My lower-back and shoulders carry and give voice to many of my fears and frustrations. My shoulders get stiff and my lower back becomes sensitive (if I am not careful with it, sensitivity becomes pain). The past few days have been like this and I’ve been practicing accordingly. I try to practice twice a day:
- In the mornings I practice mostly lying on my back. This anchors the center of my body and allows me to work gradually on mobility, strength and flexibility with relatively low-weight-bearing postures. The core posture is a lying twist.
- In the evenings my practice varies – but generally it’s focused on standing postured working towards a seated posture.
Both practices including a Pranayama breathing practice and a short meditation.
This post is dedicated to the lying twist to demonstrate the vast potential of subtle variations and attention to detail that can be applied in a single asana.
The Core Posture
I will be focusing on a basic core posture – where (1) the arms are opened to the sides; (2) the knees folded close to the chest and placed on the floor; (3) the head is rotated to the side opposite of the knees.
If you try the core posture directly you may find yourself experiencing some limitations such as (1) knees that do not reach the floor; (2) one knee is on the floor while the other floats in the air; (3) the arm opposite the knees cannot reach the floor; (4) the shoulder opposite the knees cannot reach the floor; (5) the knees move away from the chest to a more open position. A gradual exploration of the posture may shed more light on it for you.
Moving into the posture
Finding an accessible & comfortable starting point is always useful in approaching our limitations in asana. In this case lying on your side will do the trick – arms & knees are placed one on top of the other and the head is rested on the floor facing the same direction as the entire body.
From this position we will use Ujjayi breath to grow into the posture. With every inhale start opening up – the top arm reaching away from the body and lengthening. The head follows the arm – you can do this with open eyes and keep your gaze on the moving hand. Go as far as your breath will take you and your body will allow. The first time you do this don’t go beyond 90 degrees. As you exhale bring everything back to the starting position. Repeat this numerous time, going a bit further every time. Take as long as you need.
Every time you feel a limitation, slow down and come to a stop. Try to find what is limiting you. If it’s a physical limitation try to identify a place in your body where you feel the most stretch or a pain. If it’s a limitation of mind – such as fear or insecurity about moving on – try to see what is the source of the inhibition. Don’t automatically extend beyond your limitations, revisit them once or twice more and see if something changes.
Staying in the posture
If, after numerous movements your arm reaches the floor or close to it then you can stop moving, stay in the position you’ve reached and focus on your breathing. If you arm is in the air, keep it active, stretching away from the body, don’t let it go limp. You may find that breathing is enough to keep you moving around the place you’ve stopped. As your inhale to the chest the arm and shoulder may rise and as you exhale they may sink back down. It may find it’s way to settle on the ground and it may not!
You may also find it useful to place the second arm (the one on the side of the knees) on the knees to keep them fixed on the floor.
Then you can turn your attention to harnessing the range of movement created by the breath. As you inhale try to hold your position (this may cause some tension to build in your body), as you exhale try to embrace the sinking movement and relax “into” the space created by the exhale. You may find that with each breath your posture opens up and expands. Stay active, the outstretched arm should remain active and focused on length – all the way to the tips of your fingers. Try to maintain a quality breathing pattern – locational or directional breathing and a quality sound of ujjayi. An active breath keeps the posture moving & active on a subtle level.
Coming out of the posture gradually
We will use the movement of the breath to start moving out of the posture. As you inhale and your chest begins to expand, allow your arm and shoulder to rise from the floor. As you exhale allow it so sink back down (it doesn’t have to reach all the way to the floor). With each breath extend the range of movement allowing the arm to rise further up until finally it goes beyond 90 degrees and you come all the way back to the starting position.
From there you can roll back to a centered lying position. Stay here a few breaths, observe sensations that may come to you, see if you notice any differences between the two sides of your body. When you are ready you can begin this entire sequence on the other side of the body.
Coming out of the posture directly
If you feel up to it then you can come out of the posture in directly. Using an inhale, simultaneously twist your head back to and raise your knees back to a center position. As you exhale bring your arms back alongside your body.
If you’ve been following this practice then you’ve spent some time working on one side and since this is an asymmetrical posture it is recommended that you do the same on both sides.
Expanding through our limitations
I’ve been told that people with a handicap in one of their senses often compensate by developing enhanced sensitivity in other senses. For example a blind person may develop refined hearing to compensate for his lack of sight. I believe that physical limitations (which we all have) can facilitate similar development in our practice. If we embrace our limitations and work with them, they may lead us to a refined practice.
I’ve extensively studied and practiced many forms of lying twists over the years. But now, thanks to my sensitive lower back I can breath better in a twist, I have more range within the posture and it is more accessible to me then ever before. I discovered these qualities by gently shifting my consciousness from trying to “fix” my lower back to working within the limitations it imposes on me. I am looking forward to applying what I’ve learned to other forms of twisting, lying & standing, and other asana as well. Finally this brings into interesting light obstacles and frustrations which are what got me started in the first place.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” T.S. Eliot