Each month we dig into a different asana by looking at common valves in major joints (spine, etc) and asking why do these valves or energy leaks occur? To answer that, we go under the hood and explore the asana’s kinesiology—what the muscles and bones are doing! This information lets us build valve “fixes,” practical teaching ideas you can try in your classes and privates. Each week builds on the next, giving you a month-long outline for how to help your students uncover their variation of the asana.
This week we begin a new asana journey. As you prepare to head for the water this summer, we’re tackling a pose to help take you there: paripurna navasana, full boat pose!
Ask any yogi who has tried this pose and they will tell you, it’s hard! With only one or two joint actions, navasana looks deceptively simple. So why, you ask, is it so darn difficult? GRAVITY, my friends!
This month, we will look at how we can use gravity to heighten awareness of this shape, the ins and outs of the magical psoas muscles, and examine why most students call navasana a “core” strengthener. But first, we must talk about the spine.
A long and neutral spine is key to reaping the benefits of this pose.
What is a neutral spine you ask?
When the spine exhibits its neutral alignment, all its curves are “evenly balanced.” You can bring your spine into neutral by aligning the joints of the trunk. Stack the ears over the center of the shoulders, stack the shoulders over the hips, stack the hips over the center of the knees, and you guessed it, stack the knees over the ankles and you’ve “aligned” the joints of the whole body into tadasana (mountain pose) or anatomical neutral. Anatomical neutral encourages the curves of the spine to line up in such a way as to do their jobs most efficiently and with the least risk of pain and injury. And when the skeleton is so aligned, muscles can do what they do best, move bones, while the skeleton effortlessly takes over the jobs of absorbing gravity and transfering shock.
In our everyday lives, we tend to be pulled down toward the earth by gravity and other forces (like our desks and cell phones). Once our spine begins to curve and curl towards the earth, we being to complain of low back and neck pain– pain that doctors may ascribe to the aging process, but what if it’s not the result of just aging? What if it’s the result of postural choices instead? You could, in that case, counteract the downward pull of life by creating upward moving patterns instead!
If we stand a chance of maintaining a brightly supported neutral spine in navasana (or in life!), we need to strengthen muscles that keep the spine long against gravity: enter the spine extensors!
The spine extensor group includes a set of muscles you may have heard mentioned in class before: the erector spinae. Erector spinae are a group of three muscles that run the length of the spine from your pelvis to the base of the skull. These muscles play a vital role in back bending but also in keeping us upright.
On the flip side of strength is always mobility. Muscles that need to be long (i.e., allow mobility) this week as we find our neutral spines: There are multiple possibilities here, but one likely group that will be tight are the shoulder horizontal flexors: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, biceps brachii, coracobrachialis (these are all in the chest and arms). Tight shoulder horizontal flexors can cause a rounding of the shoulders forward and in towards center. To stack the shoulders over the hips this area must be opened.
What does a “long” or “neutral” spine mean anyway?
The axial skeleton is comprised of the bones of the head, spine and rib cage (as opposed to the appendicular skeleton which is made up of the limbs and their girdles). Axial elongation moves the head and spine upward away from the daily downward pull. You are literally lengthening your spine along its own axis.
One of my teachers, Alison West, says that yoga counterposes life. Axial elongation is one of the best “counter poses” to life that we know of!
A prime example of where we find axial elongation is in tadasana (it is also the first place we practice a neutral spine).
When we arrive in tadasana, we don’t simply stand there. We lift up and stack ourselves joint over joint coming into the most stable mountain-like stance we can. It is in this shape with ankles and knees and hips and shoulders and ears all stacked that we can withstand the impact of gravity most efficiently, avoiding the pain and injury that comes with the compression of perpetual spinal flexion. This may sound simple enough, but a basic body reading of most bodies will reveal that this stacking is not present in everyday posture.
Through the practice of yoga and the practice of asana with an eye to strong, spine supporting alignment in shapes like tadasana, adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and, you guessed it, navasana, we strengthen the muscles that hold our spine in an upright, neutral position and make a “stacked” alignment the new resting place for our bodies!
The key is to practice your asana with this in mind!
How to recognize a long, neutral spine + help your students achieve it
Below is a series of three progressively challenging experiential exercises you can try that will help you learn to identify a neutral spine first in yourself and subsequently in your students.
The spine is made up of four alternating curves. A neutrally aligned spine will exhibit all four curves. An accessible place for your students to explore their own spinal curves is lying on their backs with knees bent.
Ask them to feel where the spine touches the floor and where it lifts away naturally, i.e. what are some of the current spinal patterns.
Then ask if they can feel the pelvis, the ribcage and the head touching the floor and the low back and the neck lifting away.
If the low back is also pressing into the floor, ask them to see what happens when they gently try and lift it away from the floor.
If the chin is tucking what happens when they lift the chin?
Try this exercise for yourself. What do you notice? Becoming very familiar with the curves of your own spine is an important part of helping your students with their own.
Now that your students have a sense of the curves of the spine, take them to the wall and see if they can again feel the spine moving into and away from the wall in those four places. This time ask them to also imagine they could lift up the wall. For many the simple act of taking the back body to the wall will force them to elongate the spine in with the simple effort of trying to get the head to the wall. (Please note that for many of our students with deeply rooted spinal patterns, taking the head to the wall will simply not be possible yet. Simply moving in the up direction is a great start. Also, some naturally curvy bodies will not align to the wall in the way described, but they may still be able to use the places of wall contact as a productive reference for the upward lift of the head.)
Bring all of that awareness back into the center of the room and ask students to recreate the neutral alignment of their spinal curves and additional upward length that they found on the wall and floor.
When the time comes to try the shape itself this first week, you don’t need to worry about lifting the legs or the arms. Simply ask your students to sit with bent knees on the floor and find the beautiful lifted spine they have been working with all of class and then also to keep it as they lean back! Keeping the hands on the backs of the thighs will be a key variation to allow your students to access this.
This is one of the methods we use at Yoga 216 to help our students find their neutral spinal alignment. Do you have others? Please share in the comments section below so we can all give it a try!
And join us next week as we add the legs back in, all while seeking to maintain all that gorgeous attention to your spine!
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