Ask the Yogi: Round Back in Forward Bends
Ask The Yogi
Q: My back always rounds in forward bends. Is this a problem?
A: A round back in forward bends can be the result of several different forces. Tight shoulders, “armored” thoracic spine, weak lower back or abdominal wall and the most common causes of tight hips or hamstrings. Usually a practitioner who experiences a rounded spine will have one or more of these or other challenges to face in their daily yoga practice, but how can you tell what you are working with? And is it really desireable to have a straight spine in a forward bend?
Armoring in the body begins with fearful thoughts and may have started many years or even decades ago. So though we work with the physical body in asana, it is wise to also be aware of your thoughts both inside and outside the studio. Start to become aware of how much daily thought is based on fear leading to actions that are fear driven or fear motivated.
Fear in the body changes pulse rate, blood pressure and respiration. It changes posture as well, and over the years the fascia in the body “shrink-wraps” to our rapid shallow breaths, our protecting of the heart and our constant low-grade pre-disposition to fight or flee (for more information on how trauma effects the body, visit: http://www.traumaprevention.com/).
Forward bends are calming postures. The majority of a seated forward bend may come from the hips/ pelvis with a little supportive motion from the sacroilial joint (called “nutation”), but when the hips are not open the lumbar spine is able to carry the forward motion almost exclusively. Though the thoracic spine does not “bend” much due to its connection to ribs and sternum and complex musculature, the positioning and direction of the upper back is crucial to shape the overall character of any forward bend. Physiologically, we have to train the body to relax in order to seat the shoulder blades properly on the back so that they can once again become the “wings of the heart” and allow us to soar into the unknown with Grace and courage. One way of experiencing this is to let the bottoms of the scapula melt as if throgh quicksand to contact the base of the heart. By allowing the bottoms of the shoulderblades to melt into the lower heart, the shoulders release their stress, the face becomes softer and the gaze becomes more perceptive and less aggressive.
All of these physical changes are the result of the body letting go of the past (old energy patterns). It is only in the unknown that we can expand and go beyond our habits and limits, so it is imperative to physically and mentally commit ourselves to letting go of past habit, however it is manifesting in our lives. Repeated habit becomes unconscious whether that habit is physical or mental. This work takes time and it helps to have a teacher mirror your stress points in different postures through touch, verbal cue or modeling. With patient, persistent awareness the armor begins to slough off and a new openness begins to emerge. When we lose patience, the atlas/axis relationship is strained as the head tries to lead the stretch, resulting in more habitual rounding and tightness. (leading with the chin and the neck bending prinmarily at atlas/axis realtionship throws the body into a state of alarm.)
With this idea of leading with the heart in order to lengthen the spine and foster the courage to let go, ideally your forward bends will originate from th ehips and pelvis. If you go into seated forward bends and find that you can go deeper with a straight long back when your legs are wide rather than together, it means that your hamstrings are tight. If you go deeper with a “straight” spine when your legs are together rather than apart, then you have tight hips (flexor/extensors) and groins. Your yoga teacher can recommend poses (both yin and active) that can help you to release chronic tension in these areas, but a good basic one is to practice your tightest forward bend (legs together or apart) breathing as relaxed as you can the first thing you get up in the morning, holding the posture for a minute and working up to five. Focus more on the spine being long and less on the legs being straight, and don’t be afraid to raise your sitz-bones up on a blanket or two. The key is to relax the hamstrings and hips and gently lengthen the lower back so the heart slides forward or up, depending upon how tight you feel. Follow this with a gentle supported bridge pose or sphinx pose while allowing the lower back releasing completely.
The more that you can do a full-spectrum yoga class each day, the more your body will benefit, but avoid the faster paced classes until you begin to get a handle on your personal alignment so that you don’t reinforce bodily habits. Focus on finding and feeling your sacrum and tailbone in your postures and work on being able to tilt the pelvis in Cat/Cow pose. Your nervous system will have to reconnect with the pelvis and sacrum to help you find nutation and actually stretch the target muscles yu want to lengthen.
Why might it be advisable to not have a rounded back in forward bends? The heart is the center of feeling. We may think it a service to close off and protect the heart, but doing so only prevents us from fully experiencing existence as we close off all experiences and not just the “bad” ones. By letting go of unnecessary tension (ie. struggle) in the legs, back or chest, you will be more able to access your heart physically and emotionally. You will be able to breathe deeper and move more gracefully, leading with your heart rather than your head. Slowly there will be less fear of feeling and more joy in embracing rather than numbing out or fighting the flow of life.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga. All suggestions are voluntary. Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.