In India, accomplished renunciates traditionally carry a staff (danda), indicating that they’ve earned the title danda swami. The straight, strong staff is symbolic of the spinal column and the energy of self-awakening that resides in each human being. Unfortunately for most of us, however, our spinal columns are neither straight nor strong. Habitual slouching, chronic tension, stiff lower backs, weak lumbar spines, and hunched shoulders leave us unable to sit or stand with the effortless ease of a balanced spine. So how do we build a vertical axis that steadies and supports our spiritual journey? We can begin by taking a look at dandasana, the staff pose.
Dandasana is a simple seated pose that strengthens the deep muscles of the lower back, the abdomen, and the muscles deep in the pelvis. This improves overall posture and builds a solid foundation for the healthy alignment of the rest of the spine. Improved posture helps prevent the overworking or overstretching of any one muscle group and contributes to stability and comfort in all activities. On the other hand, a habit of poor posture can lead to serious back problems, including a greater chance of muscle strain and herniated discs. So a key element of the practice of dandasana is to cultivate awareness of the spine’s alignment from the tailbone all the way to the crown of the head and to use the strength developed by the practice to transform your habitual posture.
A key element of the practice of dandasana is to cultivate awareness of the spine’s alignment from the tailbone all the way to the crown of the head.
Although it may sound easy, creating this “staff” will take time. The spine reflects not only postural habits and muscular weakness or stiffness but also the flow of energy in the body. Be patient. With practice you’ll find yourself sitting tall all day long.
Begin by sitting on the floor with the legs together and straight out in front of you. Flex the feet and point the toes toward the ceiling. Walk the sit bones back to lengthen the backs of the legs. Place the hands on the floor slightly behind the hips with the fingers pointing forward.
Inhale as you press down through the hands and lift the lower back while reaching up through the crown of the head. Draw the shoulders back and down. Exhale and pull the lower abdominal muscles in. This activates the lower abdominals (which stabilize and support the lower back so that it does not collapse), draws the lower rib cage down to counter the forward thrusting tendency of the rib cage, and grounds the sit bones evenly into the floor. Breathe smoothly as you maintain the strength in the deep lower back and abdomen. Look straight ahead and hold the posture for 5–10 breaths.
Weakness in the lower torso or tightness in the hamstrings may make sitting up straight difficult or impossible. If your lower back (lumbar spine) collapses, simplify the pose by sitting on a folded blanket or cushion. If the hamstrings are tight and tugging the pelvis and lower back, try bending the knees slightly. These simple adjustments will significantly reduce the effort required to sit up straight.
When the muscles of the deep lower back and abdomen are strong, you’ll require less support from the arms, and for a more challenging version of dandasana, place the hands directly next to the hips. Press the hands straight down and lift through the deep lower abdomen (as before), to straighten the spine. If the lower back and abdomen are strongly engaged, you may be able to lift through the back without the help of the arms, and rest the hands on the thighs.
You’ll notice that good posture not only affects your muscles and bones, it also influences your breathing patterns and, consequently, your nervous system. A habitual slouch restricts the movement of the diaphragm. The breath becomes shallow, which irritates the nervous system. An aligned upright posture, on the other hand, allows the diaphragm to move freely, the breath to deepen, and the nervous system to relax even as it remains alert. Then the body and mind are in harmony—and the journey of self-awakening begins.