FREE YOUR SPINE; FREE YOUR MIND
8 simple postures to help you find freedom from within.
The ancient yoga masters believed that a supple, flexible spine was the secret to not only inner happiness, but longevity as well.
As modern day yoga teachers it is our responsibility to not only honour the ancient teachings from our yoga masters, but to continue their work as best we can, not just learning about the eight limbs of yoga, the sutras or advising on how to live a more sattvic (harmonious) and yogic life, but just as importantly, learning how to move people in and out of postures with maximum safety. When we have a thorough understanding of the human body and what it actually can and can’t do, we can help people discover and cultivate youthfulness and energetic immortality. Knowledge is key to maintaining the integrity and spirit of yoga, no matter what lineage or particular principle you most align with.
The human spine is designed to move freely in seven directions. They are: flexing forwards (forward bends), bending backwards (backbends), lateral extension (bending to the left and the right), rotation (turning left and right) and elongation or axial extension (tailbone through to cervical/skull juncture).
Ideally, within an intelligent and safe yoga practice, we should aim to continually open and counterbalance the spine as it moves in all these directions. It is also important to include postures designed to ‘fill in’ the belly and build digestive and abdominal strength so that the spine develops not only in power, but in flexibility and resilience as well. Sit ups and various contractive belly postures will ensure that the front of the body is strong and contained whilst providing structural as well as energetic support for the whole spine. When we establish solid foundations, the rest of the body can move with ease and confidence.
Moving with this intention will not only help you create a beautiful synergy within sequences as you morph students from one asana into the next, helping to open, close, twist, lengthen and seal their entire spines, but simultaneously it will develop your teaching skills and awareness about how to move bodies remedially.
Not all movements are accessible to all bodies though.
Some people may find backbends really easy but struggle with stretching forwards, or vice versa. Some love opening the sides and yet trying to twist left or rotate right, experience jamming around the neck, thoracic or lower back – the three junctions of the spine where the discs change in shape, function and energetic integrity – and end up going nowhere, fast.
Whatever your personal spinal story and whatever your preferred style of practice, it is wise as a teacher, as well as a devoted student, to develop and maintain constant awareness of axial extension, which is simply, the action of lifting and lengthening through the spinal column, stretching from crown to tail. This means we work to reduce the curvature of the spine and create the space between the discs needed to allow optimal circulation of blood and prana. Elongating the spine also allows vital information to flow unhindered between the brain, through the nervous system highway that is the spinal cord, to the base of the spine, our energetic roots, throughout the whole body, and back again.
There are thirty three vertebral discs in the adult spine, which includes two fused sections at the base of the spine; four fused together to form the coccyx and five making up the sacral bone, There are several muscle groups called extensors and flexors, and hundreds of ligaments comprising the spinal structure, co creating its’ unique expression of cervical (seven neck), thoracic (twelve chest) and lumbar (five lower back) curves.
The spinal column is made up of many parts, all designed to support mobility, flexibility, support body weight and protect the spinal cord and nerves. From this list below you can see we are dealing with quite a lot of different structures, and each one in need of the correct support. The ‘duty of care’ clause isn’t as simple as it may appear or as basic as is sometimes explained in yoga teacher training manuals. If we are to be responsible, ethical and motivated practitioners, we must seek to educate ourselves continuously about the spine as much as possible, for without one, not one body can function as a full human being.
The human spine is comprised of: back muscles; cervical, thoracic and lumbar discs; the sacrum and coccyx/tailbone; facet joints; intervertebral discs,; lamina; ligaments; pedicles,; spinal canal; spinal cord; nerve roots and transverse and spinous processes. Lots of puzzle pieces that need to fit together properly and function freely if we are to express our fullest and highest self.
Whether on or off our mat, many of us hold when we need to relax, and collapse when we actually need to hold. If we focus on cultivating an intelligent asana practice that moves the spine through its full range of movement whilst manipulating energy in all directions, we will counterbalance the habitual movements of compression,slouching, collapsing and contraction that happen, most obviously when we work, but also when we rest and play.
In a nutshell, because of the intimate relationship between the discs in our back, the nerves that travel along it and the connection to the brain ~ our emotional, thought and response centre ~ we can align our whole being by aligning our whole spine. When the spine becomes free, our mind becomes free, and a free mind in yogic terms translates as expanded and connected consciousness. The potential and power of Samadhi, the eighth principle in the eight limbs of yoga, relating to the one divine source and the moment of recognizing and embodying Self as Spirit having a human experience, is stored within our very own spine. We know it as kundalini energy.
This simple sequence made up of eight postures can be used as a daily warm up before moving into more challenging practice, or on its’ own as corrective practice. It is suitable and safe for complete beginners as well as the more experienced yogis, but perhaps refrain from sharing with expectant clients as the focuses and dialogue will be different for pregnancy.
So why eight postures?
I believe there are multi layers and simultaneous realms flowing in and around us constantly, and so on as well as off the mat, I like to draw attention to the possibility that we are affecting more than just one aspect of ourselves during our practice. My teaching has evolved over the years to fuse many different perspectives, wisdoms, lineages and spiritual teachings together into one big cathartic tapestry, helping to deepen the work as well as the karmic intensity. I teach with the intention to support holistically and always in service of creating maximum inner cohesion and expansion, so what my students experience through asana is actually full being attunement on multi dimensional layers.
The number eight is ripe with magical potency and power. It is the symbol of strength, manifesting in the eight month (August) as the astrological symbol Leo, the Lion, an animal ‘king’ driven by courage, instinct and fierce loyalty. It is representative of the eight principles of yoga that call us to harm none and live aware, respectful and honest lives. It mirrors the infinity symbol, the endless connection between all realms of time and space. It’s the shape of the pelvic floor, the plug in powerpoint of base chakra to mother earth and hence, our personal tether to All that Is. In numerology it is the great karmic equalizer, relating to balance and power. It is also very similar to the Egyptian Ankh, which represents eternal life and the marriage between divine masculine and feminine energies. And I’m sure there are many other correlations as well.
As you can see, I like weaving connections and deepening layers of meaning… but whatever your personal beliefs, however you apply these postures and whatever story you attach to each singular asana, know that with regular and conscientious practice, a greater sense of peace and personal power will slowly but most surely manifest within your body, mind and spirit!
1. Cat stretch (forward bend)
2. Cow stretch (backbend)
3. Upavistha Konasana side stretches (side spinal stretch)
4. Thread the needle (spinal twist)
5. Downward Dog (spinal elongation)
6. Uttanasana (elongation)
7. Utkatasana (integration)
8. Belly Pike (belly/hara/spinal containment, elongation & integration.
BACKBEND & FORWARD BEND SEQUENCE
PART 1 ~ COW STRETCH
Come onto all fours with hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips.
Spread the fingers wide and connect down through both palms into the mat.
Draw the shoulder blades evenly away from the ears to length the neck and pull the skin up from the public bone to the collarbones and chin, accessing rectus abdominus through the belly, up to pectoralis major across the chest and through the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid muscles in the throat and neck area. Take care not to jam the back of the neck as you establish length from crown to tail. This is the beginning of a very basic back bend; opening the chest and moving the thoracic spine/chest into its’ opposite or secondary curvature.
Inhale and look up through the brow centre, open your heart and feel the sit bones lifting. This action creates space between each disc in your spine and opens the front panel of the body that relates to the earth element, our levels of awareness and digestion.
Take a full breath in through your heart and down into your belly and base…
PART 2 ~ CAT STRETCH
… round the back as you exhale, pressing down into the palms and up through the back of the heart. Squeeze your pubic bone towards your nose and tuck your chin in to continue the stretch into the cervical spine and occiput/skull juncture plus accessing the deeper neck muscles such as splenius capitis, semispinalis capitis, and levator scapula on the side back panels of the neck. The erector spinae muscles and intercostal thoracic muscles across the back of the ribcage also receive a good stretch.
This is the beginning of a very basic forward bend; the action of moving the thoracic spine/chest into its’ primary curvature, that is, the natural curvature indicative of this upper part of the spine.
Initiate movement from your tailbone as one long undulating sweep from tail to crown, opening the back panel of the body that governs memory, stress and hydration, using your breath like a wave, observing and tuning into the oceanic quality of breath in and breath out, much like the ebb and flow of the ocean. This enhances the connection to the water element through the spinal column and helps to soothe nervous tension.
Move between these two movements fluidly and consciously, alternately opening and closing the front and back seams of each vertebral disc. This massages blood and prana (life force) along the whole spine to create internal flexibility and circulate information through the spinal column. It also helps release accumulated tension and trauma held in the dura, the casing around the spinal cord, allowing for emotional and mental freedom as well as physical ease. The motion of cat/cow helps to rejuvenate each intervertebral disc between the bones that lead to greater mobility and improved posture and balance.
Repeat several rounds until you feel warmth, softness and increasing mobility through your spine.
SIDE OPENER ~ UPAVISTA KONASANA VARIATION
Sit with legs wide and feet flexed to engage the organ body and pelvic floor directly. When we contract the thighs it creates length through the hamstrings, establishing the connection between the matrix of muscles and ligaments of the pelvic floor, the diaphragm attachments to this area and the base chakra.
Inhale right arm up beside the ear and stretch to the left to open the side body, feeling it from the hip through the ribs to the armpit out to the fingertips. The stretch works from qradratus lumborum at the side back of the waist, through the obliques (side of waist), latissimus dorsi through the sides and up to serratus anterior at the armpit. Imagine you are breathing through your ‘gills’ again, creating space between the intercostal muscles and freeing up some very old patterns of holding and protecting.
Anchor your right sit bone and buttock so they don’t lift off the mat, and use your left arm beside your body to support from underneath, avoiding tension in the shoulder and neck or rigidity in the limb. Keep the elbow softly bent towards your waist and use the legs for stability. Imagine the backs of the legs are velcroed to the mat and can’t lift.
Inhale up to centre, switch arms and exhale the left arm over to the right as above.
Repeat side to side, using the breath to open the lateral (side) body and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ program. The sides of the body store metabolic, nervous and emotional tension, so stretching consciously to create space between ribs, muscles and energy lines will help restore not only spinal ease and flexibility, but improve the way your body digests, assimilates and eliminates food as well as experiences and feelings.
These side channels connect to the liver meridian which is all about buried frustration, anger and lack of vision, showing up as tight, often ticklish sides, contracted ribs and cranky demeanor. When we release the sides, things that have been packed away in the lower back in the form of weakness, injury or emotional trauma, are allowed to surface and resolve. Heat disperses and we cool down, literally as well as emotionally and mentally. When the sides are rigid, almost like impenetrable bark, the wood element that they are governed by creates peripheral armour in an effort to protect any spinal or digestive vulnerability. Crack open the sides and we break layers of patterning.
SIDE TWIST ~ THREAD THE NEEDLE
From all fours, slide your right arm under your chest and extend the arm along the floor in line with your shoulder and come onto the right edge of your skull, taking care to not constrict the neck and throat. Keep your shoulder in the centre of your mat and the knees under the hips, slightly apart.
Press the right hand into the mat and lean away into the right shoulder to feel a deep stretch through the right shoulder muscles beside the spine (rhomboids) and across the shoulder blades (infraspinatus, teres major and minor) and to a small extent, the underside of the armpit (serratus anterior). Exert pressure by pushing your right arm into the floor so you get a releasing stretch into the back of the heart and lungs, and draw the shoulder away from the fingers to deepen the sensations.
Extend the left arm up to open the chest more if you wish and work against the floor to rotate the chest as you exhale. If this is too much, place your left hand on your sacrum but still focus on rotating the chest up towards the ceiling. Keep the neck relaxed and aligned with the spine. The twist needs to come from the thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine. Our lower back is only capable of about 3 or 4 degrees rotation, so maintain a focus of lengthening from crown to tail as you use the arm on the floor to deepen the twist.
Hold for a few breaths, backing off if need be on the inhalations, focusing on lengthening the spine and then exploring deeper movement on the exhalations. Swap sides and repeat.
Roll out a few loose cat/cows in between sides and after side twist will not only help move blood and energy through your spine but also feel really good!
SPINAL ELONGATION ~ DOWNWARD FACING DOG
After moving our spine in the six other directions to stimulate circulation of blood, breath and energy, this delicious posture offers elongation, traction and an opportunity to pause and allow your practice to settle. It also flushes fresh blood through the glands in the chest, throat and brain. Going upside down gives us the chance to experience things from a fresh perspective, whilst remaining present and attentive to the breath.
Come onto all fours again, tuck toes and extend arms in front along the mat, pressing into the hands and lengthening through the sides of the waist evenly.
On the exhale press up through the hips to straighten the legs and work the heels towards the floor, keeping the knees bent slightly if it’s too strong. Rotate the sit bones upwards but also take care to tuck the tailbone down slightly towards the heels to find comfortable and safe nutation (angle) in your sacrum, and avoid straining the hamstrings and ligaments that support your pelvis.
Roll the armpits to the floor and slide the shoulder blades up the back, away from the ears, to free the base of the neck. You will feel the trapezius muscles broaden at the base of the neck, creating a ‘turtle out of the shell’ like movement.
The idea with Dog as an elongation posture in this sequence is to create as much space along your spine and between each disc as possible, by working the arms and legs as powerful supports. As you actively push down into the palms, contract the thigh muscles up towards the groin and drive the legs back with the heels down. It’s okay for the shoulders and arms to ‘burn’; this means you are working within the pose and not covertly using your neck. You’re also working every muscle that you’ve engaged in the previous postures, drawing up from the palms, arms and chest, lengthening through the waist, plugging into the belly and then channeling down through the pelvis, legs and into the roots, your feet. This traction rejuvenates not just your spine but your whole being, hydrating and nourishing every cell by flushing fluids, salts, lymphatics, blood, liquid prana and general juiciness around the entire body. Remember, the minute you start thinking about getting out of the pose, that is exactly when the gifts it offers, begin to flourish! Be patient, hold, and expand beyond your boundaries!
This pose actually serves as a panacea for almost every ailment or imbalance, combining the motions of forward bend, standing pose, arm balance, inversion and belly posture in the one asana. It also allows the spine to experience traction without stress.
Hold for at least ten breaths, finding peace with the pose and stretching not just your body but your breath and the space between your thoughts. This is where you can really create real freedom for yourself, plus get a taste of how delicious, and empowering, emptying out in the body and the mind, can be.
Come gently into the forward fold Uttanasana for a final rinse out.
ELONGATION ~ FORWARD FOLD UTTANASANA
From Downward Dog, step both feet to the hands and bend the knees deeply so your chest and thighs connect. Feet are hip width apart, so the legs are parallel with each other, and go slightly exaggerated pigeon toed. Take a moment to shake the head and neck and relax into being upside down. For some people this can be disconcerting, or unadvisable if you suffer from cataracts or very low blood pressure, so adjust or omit this one if Downward Dog was enough for you.
Start to breathe down into your roots, your feet, and lift all the toes, holding them up to activate the pelvic floor. The shape, texture and energy of the soles of your feet reflect the strength and integrity of your pelvic floor, so it’s important to keep anchoring down and creating rebound though the feet. Lifting all the toes does this. It also activates all the ankle and lower leg muscles that help stabilize the ankles and create postural symmetry. Press down through the three corners of both feet ~ the big toe mound, little toe mound and centre of the heels.
Keep the knees bent as much as you need so you don’t agitate the lumbar. Uttanasana in this sequence is not so much about straightening the legs as it is about creating a solid base so the spine feels safe enough to relax and unravel. As you exhale, squeeze the inner ankle bones towards each other and you will feel every leg muscle switch on, engaging the inner and outer thighs, hamstrings and quadriceps immediately. Shift your weight back into the heels and press down into the feet as you exhale, tilt the sit bones up, without focusing on straightening the legs. This plugs you into pelvic floor. Work on cracking the back body open with this action, drawing the forearms to the floor as you work the back body. Keep the neck long and relaxed and the jaw soft. You will feel energy rising, blood pumping and an increase in challenge in the legs as you hold Uttanasana with these focuses, so try and soften into it as much as possible and breathe through your heart space to build stamina without stress. This is preparing you for Utkatasana!
Hold for about 10 breaths, visualizing the inner spinal channels elongating and releasing any stored tension and patterning that doesn’t serve you, with every exhalation.
INTEGRATION ~ CHAIR POSE UTKATASANA
Sometimes called ‘fierce’ or ‘intense’ pose, Utkatasana offers powerful grounding and ignites the fire in the belly, heart and spirit. It is the perfect culmination to this sequence, cultivating inner strength and perseverance along with the higher qualities of patience and trust in our abilities. After opening our spine in all directions, flooding blood and energy through the organs, muscles, nerves and nadis, we consolidate into the legs, belly and heart, resetting on all levels and severing from the old ways of feeling, thinking, reacting and receiving. We learn to sit in what is, calmly and with growing confidence.
From Uttanasana, jet the arms out behind you parallel to the floor, palms in, keeping the knees bent, legs switched on and then sweep the chest and arms up into the pose.
Press down into the feet and lift the heart, drawing the arms behind the ears and the shoulder blades down the back. Keep arms wide if the shoulders are tight, but straight. As you breathe, lift the skin from the pubic bone up to the navel, to the heart, radiate it up across the collarbones, over the shoulders and tuck your wings into the spine, pulling the base of an imaginary love heart, down the spine to tilt the tailbone under, down the legs and into the heels. Keep this cycle of awareness unified with your inhale/exhale flow, lifting the front body and surrendering the back body, creating balance in the centre by pulling up on the pelvic floor muscles.
Hold here for 10 breaths, cultivating a sense of grace within the challenge, knowing that your efforts are deeply nourishing your Self, your spine and your spirit.
Relax onto your back in savasana afterwards for a few moments and observe what rises to the surface for clearing.
CONTRACTION ~ BELLY PIKE
When the belly is weak, the spine will be weak, and depending on which section of your spine is most vulnerable, so too will different sections of your abdomen show up as empty or disengaged. Belly Pike is an effective and precise asana to ‘fill in’ the belly and create front body support for your whole spine. It also stimulates digestive and metabolic function, helping your body process, not only food, but thought, emotion, experience and story, more effectively.
Laying on your back hug the knees in and then straighten the legs up to the ceiling, half plantar flex, half dorsi flex the feet like ‘barbie feet’ and press your sacrum into the mat. You can have a slight bend in the legs if that is more comfortable.
Interlace your hands behind your neck, giving it a gentle stretch by squeezing the heels of the hands into the base of the skull (occiput) to create length. Drop the elbows onto the mat and take a deep breath in. Exhale and draw up on pelvic floor (between the anus and genitals, lift up and pull in) and then sit up, bringing the elbows together in front of your face and dropping the chin to the chest so the back of the neck opens. Feel the belly contract as you work to get the shoulder blades off the floor, but don’t use your neck. This is a sit up, not a neck up! Let the weight of your head be held by the hands as that will engage your belly not your throat.
Inhale down and repeat slowly so you engage correctly and avoid using your neck muscles. To work harder you can squeeze the inner thighs together and press up through the big toe mounds to keep the energy lifting up from the pelvic floor roots. You can also lift the sacrum a little as you sit up, to deepen the abdominal contraction.
Do as many as you need until you feel the ‘burn’ in the belly. It’s okay, in fact necessary, to feel this burn in your hara for it translates into power, fire and deep structural healing and support.
Hug the knees to the chest for some gentle rocks and then rest in savasana, both hands over your belly or left hand on heart and right hand on belly, and breathe deeply and consciously into the story of you, allowing the warmth to spread through your torso and into the pockets of your back that need it most. Use whatever visuals or mantras that help you connect, align and heal any old stories about you, and manifest a stronger, more resilient spine for yourself.
Being aware of the micro movements of your spine and the actions of all the structures that support it, will help you stand tall, sit evenly, walk fluidly, lay comfortably and breathe naturally plus empower your students with the skills to be happy, feel good and support themselves for life.
*Thanks to Steve Murray for all book images*
Denby brings the element of indigenous ritual to the practice of traditional yoga in a truly unique, practical and necessary way.
Over the past fifteen years working as a yoga teacher, body worker and energy practitioner, Denby has pioneered ‘Mana Yoga’, an ecclectic and holistic fusion of traditional yoga asana, Chinese inspired meridian therapy, lifestyle philosophies and shamanic practices. Her passion for all things earth based and eco friendly, led her to co create the charity Living Ocean Yoga in 2013, a collaboration between yoga and ocean conservation with the intention of raising awareness and funds, for our oceans.
Denby’s classes are an inspiring, humorous and knowledgeable mix of asana and body and breath work, targeting personal patterning alongside ancestral wounding as it manifests in the collective of students in any given class, day to day. The inclusion of ritual, energetic diagnosis and impromptu spiritual revelations as they arise, serves to support both the student and the group, for we are all connected and family. Sessions evolve intuitively and fluidly so together students find the courage to acknowledge, accept and surrender to what is, and find their own voice and centre, in service to the All.
This multi layered approach to yoga and health has become Denby’s trademark and from the platform of her Avalon studio, Breathing Space Yoga, she compassionately and devotedly serves her community, regularly offering yoga classes, full moon goddess circles, private healings, retreats and community initiatives,