One of the greatest gifts a yoga teacher can give students is the ability to sense their own bodies. It is easy to see what is happening on the outside of the body, to notice where the limbs are and how a posture looks. But when students know what is happening inside, they are better able to choose how deep to go in a posture, and how to “play their edge.” Knowing what is happening to the spine—how much stress is building up between the vertebrae or along the fascia, or sensing the level of tension in the muscles—allows students to decide whether to go further or back off.
An exercise to help your students sense their spines is palpation of the tips of the spinous processes. These are the bumps running down the middle of the spine, which are easily felt with the fingers. Because this is easier to do when the spine is flexed, ask your students to sit in an easy butterfly pose (baddha konasana) with their feet a bit forward and to allow their spines to round forward in flexion. Very stiff students may find this easier to do while in child’s pose (balasana), as shown in figure 1 below. Flexion of the spine will help separate the spinous processes.
Now ask your students to feel the tips of the processes with their fingers, or you can offer to touch the processes for them. (Another option is to have the students pair up and palpate each other’s spine.) Have them slowly run their fingers up and down the spine as high and low as they can go, noticing the bumps and the spaces between neighboring bumps. Students will find that the bumps are neither evenly sized nor equally spaced. Have them notice what changes they feel as they fold forward and then sit up again.
Figure 1:Teachers can help students learn to feel their spines by touching the spinous processes, drawing awareness to the relationships and movements of the vertebrae.
Next, have the students try this while in a seated twist (ardha matsyendrasana) and then while in cobra (bhujangasana—as shown in figure 2). It will be difficult for them to palpate their spines in these positions, so you can offer to touch the processes for them. Slowly move your fingers along the processes so that they can sense what is happening and the spaces between the processes. You may even keep your fingers on two or three processes while they come into the posture and out again, repeating these motions so they can sense what is moving. If students do this often enough, they will be able to notice what is happening all along the spine while they are in postures or while they are moving.
Figure 2: In extension, the spinous process come closer together, which makes it harder to sense them.
This can be a meditation: While doing a posture, we can sense the spinous processes and mentally touch each one, rising up from the tip of our tailbone to the bottom of our skull. Suggest your students try this while in backbends and forward bends and feel the differences, noticing how their vertebrae move independently of each other. Or perhaps they may notice instead that they don’t move independently but seem to be stuck together and move in chunks. How far apart the spinous processes are may dictate how deeply a student can move into backbends; processes that are closer together may have less room for backbending.
Helping your students deepen their interoception—that is, the ability to sense what is happening inside their bodies—allows them to discover their own yoga. And that is a mighty gift.
This article is excerpted from Your Spine, Your Yoga—Developing stability and mobility for your spine by Bernie Clark.