In the yoga world there’s a well-known adage that you are only as old as your spine is inflexible. A supple spine is the hallmark of youthful vigor (though not necessarily of youth!) and asana practice is designed to keep the spine flexible. The true classical asanas (as opposed to “stretches” or “exercises”) all target either the spine or the navel center, or both.
In the yoga world there’s a well-known adage that you are only as old as your spine is inflexible.
It is possible, however, to work with asana (and pranayama and meditation, for that matter) in a way that cheats us out of the full benefits of the practice. The tendency is to perform asanas in ways that unconsciously exploit the flexibility of one part of the spine while favoring a stiff or weak part of the spine. Likewise, we exploit those same strengths and weaknesses when we sit for pranayama or meditation. The resulting spinal misalignment inhibits our breathing pattern and the flow of subtle energy in the core of the body, distorting the energetic template that accompanies the state of mind we are seeking. When we practice in this way, there is little overall improvement or change in any aspect of our being.
To break out of the box we’re in, we must stop reinforcing our existing tendencies. The first step is self-awareness. For example, only when we are aware that we habitually avoid stretching the upper back can we break this habit in our asana practice. It is awareness, continually deepening, that makes even a simple posture an advanced posture. Adjustments and corrections are then particular to the individual, but there are a few guidelines that apply with good effect to almost everyone.
The first tenet for attaining and maintaining a flexible spine is keeping its entire length elongated as we perform our poses. We must constantly work against gravity to keep the spine from collapsing or shortening. Otherwise we literally lose stature as time goes on, along with range of motion and our youthful vigor.
Stretching the arms overhead is a great way to sense the elongation of the entire spine and to experience any misalignments. The symmetrical stretch on the floor gives us feedback on the upper back and shoulders that is not available in the standing overhead symmetrical stretch.
Begin lying on the floor on your back with your arms and legs alongside the body, legs flat on the floor, the head and neck in line with the spine. Relax and feel the backside of the body against the floor. Make sure the arms and legs are symmetrically arranged around the central axis of the body. Let the breath adjust itself, becoming smooth, quiet, and gentle. As you relax you may need to adjust the body to allow more of the back to settle into the floor. Press the arms down to lift the upper back slightly off the floor, then lower again to the floor and feel the length and breadth of the body.
Now inhale and slide the arms across the floor and up overhead. For a breath or two keep the arms overhead but relaxed, and note the change in the breath and in the body with this arrangement of the arms. Be aware of the upper back, and relax the shoulder blades into the floor, noting any adjustments of the arms you make to keep the upper back relaxed against the floor. Feel the breath in mid and lower torso and imagine that the breath helps you effortlessly lengthen the spine while at the same time broadening the back as you sink into the floor.
Now bring the feet together, stretch down through the legs and feet, and actively stretch overhead. Think of the spine extending and the rib cage lifting up away from the pelvis, the chest opening, the shoulders opening and lifting away from the chest, the arms reaching up away from the shoulders, and finally, the hands and fingers stretching up and away from the arms. Do not hold the breath. Rather, let it be smooth and easy, and let it expand the stretch from the inside out. Be particularly attentive to the upper back. Notice if your shoulders roll forward. Press the shoulder blades firmly into the floor, bending the elbows if necessary to bring the shoulders and upper back to the floor. Notice the resulting opening of the chest, and breathe into the space you have created.
We’ll try the same pose as before, this time standing. The upper back and shoulders tend to round forward in many of us in a way that restricts proper alignment and breathing. This is translated into our asana practice and our sitting practice unless we consciously compensate for it. So, standing in tadasana, the mountain pose, with your feet parallel and together or hip-width apart, inhale and stretch the arms up, out to the side, and then overhead. Press down through the feet and feel yourself lengthening through the top of the head. Hold the stretch as you exhale, then inhale and lift the chest away from the pelvis, the shoulders away from the chest, the arms up out of the shoulders. Project out through the hands and fingers.
Notice your upper back alignment. If in the lying-on-the-floor version of this pose you rounded your shoulders or if your arms were forward from your ears as you stretched up, or if you needed to bend your elbows, then bend your elbows now so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Then flatten your shoulder blades against the ribs and open the chest just as you did on the floor. Hold for five or more breaths, expanding the chest and ribs evenly and smoothly, exhaling from the abdomen. Relax the arms down for a breath or two if you get tired. Then come back to the bent-elbow stretch and slowly lift the arms overhead, concentrating on the shoulders and upper back, straightening the elbows only as much as you can without losing the openness in the chest, upper back, and shoulders. Keep the face relaxed and the breath even and smooth. Hold this new alignment until you are thoroughly familiar with all the ways in which it differs from your usual stance in this stretch. When you are ready to release, slowly lower the arms with an exhalation.
You might consider trying this pose against the wall, pressing the shoulders, upper back, and lifted arms against it. The wall functions like the floor in our first stretch, but in standing you are lifting against gravity, so the pose has a different dynamic. The feedback of the wall will help you realize whether your “normal” alignment in daily life needs improvement. If keeping your upper back flat against the wall feels odd, you may be avoiding stretching this part of your back in other poses, especially in backward bends, where it is easy to immobilize the upper back, bend from the lower back, and avoid extending the spine evenly in the bend.
By paying special attention to the upper back and shoulders in backward bends, you may directly address the problem of insufficient upper-back extension, though in the beginning it may feel like your backward bends are not as deep as you’re used to. From the overhead stretch we’ve been working on, we can extend the opening and lifting of the chest just a bit more to open the upper back and chest into a standing backward bend. Note that the lower back and pelvis stay stable. Keep the back of the neck long. Move the thoracic spine toward the front of the body. As you inhale, feel the chest opening and lifting away from the pelvis. Let yourself feel any tight or stuck spots, and breathe into those places, releasing any tension you can with the exhalation. Let the pose expand—the spine lengthens rather than collapsing in the backward direction. Get taller, and be comfortable with your new height. When you’re ready, inhale and lift a little higher and then center the upper torso over the pelvis so you’re standing up straight once again.
The even extension of the entire spine in the backward-bending poses is a feature of the prone backward bends, where the whole body lifts against gravity. In these poses you must keep the upper back and neck long. Lifting the legs at the same time helps you feel the lengthening of the entire spine into the backward arc. Since gravity pulls equally against the length of the body in these poses, it’s easier to keep the whole spine lifting and lengthening as it arches.
Begin lying face down, with your feet together and your arms alongside the torso. Take a moment to sense the breath in the body. Notice the natural lift and expansion as you inhale and the natural softening as you exhale. Then on an inhalation lengthen the feet and the top of the head away from each other as you lift the legs and chest. Keep the back of the neck long and stabilize the shoulder blades onto the back. Press the hands into the floor to help open the chest and draw the shoulders down. Let the posture continue to grow with each breath: lengthen and lift a bit higher as you inhale; exhale and release any restrictions. This way the spine will feel equally extended throughout its length without shortening the lower back or neck.
The upper back and shoulder alignment becomes more challenging when the arms are extended overhead, but we can apply the lessons of the symmetrical stretch in this posture. This time lie face down with the arms overhead alongside the ears and the feet together. Again sense the breath, and when you’re ready extend through the feet, the top of the head, and the arms and hands; reach up and out with the inhalation. The upper back, arms, and head lift as a unit. The arms stay alongside the ears. Lift the torso from underneath, using the breath. Feel the breastbone lifting and moving forward while the back of the neck stays long (try keeping your eyes closed to avoid the tendency to lead with your head). Keep the shoulder blades drawn down and flat, and open the armpits. Reach out strongly through the legs and feet to lengthen the lower back and to counter the strong reach through the upper torso. Hold and explore the pose with about ten breaths. Try to increase the lengthening of the spine and the opening across the front of the body by releasing tension and the restrictions you notice as you refine the breath in the pose. Release out of the pose on an exhalation and rest for a minute or two with your face turned to one side.
Now it’s time to apply the lessons we’ve learned to a standing pose that is a little more complicated than the standing symmetrical stretch. The subtle aspects of the standing poses relate to our stance in the world and how we manage ourselves as we go about our lives. In other words, our habitual holding patterns are likely to creep back into our posture in a complicated standing pose. So here is the final exam: a version of the warrior pose.
The subtle aspects of the standing poses relate to our stance in the world and how we manage ourselves as we go about our lives.
Start in tadasana, the mountain pose. Step the right leg back three to four feet, angling the foot out slightly. Press the outer edge of the foot and heel strongly toward the floor. Bend the left knee, pressing the foot evenly into the floor. Feel the activation of the inner sides of both legs, and the resulting lightness of the pelvis and lifting of the spine out of the pelvis. Now lift the chest, centering the torso over the left leg. Stretch back with the right arm, reaching toward the back of the leg. Both the right leg and arm must lengthen strongly, pulling away from the front of the body, grounding the posture. Stretch up on the diagonal with the left arm, reaching for the seam between the ceiling and the wall. Let your gaze follow this reach.
Breathe easily and with full sensitivity, and let the posture grow. Notice how the left arm stretches out and up as the right arm stretches down and back. Let this opposing movement of the arms keep the chest and upper back expanded and the shoulders broad. Let the opposing dynamic action in the legs keep the pelvis suspended and the lower back long. Keep the head and neck in line with the spine, just as we have done in the preceding poses. Release the arms on an exhalation, and step the feet together. Then repeat on the other side.
Now that you know the pose, try it again (on both sides). This time focus on the even extension of the spine, and see how the breath becomes effortless. The pose then becomes stable and light, and your attention shifts from parts of the body and details of alignment to a new realm of energetic wholeness and inner wisdom: a self-sustaining, self-correcting fountain of youthful vigor.