Learning to differentiate movements of the hip from movements of the spine is one of the things that can lead to better spinal health.
In this post I want to talk about the difference between bending forward from the hips and bending forward from the spine and why you might choose one over the other. These are things I learned from classes with Simon Borg Olivier I have been taking and you can link to the Yoga Synergy site at yoga synergy.com
In my current series of classes there are many postures in which I direct students to bend from the navel level of the spine first (then the ribs, then the chest, collarbones, and shoulders). This is something many people are not used to and so I wanted to demonstrate it here.
The thing about forward bending is you can bend forward from the spine or the hips or, usually, a combination of both.
Because the hips are more mobile many people tend to bend forward from the hips and only try to move the spine when the pelvis won't move anymore. This is often because the muscles on the backs of their legs are so stretched the pelvis will not move further, especially if the knees are kept straight.
What can end up happening is the backs of the legs stretch until the pelvis won't move any more and, in an effort to reach the floor or the toes, the spine starts rounding and stretching as well.
I am not one for too many rules in yoga. I appreciate that I don't know everything, that there are many ways to do yoga, and that there is always the possibility that what I might suggest could work for 90% of people but might not work for the other 10% (our bodies are different after all).
One of the rules I do stick to is do not stretch the hamstrings and the back of the spine at the same time unless directed to do so by your health professional. That is, in yoga class, you do one or the other but not both.
I have noticed over the years that many people are probably going to choose hamstrings in this scenario, perhaps because many of us believe stretching the hamstrings is good for us but have probably not thought about how stretching the spine might be even better for us.
I am not denying hamstring flexibility is a good thing to have. But, in the course of your life, spinal flexibility is much more important.
Learning to mindfully move the vertebrae of the spine through their various possible movements (bending forward, backwards, to the side and twisting) helps improve the mobility of the spinal muscles and structures, the strength of these structures (when practiced actively rather than passively), and also helps to bring space between the vertebrae.
On a physiological level it can also improve the flow of blood, energy, and information through the spine and spinal nerves.
Learning to bend forward from the navel level of the spine (with the sitting bones moving down and forward) will also firm the abdomen naturally (without you having to pull your belly in and therefore leaving you able to breathe into the belly). It will compress the organs around the pelvis and abdomen--such as the digestive, reproductive and immune system organs. This can help squeeze substances through/away from those organs (especially toxins) and, when the posture is released, allows for fresh blood to flow in.
So, there are lot of benefits to learning to move the spine. I only discuss forward bending here but there are, of course, benefits of moving the spine in other directions as well.
The video shows how to bend forward from the spine in standing, a lunge, and in sitting.
Common to all of these postures is the suggestion that you bend your knees slightly. How much you bend your knees depends on the posture and your own body state. The act of bending the knees allows the spine to move more freely. Remember, here I am emphasising that you do not want to feel the back of the spine stretching at the same time as the back of the legs so you will want to bend the knees.
Before moving forward, the spine is lengthened. This action is really important. It creates space between the intervertebral discs, which are often compressed and the source of back pain.
It might help you to think of these forward bends as back body lengtheners. The idea is that you will be bending forward while lengthening the back without squashing the front.
To lengthen the back of the spine the sitting bones move down and forward and the top of the pelvis moves slightly back. This serves to lengthen the lower back and to bring a natural firmness to the abdomen without you needing to tighten it. This leaves you free to breathe into the abdomen, which will help you relax.
It is important that you do not tuck or do too much or perform this (or any) action with too much force. This is a melting feeling like wax dripping down the side of a candle or ice cream melting down the side of a cone. Feel for softness and space and relaxation.
To lengthen further, move the ribs back and up--a bit like being lifted by the scruff of your neck. Free the neck and relax the face.
With the spine lengthened the forward bend is initiated by pushing the navel and navel level of the spine forward before moving.
Importantly, this action is performed without moving the top of the pelvis forward. If the top of the pelvis moves forward then you are bending from your hips and not your spine.
Once the navel has moved out, it moves forward and down. Then the ribs move forwards and down. By now you should feel that the centre of the belly has become firm without you needing to consciously tighten anything. If you cannot feel the firmness come up and try again, perhaps moving more slowly and making sure you are moving the sitting bones down and forward and not letting the butt stick out and the lower back arch.
Keep the forward and down movement moving up the spine, moving the chest forwards and down, then the collarbones forwards and down then the shoulders and, if it feels ok, the head. If you are able, you would move one vertebra at a time. That is hard and takes practice!
What you need to watch for here is that the lower back does not move backwards or behind the top of the pelvis. This will potentially cause discomfort-especially for people with low back pain due to disc problems or who have narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae in that area.
This tendency for the back to move backwards is more likely if you do not bend your knees enough, especially if you are on the floor. It the movement is at all uncomfortable then don't do it. Remember to move slowly and do no harm.
These general ideas work whether in standing or sitting. In sitting the knees probably need to bend more for most people. Sitting and bending forward can be a dangerous movement for your spine if you cannot sit upright without feeling like you are tipping backwards. In that case, you might opt to sit on a chair if you are going to practice spinal flexion.
If you are going to bend to the floor from standing you definitely will not reach it just by bending forward from the spine. The spine does not really bend that much.
So, you will need to bend your hips, and perhaps, for most people, your knees as well. Just don't lose the postural firmness that you have created as you involve the hips.
After folding forward, you can counter the lengthening of the back body you just performed (active and careful spinal flexion) by lengthening the front of the body (active and careful spinal extension or backbending). I will write another post on that soon.
And, not to worry, for those who want to lengthen the hamstrings I will write more on that later as well.
Learning these basic movements will help you cultivate the power you need for good arm balances and inversions like hornstand, handstand and headstand.
Happy and safe practicing to all. Hope to see you soon!