embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

the sacrum

by julee snyder

You may recall in the post on the pelvis that we began to view the pelvis in terms of having two pelvic halves with the spine in between.  In that view, the two pelvic halves meet at the pubic disc in the front of the pelvis, a location of movement.  And the two pelvic halves meet the spine at the SI (sacroiliac) joints in the back of the body.  Place the palm of your hand at the back center of your pelvis; this is your sacrum.  On each side of the sacrum you may notice two little dimples.  This is where your SI joints are.  There is some possibility for movement here, but too much movement will strain your SI ligaments.

Judith Lasatar often teaches about the sacrum and SI health.  In one of her recent Facebook posts, she announced that the sacrum is tilted anteriorly at a 30-degree angle in tadasana (mountain pose).  This sets up your natural lumbar curve.  Come into standing, feet underneath your hip sockets, and allow your sacrum to have its 30-degree tilt.  Let yourself have your natural lumbar curve.  In other words, don’t flatten your low back by tucking you tail.  Instead, imagine a fishing line with a weight tethering straight down from the tip of your tailbone (coccyx).  Without changing your tilt, add a little engagement of your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor.  This is a supported tadasana.

Movement of the sacrum is called nutation and counternutation.  In nutation (illustrated below), the top of the sacrum moves forward into the body.  In response, the top of the illia narrow, the sitting bones widen,  the tailbone lifts away from the pubis, and the lumbar curve generally deepens unless the whole spine leans forward to follow the tilting sacrum.  Many of you have learned this as a dog tilt or have felt it in old cow pose.

The opposite is counternutation or cat tilt.  With a few exceptions, most yoga poses are done in neutral or in nutation.  Some exceptions include cat pose, rabbit, and crow – poses that require a deep, supported flexion of the lumbar spine.

Ironically, in yoga, backward bends and most forward bends use the nutated position.  To explore this come into dandasana, staff pose, sitting with the legs out in front.  The first thing to note is whether your sacrum is vertical.  If you find that it is tilted backwards and it is difficult to sit tall, you will sit on props – blankets, bolsters, chairs, whatever it takes to sit with a vertical sacrum.  If your hamstrings are tight, this is as far as your pelvis will be able to roll forward over the legs.  If they are not so tight, let the pelvis roll over the legs.  Then bring your hand to your sacrum and allow a tiny tilt forward of the top of your sacrum into the body.  This is your nutation.  Let your whole spine tilt forward as well, following the sacrum.  From there, if you choose, you can consciously arc the spine into forward flexion from above the sacrum.

For backward bends, come onto your belly with your hands under your shoulders and your elbows reaching straight back.  You always want abdominal support for backbending, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as tucking your tail.  Instead actively reach your tailbone toward your feet and engage the pelvic floor and abdominals with a slight lift.  From there, let your elbows reach back as your chest floats and your head reaches forward and arcs upward into a baby cobra.  You probably didn’t even feel it, but your sacrum nutated to allow you to lift your head.  Try it a couple more times and see if you can feel that slight nod of the top of the sacrum into your body.

Another place to play with nutation and counternutation is in bridge.  When we ask our students to tuck the tail and roll up, or down, bone by bone to articulate through the spine, this is counternutation.  Try it a couple of times.  Now, let’s try it a different way.  Keep the back of your sacrum horizontal, don’t tuck.  Press into your feet and let your pelvis just hover off of the ground.  Notice the feeling of the illia sliding behind the sacrum slightly as the sacrum lifts up into the body.  This is my favorite version to set up big backbends and inversions.  But try it and see what works best for you.

One place of SI strain in yoga is in twists and asymmetrical poses.  For asymmetrical poses, review the post on the pelvis and the one on foot to pelvis.  But let’s talk about twists now.  If you are isolating the twist to the thoracic and cervical spine, work to stabilize you pelvis.  But know that your range will be limited.  If you are doing a bigger twist, you will want to wrap the abdominals and take the twist through the whole spine.  Because there is limited rotation in the lumbar spine, what often happens is that the sacrum rotates when we do this.  If we keep the pelvic bones square and stable, our sacrum will turn, but our ilia won’t.  This sets up a scenario of strain for the SI joints.  Instead, let the pelvic floor be involved in starting the twist and let the pelvic bones rotate a little bit.  So that if you are twisting to the left, the right sitting bone shifts forward a bit.  This allows the ilia and the sacrum to stay on the same plane with little strain in the SI joints.

As always, try these ideas on in your own body and let us know what you experience.

Happy practicing and namaste!

the spine

by julee snyder

The spine is composed of twenty-four vertebrae, the sacrum and the coccyx. A beautiful architectural construct of complimentary curves: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccyx.  The cervical spine contains seven vertebrae; the thoracic contains twelve and is attached to twelve pairs of ribs; the lumbar contains five.  The sacrum consists of five fused vertebrae.  And the coccyx is made of an average of four tiny vertebrae.

While each vertebra is unique, there are some key features to know.  In viewing the vertebra above, let’s first orient you spatially.  The top of the picture is the back of the body where the spinous process protrude to the back of the body.  The bottom of the diagram is toward the front of the body.  This is where the bodies of the vertebra and vertebral discs stack upon one another in the center of the body.  The hole in the middle is the spinal canal which houses the spinal cord.  And sticking out to each side are the transverse processes.  The ribs attach to the transverse process and body of their respective thoracic vertebra.  Like a tensegrity sculpture, the spine functions as a balance of suspension (soft tissue) and compressive forces (bones) – see Kennith Snelson’s sculptures.

We are born with a C-curve of our spine; this is our primary curve.  As we learn to lift our head, we develop the secondary curve of the neck.  And as we crawl and eventually learn to stand and walk, we develop the secondary curve of the low back.  These curves serve to bring us upright and absorb compressive shock as we walk, jump and run.  Increasing or flattening our curves usually results in pain and discomfort.  For yoga, it is important to understand and cultivate neutral spine.

There are six movements of the spine, two for each spatial plane, flexion, extension, lateral flexion to the right and left, and rotation to the right and left.  When practicing and planning classes, warm the spine by moving in all directions.

Neutral Spine Practice:
Find a partner who can help you find neutral spine in table.  While keeping all of your neutral curves, you want to feel the crown of your head reaching forward and your coccyx reaching backward away from each other with as much length as you can find.  Instead of tucking your tail to feel your abdominals engage, try pressing your ankles into the ground.  If your upper back is rounded, try correcting the position of your head and push into your hands without rounding your spine.  Let your collar bones be wide.  Once you’ve found a working neutral, begin to glide headwards as far as you can go before arching into up dog.  Then pull tailwards, folding at the hips, as far as you can go without rounding.  Really study your neutral range.  From there try to find neutral in all of your poses and make a mental log of the one’s that simply cannot be done with a neutral spine.  Begin to think of your spine not as a rigid pole, but as one long turgid, but flexible tube.

Consciously Rounding and Arcing
After exploring neutral spine, still in table, shift tailwards as far as you can go before rounding and then consciously let yourself round.  Let it travel bone by bone through your spine allowing the arc travel the full distance.  Notice, with the help of your partner, if one part of your spine bares more of the arc than another part.  If so, this will be a place where you experience more pain, sensation, discomfort.  Rewind, and see if you can spread the curve out over the whole spine and if you cannot, don’t go as deep into the pose.  Do the same in the other direction.  Pass back through neutral from child’s.  Shift headwards until you can keep neutral no longer.  Then consciously let yourself arc, bone by bone keeping the support of the front body.  Allow the arc to spread through the length of your spine.  If you feel pain or discomfort, rewind.  Notice if that part of your spine is baring more of the arc.  Continue practicing allowing the spine to be mostly neutral.  And when you choose to veer away from neutral, first let it be conscious and then consciously let the arc or twist travel through the full length from head to tail.

Happy Practicing!