Thursday, 1 September 2011

Spinal Exercise, the bottom of It. September 2011 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami

Hello, warm greetings!

Between Sep 9th to 18th I will be at Suddha Weixler's Chicago Yoga
Center. There is a two hour program on Mantras on the 9th. There is a
ten hour program on the last two chapters of the Yoga Sutras on 10th
and 11th. Then during the weekdays a 25 hour certificate program on
Core Vinyasakrama asanas. On 17th and 18th a ten hour program on
Asana, pranayama and meditation.

Contact: Suddha Weixler
Phone: +1-773-327-3650

I have a few programs arranged for 2012. It is tentatively arranged
that the 200 hour Vinyasakrama TT program could start after July 4
holidays and run for 5 weeks at LMU.
I will also be teaching a week long program at Esalen Institute in

I may also probably do a few programs outside USA.

Krisztian Krutzler has prepared two downloadable files of my
newsletters of 2009 and 2010 and Anthony Hall has parked them in his
website. You may access them in his blogsite

Practicing Vinyasa Krama Yoga at Home: Ramaswami's Newsletter

Thank you Krisztian and Anthony


I have not been writing about Asanas for quite sometime. I have
covered a lot of ground in my Vinyasakrama book and also in the
earlier book, Yoga for Three Stages of Life. I thought though I could
write about asana again- of course, nothing entirely new but a
different angle.

It is said that one of the main aims of asana and pranayama practice
(Hata Yoga) is to maintain the health of the backbone. It is a common
refrain that one is as old as the condition of the backbone. And some
of the most charming postures of yoga involve the many positions of
the spine. Parsva Bhangi, Matsyendrasana, Akunchanasana, Kapotasana.
Paschimatanasana and a host of other poses bring out the majesty and
the versatility of one of God's marvelous engineering creations called
the spine.

The spine has been the center of attention of several systems, like
the chiropractics. Among Yogis, Kundalini Yoga and Hata Yoga can be
considered to be spine centric. The one bone assembly, the backbone is
not straight but one that is curved back(kyphosis) and forward
(lordosis) and the yogis try to make it straight at least during the
time they sit and meditate so that the Kundalini is aroused and moved
through the sushumna in the spinal column as per the Kundalini Yoga or
the integrated prana moves through the sushumna as the Hatayogis
explain hatayoga.

The spine can be divided into different sections for study and
practice. The bottom is the tailbone or coccyx which is curved and has
three to five tiny vertebrae. It stays beneath the pelvis. There is
some mobility in it but we do not pay much attention to it until one
falls on the butts. A few years back, already an old man, I tried to
carry a teapoy down the stairs in my house. I was wearing hard
slippers and as I overstepped a step I slipped (I had the slippers on,
you see) and fell heavily on my butts. The teapoy (tea table) broke
and we had to discard it. I was in great pain. My wife took me to a
hospital immediately for a precautionary X ray which did not reveal
any damage (not broken like the furniture). But the orthopedist warned
me that I may have some recurring pain in the coccyx region when I sit
for a long time. For a period of time whenever I did long travel, like
from NJ to Los Angeles, I used to feel a lot of pain sitting. So I
know where the tailbone is.

The backbone although it is one assembly has different sections each
having its own idiosyncrasy, so when exercising the backbone one has
to pay attention to each section. The tailbone/coccyx, sacrum, lumbar,
thoracic and cervical sections have their distinct characteristics.
The muladhara chakra is associated with coccyx, the svadhishtana
chakra is linked to the sacral region, the manipuraka with the lumbar
region, then we have anahata with the thoracic spine and the vishuddhi
chakra is in the cervical region. The spinal column descends from the
occipital region and we have the aajna chakra in that region and the
sahasrara is in the cranial region. The tailbone is the baby of the
assembly at the bottom and tucked nicely but is surrounded by heavy
muscles and tissues and protected well. It has some mobility. Since it
is the root of the spine it is also known among Yogis as the Mula.
Since both Hata Yoga and Kundalini Yoga are predominantly connected
with the spine the mula becomes an important aspect of yoga. When one
wants to work with the spine, it, the coccyx, should be firmly
anchored. Let us consider the example of the fishing rod (old times).
It has a flexible pole, a string and the bait. (sorry I could not
think of an ahimsa example). One holds the pole at the far end and
when the bait is taken, the pole bends. The fisherman will have to
hold the pole firmly so that the pole can bend to the extent required,
even though there will be some play or movement in the hand of the
holder. Further he has to hold at the farthest point, holding a bit
inside the pole reduces the leverage and the pole will not bend

The coccyx and sacrum (sacro-coccygeal section) are at the bottom of
the backbone. The coccyx is at the very end of the spine. It
represents a vestigial tail (hence the common term tailbone) and
consists of three to five very small bones fused together. There is
limited movement between these bones permitted by fibrous joints and
ligaments. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at the base of the
spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity and where it
is 'inserted' like a bone wedged between the two hip bones. Its upper
part  is connected to the last lumbar vertebra and the bottom part to
the coccyx. In children it consists normally of five unfused vertebrae
which begin fusing around 16 years and become completely fused around
26. It is kyphotic (curved, concavity facing forward). Even so, it is
now an established fact that the sacrum moves between the ilia by both
ambulatory and respiratory motions . It would therefore point to the
logic of the use of fuller breathing in vinyasa movements as in
Vinyasa Krama.

So the mula or the tail bone will have to be held firmly during the
spinal exercises. And the yogis used the well known technique called
mulabandha which is contracting a few groups of muscles surrounding
the tailbone:  the perineum, rectum and the gluteal muscles. All
spinal movements, the forward bend,the rounded back, the turn, the
back bend, the side bend, all will be better if the mula is gripped
firmly and engaged.

Now let us consider the different types of spinal movements. The
turning or twisting movement has to emanate from the mula and my Guru
had a couple of asana vinyasas to provide for this movement. The
Jataraparivrittis efficiently engage the tailbone and the next
immediate section sacrum. Please refer to my book The Complete book of
Vinyasa Yoga
(pages 105,106,119,121,122). Tatakamudra (page 105)
by anchoring the sacro-coccygial portion of the spine helps to
stretch it. These are some of the very early exercises my Guru used to
teach to almost all the students.

For the back bending exercises it is necessary to protect the lumbar
spine. Towards that, the flexibility and the strength of the sacro-
coccygeal region is to be necessarily cultivated. The pelvic push is
efficiently facilitated by a simple but effective asana called
dwipadapeetam (pages109-115) or desk pose. . This posture which is
casually practiced with the feet apart and thighs spread out leaves
out the the spine in the pelvic region. Hence it is necessary to keep
the feet together, tighten the gluteal muscles, draw in the rectum and
gently push the tailbone/sacrum up and feel a healthy stretch at the
bottom of the spine. Any back bending done without fully involving the
sacro coccygial region is a less efficient back bend and tends to put
more strain on the lumbar spine. Again my Guru used this posture to
teach to almost anyone. This upward pelvic push is to be done on
inhalation generally but, it can be done while exhaling smoothly by
the elderly, the obese, the pregnant, the highly strung etc. Because
the feet and back of the head are well anchored it becomes easy to
control the back bend very well and one can improve the stretch step
by step. Other poses that are in this group would be catushpada peetam
or Table pose ( page79 ) and Purvatanasana or the anterior stretch
pose (pages78,79). The other back-bends in the prone poses such as
Bhujangasana, dhanurasana and salabhasana (pages 138-145) also may be
done with the thighs and feet together to keep the sacrum and tailbone
engaged and stretchered. To ensure this condition, the teacher may ask
the student to keep the feet and thighs together by placing a piece of
paper between the feet  and not let the paper drop to the floor while
raising the legs up in asana like Salabhasana. In these prone
exercises keeping the legs together enables to exercise all parts of
the spine, especially the oft neglected sacro-coccygeal area.

The sacral/pelvic tilt also is an important movement in the context of
forward bending. This is achieved best in balasana or forward bend in
Vajrasana (page 179,180) first and then in paschimatanasana (page
75-77) or the posterior stretch pose. Those who are able to engage the
muscles surrounding the sacrum and coccyx are able to achieve a good
forward bend facilitated by the tilting or tipping of the pelvis. One
procedure that will be helpful is for the teacher or a friend to
support the sacrum with both the hands and push forward and down on
exhalation and allow the subject to return to dandasana on inhalation
while still maintaining the healthy pressure. It may be good to
maintain the pressure for a while in the posture pushing forward and
down on each long exhalation and then holding it on inhalation. Over a
period the practitioner would be able to use the group of muscles at
the base of the spine and stretch the muscles of the sacral region.

Then we have the important movement of lifting and holding the
tailbone/sacrum up, by pulling up the waist and hips. Here the muscles
of the hip joints are brought into play, This can be done in the
beginning of tadansana sequence itself. When the subject raises the
arms (page 4-5), he or she can get a partner to hold the pelvic girdle
below the hip joints and push the pelvis up. This helps to stretch the
pelvic and hip muscles up and along with that the sacrum and tail bone
also move up a little bit and it will be easy to stretch the
supporting musculature. One can do the movements a few times with the
helper holding the pelvis up a little while the arms are brought down
on exhalation and pulling the pelvis up when one raises the arms on
inhalation. Over a period of time the practitioner, while raising the
arms, will engage the hip muscles and gently pull the pelvis along
with the sacro coccygeal portion of the spine. Sri Krishnamacahra
would frequently exhort the student to pull up and hold the hips up in
several seated postures like parvatanasana ( page 196) and dandasana
(page 39). He would say in Tamil “iduppai thooki pidiyungo” or “Pull
up the waist/hips and hold it up”.

I think it is good to use these simple asana and vinyasa procedures to
prepare the bottom of the spine. These simple procedures help to
maintain a good flexibility and the tone of the supporting musculature
at the bottom end of the spine. My Guru taught many of these simple
and doable procedures almost to all levels of yoga abhyasis. He would
appropriately alter the breathing to langhanakriya so that some of the
overweight, older, tense and pregnant (except prone poses in
pregnancy)) abhyasis could do these procedures. These are good
preparatory exercises that will be helpful in getting a good control
over the sacro-coccygeal spine that will help in doing some of the
more difficult and charming spine-centric asanas like ushtrasana/
kapotasana, triyangmukha uttanasana (backbends), paschimatanasana
(forward bend), matsyendtasana (spinal twist), akunchanasana(rounding
the spine), parsva bhangi(side bend) and other spine centric asanas
and vinysasas.

The term Cakra is well known to Yogis. Cakra means a wheel in normal
usage. The Samkhyas refer to the potter's wheel as cakra while
describing the post kaivalya time of the yogi. The seven cakras are
usually represented as wheels. Brahmananda, the commentator of the
Hatayogapradeepika, refers to cakras as Nadicakra in the context of
nadis. He calls it a collection/group of nadis or nadi samooha.

Several contemporary yogis relate this concept of nadi samooha to
ganglia or plexus. A wheel also is an assembly of different parts,
like the hub, spokes, rim and a tyre. Since Nadis can also refer to
blood vessels, the heart itself is referred to as hrdaya cakra. The
Chaedogya Upanishad of Sama Veda mentions that there are 101 nadis
that emanate from the heart. It is possible then that cakra could mean
an organ in this context. The anahata cakra refers to a cakra that
produces a sound without being struck by another agent. The heart
produces the sound by itself. So anahata cakra could mean the heart
cakra or the heart. In the Suryanamaskara mantra of Yajurveda, there
is a mantra which refers to the human body as “ashta cakra, nava
dvaara” The nava or nine dvaaraas or openings are the two eyes, the
two ears, the two nostrils and the mouth in the face plus the other
two openings. While explaining the meaning of the eight cakras,
Sayana, the well known commentator of the vedas, refers to the cakras
as different arrangements of cells or different tissues (humors) in
the body as tvak (skin), carma (dermis), rakta (blood), mamsa
(muscle), medhas (fat), asti (bone), majja (marrow), sukla (seman)/
sonita (uterine secretions).

Thus the term cakra could indicate a group, collection, village of
some tissues or an assembly. It is also suggested by some scholars
that the cakra w.r.t the spinal column could refer to different parts
of the backbone itself, each section having its own unique
arrangements of bones: the coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic, cervical
and occipital. And the entire spine with the cranium looks like a
kundalini or a cobra with the beautiful wavy body curvatures.

Thank you

With best wishes


Srivatsa Ramaswami

P S comments or suggestions may be sent to

The earlier newsletters may be accessed from my website
and opening the newsletter tab.

NB. I ( grimmly) made up an illustrated version of the Spinal exercise article for the  Ashtangi's who perhaps don't have Ramaswami's book to hand, find it HERE

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