devoted to moving my body into shapes that looked increasingly bendier. I was proud that my postures looked advanced. In uttānāsana (standing forward bend) my forehead could touch my shins, and I barely felt a stretch in my legs. When I went from student to yoga teacher trainee, I continued to be steered down the same path. In learning about forward bending the caution was to always encourage students away from rounding their back at all, and to dive into a standing forward bend. In fact, I once had a teacher suggest that in the action of bending forward, the upper chest should heave up and arch forward as though one was about to vomit on the way down. So I continued to practice this way: tilting my pelvis forward, swaying my low back, lifting my chest and chin, and shortening my neck to swan-dive my torso into a standing forward bend.
About four years into my yoga practice, my low back started to hurt. And started to hurt bad. I attributed it to many things: pregnancy, weight lifting, running, cycling, carrying kids, and on and on. But it never crossed my mind that my āsana practice could be the culprit. I continued on, in pain, to practice the way I was used to until my 300 Hour Teacher Training. It was there that, through the teachings of my now mentor, I began to understand the difference between form (the external look of a posture looks) and function (the internal experience of the posture), and what the true function of forward bends are and why what I was doing caused so much difficulty in my back!
Uttānāsana, like all other forward bends, is categorized as a paścimatāna posture, or stretch of the west; this refers to the back body. The whole back body. This includes the spine and the muscles of the back, not just the backs of the legs. Through the help of my teacher I realized that even though uttānāsana is a forward bend the way I had been practicing it kept my spine in extension the whole time– my posture was effectively a back bend that looked like a forward bend. The muscles of my low back were constantly being contracted and never given the opportunity to open and release.
I can remember the first time I actually “stretched” my back in a standing forward bend. It was more than a lightbulb moment. It was like a door opening to show me a path forward in which I was able to avoid pain in my low back. Here are the ingredients that led to this awakening for me: exhale technique (creating an internal hug towards the spine with the belly muscles as you exhale); truly moving with the breath; keeping the back of my neck long; softening my knees; feeling (gasp) rounded in my low back. I had actually found flexion in my spine. After finding this sensation in standing forward bend I began to identify all the other paścimatāna postures that I had been practicing incorrectly and extrapolated the technique to seated and kneeling positions as well.
I have been practicing this way now for over a year and the difference is remarkable. I have a sense of stability in my postures that was never there before. Using exhale technique naturally lengthens and stabilizes the low back and keeps my awareness on this region of my body. I am not straining the connective tissue of my hamstrings and instead feeling opening in the muscle itself. And I am fulfilling the promise of paścimatāna and actually opening the whole of my back body!
Want to learn more from Celia? Click here for her teaching schedule!