Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lower back, middle back, upper back

Happy Sunday, yogis! I am chilling at the desk at my yoga studio after practicing the 8am class, drinking tea, listening to music, and feeling like a cat... totally relaxed, nice and loose, comfortable, easy, flexible. It's cold and rainy outside (and I biked to the studio today!!), which made it was so nice to be in the hot room this morning.

I was thinking about backbends today (which is like... what's new??) and I realized that I want to amend a comment that I made about them back in June.

For the last few months I've been trying to move my backbend more into the middle and upper spine, instead of relying so much on my super-flexible lower back. This is correct. But I was also being told very strongly by a couple of teachers to STOP using my lower back altogether until I could get more of a bend in my upper spine. I tried doing this for a while, and I do not think it works! It really just made my back hurt to restrict my backbend like that. It was also making me tense my neck up, because that let my arms go back to my ears and created the illusion that my upper spine was bending more. Whoops! PSA (public service announcement) number one: there is nothing in the dialogue about the arms being with the ears. The arms go back TOWARDS the ears, and eventually (in the future) they might touch them, but that is incidental

Here is what I think IS correct: the dialogue. First step, inhale. Next step, drop your head back as far as it goes. Arms back immediately, try to touch the wall. Bend the spine backwards from coccyx to neck. Lower back, middle back, upper back. Total spine backward bending. Push your upper body back, try to fall down backwards. For someone like me, whose natural backbend is kinda like "lower back, lower back, and more lower back," it makes sense that I will have to work hardest to make sure I am also bending my middle back and upper back. (Actually, it's true for everyone that the middle back is the hardest part of the equation, which is just due to anatomy. The thoracic spine has your ribcage on it, and all those other internal organs. Makes it pretty rigid.) But I can't believe that I shouldn't use my lower back at all! Bikram says it: "touch the floor." Emmy says it: "let the weight of your body pull you backwards, so you hang back like a wet rag." Emmy also says to use your natural gifts. Not to RELY on them, but to USE them. This makes sense.

I am totally indebted to my teachers who harped on me about my backbend, because they helped me understand where my backbend is NOW and where I need to take it in the future. And when I was at advanced seminar with all the super bendy yogis, I concentrated a lot on looking at the shapes of all the different spines, and that really helped me understand what is possible. So many nice, deep, SMOOTH backbends! The only debate is over how to GET there. And I'm going with dialogue.

The corrollary to this discussion is the question of "chest up." I dunno if you guys hear teachers saying this in class for the backbends. I hear it all the time. It's not dialogue. The thing is, that instruction DOES make sense for a very small minority of people, but it's not going to help everyone else, and I think that often it will mislead people into restricting their backbends, doing them incorrectly, and making their backs hurt in the process! Dialogue, however, works for everyone. Even the flexies, once they understand it correctly.

I can explain this better with camel, since this is how it was explained to me. The dialogue for camel basically says "hips forward, hips forward, hips forward!" Because for 99 out of 100 students, that is the correct instruction. Most people can't get their hips forward enough, so that's where the effort in the posture is. However: for the 1 student out of 100 who has a very flexible spine (hi Mei, that's us!), the hips CAN go too far forward, past perpendicular, and then there is nothing happening. So then the chest has to lift up in order to improve the backbend. But that's an individual correction for those few students. It can't go in the dialogue, because you can't really do "hips forward" and "chest up" at the same time in camel; it's one or the other. Half moon follows the same principle. (Though half moon IS always "hips forward.")

By the way, there are plenty of instances in the dialogue where the instruction is keyed to the vast majority of the students, but a more experienced or flexible minority will have to do a different or opposite action. Easy example: half moon! Dialogue says "upper body back," because most people's upper body will naturally be slumped too far forward. But it shouldn't go back so far that you loose the straight line of your body and compromise the pure side bend. So with experience, as a student, you learn that you don't actually bring your upper body further back every time you hear the words "upper body back." It's a checklist. You think to yourself: "Is my upper body back far enough? No? Move it back. Yes? Stay there, don't change." And there is always space for the individual correction: "Everybody hips forward more, upper body back more. J, little too far back, bring your upper body forward 2 inches." See how simple?

I ain't saying it's EASY for the teacher - you guys know that I have never taught a class in my life!!!!! - but that is my understanding of how the dialogue can and should be used. And it sure is helpful to understand some of these things as a student, when you practice to the dialogue! The dialogue is ALWAYS right. I really believe that. You just have to know how to listen to it, how to use it. Having doesn't mean ANYTHING if you don't know how to.... what? USE IT!! :)


Catherine said...

Hey, you know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of the post about cobra, where you wanted to left your body up higher off the floor, and you were told to leave your belly button on the floor, and griped about it. I am wondering if you are getting this suggestion because of what others are seeing in your backbend that you can't see. I'm a beginner, but recently decided I needed to work my upper back more than the lower back in backbending poses, so have been backing off on depth in half moon and concentrating on stimulating that upper part where I know I am tight. Maybe it is possible to maximize bending in the lower and upper back at the same time, but I find if I go to my maximum depth possible with my lower back, I am unable to also maximize the upper/middle back. Really it's the same paradox as camel. I see a lot of camels that look more like coffee tables because people have an extreme bend in the lower spine and then flat above.

DeByrd said...

J, your clarification of the dialogue is super helpful. I have been practicing for a year and a half now and I didn't realize that arms with ears is not in the dialogue. Like you, I do get the chest up correction frequently in the backward bend and camel. I am pretty flexible in my lower back, but if I focus on pushing my chest up, I do get more depth. This depth is frequently accompanied by the feeling that my chest is being pulled apart; I don't enjoy the sensation (especially since it is the start of the series), but I am working through it. Your post has inspired me to keep working at it. Thanks!

Duffy Pratt said...

Sometimes the "chest up" instruction comes before the pose starts. Especially in Camel, but also in the first bend. I've taken that to mean lengthen the spine as much as possible before doing any bending back. Like I said the other day, you want to do an axial extension to get as much space between the vertebrae as possible, first. Then, you relax the neck back.

And yes, lots and lots of places where the dialogue is just a check. For me, its the depth in Awkward pose. If I did what the dialogue says, I'd end up way too far down, because most people don't have the strength in their legs yet (or the courage).

Jennifer said...

(coming out from lurking) - This post was perfect timing for me! I have been stagnant in my half moon backbend for awhile, and I recently moved to a new city so am practicing in a new studio and get the benefit of new eyes on my practice. One of the teachers here told me that my lower back is REALLY flexible, and I need to lift from my chest/bend from upper back more in the Half Moon backbend, and make sure I am not bending backwards in the side bend. I have only had one class trying that out since she told me - HUGE different in the backbend, but I need a few more classes to really figure it out for the side bend. It's funny how different teachers notice different things about your practice - I had no idea I had a flexible lower spine until she told me! I appreciate you tying it together with camel, too - I will approach it differently next class, too. Great explanation!

Lori said...

Very good explanation and thoughts, J.

ActionJoJo said...

Great post J!

I too struggle with back bend especially since I have the super flexible ability to go back thanks to being Asian (and conversely, cannot touch my forehead to knee) but I think I achieve this because I collapse too much in my lower spine like you and don't use my middle and upper back. When ever I feel I'm doing a good, deep back bend, inevitably my teacher will correct me and say "chest up" or "arms more back".

I know I'm going to sound like a total spastic moron but can someone, anyone explain what "chest up" means during a backward bend? I just don't get it verbally and maybe I need pictures to help me understand. If I'm bending backwards and then I'm told to put my chest up, won't I come out of a backward bend? Huh? Totally confused here.

thedancingj said...

WOW, everyone comes out of the woodwork for the shop talk! Hello my fellow yoga dorks, I LOVE this!! Now I get to spend my evening replying to all these excellent remarks... :-)

Catherine - Wait, are you sure you are a beginner?? That's an awesome connection that you just made. I had to think about it for a sec, but I'll tell you the difference between the situations with cobra and with the half moon backbend. Number one, dialogue. Belly button on the floor is dialogue for cobra, while chest up is not dialogue for half moon backbend. Number two, my experiments on myself. After 2 or 3 weeks of doing cobra with belly button on the floor, my spine felt awesome. After almost 3 months of trying to switch to the purely "chest up" backbend, my spine felt lousy.

However, I TOTALLY agree with you on this point: if you START the posture with a really deep bend in the lower back, that ends up dominating the whole posture. If you START by bringing the arms back and maximizing the bend in the upper and middle spine, and THEN you go into the lower spine, that seems to work out for me. It distributes the backbend more evenly.

Oh, and you are right that I can't see what I'm doing, so I had a bunch of people look at my backbend and I also took a couple pictures so I could see it for myself. It was actually VERY enlightening!!

DeByrd - Yeah, that is how it feels to me, too! Either we are both wrong, or we are both on the right track. :D Yay!

Duffy - Yes yes YES to lengthening the spine before the backbend! But to me, that's the purpose of the big INHALE at the beginning of the backbend. I like your interpretation, but I dunno if "chest up" has that same meaning. (Though "full lungs" is kind of an oblique way of saying "lengthen your spine," it seems like it has the same effect....)

Ya know, awkward 2 DOES say "do not sit down below the chair, you are sitting in the chair".... but it's not til the end of the pose, so of course you are correct. ;-)

Jennifer - Thanks for delurking!! Yeah, a lot of people miss that aspect of the half moon side bend. It's tricky to feel at first, but it will be soooo much better on your spine. I think that if you make sure to really stretch up and "touch the ceiling" before the posture begins, that does a good job of straightening out your spine, and then the trick is just to keep it that way! When I got that correction, i also used a pair of mirror in my bedroom to try to get a side view of what I was doing... once I figured out the optics, that was kinda helpful too!

Lori - Gracias. (Short and sweet... I'm not gonna leave you out!)

JoJo - Oh man, you are not alone! I asked that SAME exact question - "which way is UP?!" - soooo many times, and it was months before I found someone who could give me a satisfying answer. (It included many stick figures with arrows...) Basically, they're just trying to say to bend your middle spine more. You can think of it like rounding your middle back over a ballet barre, so that your chest is the highest point of your spine and the backbend is centered around your ribcage. Lately I've taken to doing this at the beginning of the backbend, setting up the best curve that I can in the middle spine, and THEN going the rest of the way back. Again, disclaimer... I can't SWEAR to you that this is the best way (and there are a LOT of schools of thought when it comes to backbending), but this makes sense to me, most of the teachers who I've shown it to think that it looks correct, and it seems to be working. It's nice, because now I really DO feel things happening in the middle part of my back, when before it was all happening in that fold in my lower spine.

Whew!! That... was fun.

Mei said...

BEAUTIFUL POST. It all makes sense now!

Since I've been practicing backbends like a mammoth, my right lower back hurts like a motherfather. Argh. I suspect the cause of it may be collapsing instead of stretching out during ardha-chandrasana, but I can't really see my back in class :(

You're right, since we both have such crazy flexi spines, we should work on using more of our middle / upper back strength to build flexibility there eventually, in the future [aha, dialogue!]. With the offending ustrasana in question, there's an oh-so-fine balance between pushing your hips forward so much it feels like you're gonna fly and crash into the mirrors [I nearly did once!] and LIFTING your chest up and using the same middle/upper back muscles as in supta-vajrasana to get that beautiful stretch in your chest/heart and opening up the chakras in that area.

Ahh this talk about dialogue is making me nervous being a teacher. I think the first few weeks/months I'll be reciting dialogue verbatim and then learning how to correct / assist. I hope my brain/mouth filter works, because I simply can't imagine going "Spread your legs, I meant, er, step to the right, big step, 4 feet"

Jennifer said...

ActionJoJo - of course this may not be right, but the chest up motion - when I do it, I think it is similar to when you are a little girl and you press your chest in your air to pretend you have large breasts, or imitate a woman with them. Sounds silly, but that is what the movement reminds me of. :)

thedancingj said...

Mei - SWEET! I'm glad this made sense for you!! As for learning the dialogue... well, as they say in the dialogue, "don't be scared." :-) Your idea is right on: when you start teaching, you just take your time to figure out the timing and master the dialogue verbatim, and then you can use it as your toolbox to start working on specific things in class. That's the best way to do it!! I've watched lots of my friends go through that process and they all turned into rock star teachers.

Jennifer - That is so cute. I like it. :)

ActionJoJo said...

@ DancingJ & Jennifer -- thanks so much with the definition "chest up"!!!

I thought I was going to need lots of pictures with stick figures and arrows too but Jennifer's description of pushing your chest forward like we did when we were little girls just made it click for me. It also brought me back to Judy Blume books I read as a kid...but I digress. Ha!

In the last few classes, I've been trying to really keep that chest up during backbend and camel and I haven't had a teacher correct me yet so maybe progress is being made. :)

Mei said...

Jojo's comment made me remember something funny that happened last month.

Teacher : Mei! Push your chest up to the ceiling! Like pushing your boobs to the sky!
Me : ... I. Have. No. Boobs.

thedancingj said...

I see what you mean, Mei, I DO attract the crazies. ;-)