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Give Your Spine a Break

Devi Asmarani shares her thoughts of the Healthy Spine Teacher Training and Workshop. It is her first encounter to Iyengar Yoga Style and she finds it as an enlightening training. The program gives her tools to deal with scoliosis, hyper-flexibility, bad habits in yoga practice and to create effective sequencing.

 In Yoga you can’t go wrong when you’re flexible, so goes the popular notion.

Well, on the first day of the Teachers Training for Yoga for Healthy Spine on Nov. 29 through Dec. 1, our instructor Ann Barros quickly debunked this notion.  Just as a slim person can be deceptively high in cholesterol and thus vulnerable to stroke, so can hyper flexibility – when applied incorrectly – result in ineffective if not injurious yoga practice, we were told.

Applying her 30-years of yoga training in the Iyengar tradition, Ann went through our basic asanas and dissected them one by one to implant in us the importance of precision and techniques.   Because of the title of the workshop, the focus is on the spine – how to free it from burden and tension caused by inaccurate poses. Equal intelligence of the whole spine was the aim of every execution of the poses.

One part of this is to bring awareness to our body where it is lacking. Often when we practice standing asanas like the Trikonasana (triangle), for example, we neglect parts of the body like the feet, which are crucial in this pose for balance.   It may seem simplistic and self-evident, but you’d be surprised to find out how awareness or lack thereof of equal intelligence affect the way you execute your asanas, your balance, and, most importantly, determine the effect it brings to your body.

In basic poses like Adho Muka Svanasana (downward facing dog), for example, she alerted us to the importance of keeping hyper-extended elbows checked by using a strap around the area.   As we learned there was such thing as too much flexibility, we also found that most Asian women tend to have hyper-concaved spine when executing some asanas such as the down dog.   This gives too much pressure to the spine and in the long run could do more harm than good. In poses like Sirsasana or headstand, hyper-concaved spine makes it hard to maintain balance.

So we learned to soften our ribs and, with the help of a partner, use a stick or a rolled up mats to straighten our back in down dog. This way the weigh would be distributed more evenly between the feet and the hands.   Also to free up our neck and shoulder from tension in poses where arms are lifted overhead, we learned to rotate our scapula. Applying this on basic poses like the good old down dog felt like doing a whole new pose to me.

When I went back to my Ashtanga practice three days later I found that not only was I no longer obsessing about getting my chest closer to my shin in down dog – which resulted in a completely relaxed spine – but also that my arms were actually doing a lot more works than usual.   A pose that gave me little challenge before was now making me sweat heavily. It was a good arms-strengthening exercise. It makes sense that this exercise prepares you for a headstand.

Ann demonstrated the techniques for other poses such as backbends, one of the most challenging of the poses, and how to create the action from the mid-thoracic spine and protect the lumbar and cervical spine.   Using straps, blocks, bolsters and the wall, we learned how to work around some of the physical challenges of our students, such as tight hamstring, which most men tend to have, or even spondylosis, which is caused by abnormal wear on cartilage and bones of the neck.

Ann also taught us the importance of sequencing and how it produces a specific effect on the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system.   We learned why it is better to incorporate Sirsasana or headstand in the morning practice (it stimulates the brain), and Sarvangasana or shoulder stand at the end of the day (it relaxes the brain).   Knowledge on logical sequencing helps us reach our specific goals in practice.

On the last day we learned how to work with people with scoliosis or slip discs.   Scoliosis is a curving of the spine, which can curve away from the middle or sideways. The condition can be congenital or caused by injury or diseases that cause muscle weaknesses, or even from accumulated habit.

The important thing before beginning a practice with a person scoliosis is to examine an X-ray picture, and found out where they experience the pain and, if they have done yoga, whether or not they experience the pain during or after the yoga practice.

There are two types of scoliosis, the first one is structural, which is more serious and develops as a result of unequal growth of the two sides of the vertebral bodies.  The second one is functional scoliosis, which only affects the muscular back and does not alter the body structurally.

To determine whether someone has a structural or functional scoliosis, have him or her stand in tadasana then bend forward into a forward bend.  If a lateral curve is visible in a standing position yet disappears in a forward bend, the scoliosis is functional.  If it remains and the rotational component becomes more obvious, it is a structural scoliosis.

Ann demonstrated some poses to treat this condition consisting of elongation poses and traction stretches, and how to address the condition in the frontal, lateral and vertical planes.  Similarly, special yoga practices are needed for patients with slipped disc condition.

Slipped disc, or also known as spinal disc herniation, occurs when there are cracks or fissures in the fibrous rings, causing the gelatinous material in the center to push out. This can be caused by disc dehydration as well as overload on the disc.  The best yoga exercises to stimulate the flow of the healthy blood blow (re-hydration) into the disc are tractions and spinal twists.  Parivrita trikonasana is one of the best poses to nourish the spine because they combine both tractions and twist.

All in all, it has been a very enlightening three-day training. Having done mostly dynamic vinyasa-style yoga, I came out with better understanding and awareness of the importance equal intelligence of the spine.   This surely helped when we had to observe the following weekend workshop. Working with a fairly flexible aerobic teacher who had done very little yoga, one of the ways I helped to improve her down dog is by using the straps to rotate her scapula and to control her hyper-extended elbow.

Already, the cycle of knowledge sharing began.



By Devi Asmarani, she is a full time journalist turn yogini


Keyword: Health, Jakartadoyoga, Yoga, Yoga Studio, Iyengar, Jakarta, Indonesia