Our popular contributor Kara-Leah writes about all kinds of things, from home practice and parenting to the etiquettes of yoga class and the ethics of yoga. In this article she details ways to explore your body through your yoga practice that help to free the pelvis, and therefore the spine.
by Kara-Leah Grant
Years of yoga practice and yoga teaching has taught me that our ability to freely move our pelvis is a key aspect to unlocking our spines, and releasing any chronic low back issues or holding patterns.
I’ve also learned that it’s not always the muscles, ligaments and tendons that are locking our pelvis in place. It can be our minds.
Yes, the psyche can affect the way that our pelvis moves. Fortunately, over time, yoga practice can unlock both the physical body and the psyche, significantly improving the movement of our pelvis. In doing so, it can free our spine, and reduce lower back and hip issues.
There are a few tricks and tips I’ve learned along the way that can make this process easier, faster, and less frustrating. I encourage you to take these tips and tricks and play with them. Try them out on your body, test them out in your practice, and see what arises for you, and what works best for you.
My understanding of the body is experiential, and I’ve learned mostly by observation and practice. Along the way, I had some inspirational teachers share aspects of practice that have made an enormous difference to my practice.
When I started yoga, I’d been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, I’d had a spinal fusion about 9 years previous, I was living with chronic sciatic pain and a spasming back, and my right foot was half numb, meaning I walked with a limp.
I’m now pain free, limp free, and best of all, I understand my body from the inside out. That means if my back does ever start to talk to me through pain, I know what it’s saying, and what I need to do.
The journey to wholeness and healing is personal, and it starts when we take 100% responsibility for our experience. That means while we can ask other people for input and advice, we can’t expect them to solve our problems, or heal us. We have to do the hard work ourselves.
If you’re having back issues, and you’re ready to take 100% responsibility for your experience, and you’re willing to do the hard yards on getting to know your body form the inside out, it’s likely you’ll be able to make positive changes.
Here’s some places to start. These are the ‘Ah-a!’ moments I’ve had along the way on my journey to a healthy spine. Read, understand, and then play.
1. Tuning into the ascending and descending breaths
A few years after I’d been practicing yoga, I caught sight of myself in Mountain Pose (a simple standing pose). To my horror, I looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. All my weight was forward over my heels. I was fleeing the back of my body and pushing forward into the future. A-ha!
Exploration: Stand sideways in front of a mirror without looking at it and find your normal stance. Now look sideways. Where does your weight sit? Forward over the balls of your feet? Or back over the heels?
Gently rock forward and back with your eyes closed and see if you can come to a middle point. Does it feel different? Look in the mirror again. Now where are you standing?
If you’re not already weighted even between the front and backs of your feet, find that middle ground and breath into it. Experience it. What does it feel like? Notice everything there is to notice – physical sensations, thought arising in the mind, feelings moving through and any energetic sensations.
As you breathe, imagine you’re drawing the breath up the front of the body on the inhale. Exhale down the back of the body through the sitting bones, the middle of the leg bones, the heels and into the ground.
Keep doing this breath over and over, what does it feel like? Does the breath easily rise up the front of the body? What does it feel like exhaling down into the ground through the heels?
Working with this made me realise that I wasn’t trusting my back to support me – and that I didn’t feel supported by life. It made me realise how intensely I was gripping the front of my body so I didn’t fall forward with my front-heavy stance. It made me realise how ungrounded I felt without my heels properly weighted into the ground.
What does this exploration make you realise?
2. Gripping, clenching and holding – it’s all in your head
Over years of practice, I’ve deduced that I’ve been gripping, clenching and holding myself against life. This gripping, clenching and holding has extended to the stomach, hips, and lower back. My back would often get worse in times of stress, and this was why. As I got stressed, I would resist life. That resistance would led to gripping, clenching and holding in the body. That holding would cause pain.
Now, if my hips or back are ever painful, I’m able to bring my awareness to that area, and release any gripping, clenching or holding. Invariably the pain melts away. This is subtle work that has taken me years of practice to tune into – it’s never too early to start.
Exploration: Lie on your back in savasana (corpse pose). Place your hands on the front of your hips. Breath into your hands. Imagine your hips softening, melting, releasing and letting go. With every exhale, soften another millimetre or two.
Shift your hands to your lower belly and do the same. The upper belly.
Release your hands at your side, lying them palm-face up beside you. Bring your awareness to your lower back. Notice if it’s curved away from the ground, or lying flat on the ground. If it’s curved away from the ground, bend your knees until it lies flat. It’s likely that your hip flexors are gripping at the front and causing the pelvis to tilt forward, creating the curve in the lower back.
Now that your spine is flat against the ground, and you’ve brought your full awareness to the lower back, breath into the area. If you need to, use your imagination. Notice the contact point where your spine mets the floor. Imagine your spine is melting into the floor with every exhale. Stay here for ten minutes or more, melting down into the ground, through the ground, becoming part of the ground.
Over time, bringing greater and greater awareness to my hips, back and belly, I could sense when I was starting to grip against life. I could practice breathing and softening that area immediately. The key is to build up a level of body awareness so you can catch yourself in the grip, and breath your way into the soft.
3. Channeling the flow
The next break through came courtesy of Shiva Rea. She uses a technique in her Vinyasa Flow Yoga called Pulsation Vinyasa – micro-movements of the pelvis in alignment with the breath. As I worked with this method, I noticed that I couldn’t breathe through my hip joints – they were damned up, stuck and stagnant.
If I did a wide-legged squat without pulsation vinyasa, I noticed that my habitual gripping, clenching and holding patterns meant I was gripping, holding and clenching my hips and pelvis in order to hold myself up… but this was preventing me from releasing into the pose.
When I used Shiva’s technique of pulsation vinyasa within wide-legged squat, the micro-movement with the breath meant I wasn’t able to do my usual grip, clench and hold. I could feel the muscles and prana supporting me, while the hips and pelvis softened and released into the posture.
This showed me that I was often gripping, clenching and holding my body within postures in such a way as to counter-act the very opening that was meant to be happening. Knowing I had this tendency, I started to use the micro-movements in the pelvis whenever I suspected I was working against myself. It’s worked wonders.
Exploration: Stand with your legs wide, feet at 45 degrees, knee caps lined up over second toe. As you inhale, press firmly down against the ground through your feet, particular the heels. Feel the breath rise up the central channel of the spine. As you exhale, release down into a squat. Keep the hips above the knees – in fact, keep the hips relatively high.
From this moderate wide-legged squat position, press firmly down through the legs, extend your tailbone down towards the ground and draw the breath up through the front of the pelvis. As you take this inhale, the pelvis is tucking under slightly – I prefer to say extend the tailbone down towards the ground rather than tuck it under as it’s more accurate.
As you exhale, release the pelvis forward slightly and sink a millimetre or two deeper into the squat, still pressing firmly through the feet.
Repeat a few times, focusing on where the breath goes in the body. As you inhale, can you draw the breath up from the feet, through the leg bones, through the hip joints, into the pelvis and up the spine?
My major ‘A-ha!’ moment came when I discovered I could breath through the hip joints – suddenly I could feel space and freedom that had never before existed in that part of my body. Freeing the hip joints has had a major impact on my lower back.
4. Combo meal deal
Once you begin to tune into the ways in which you grip, clench and hold, and tune into the ways in which you can feel the flow, you can start to put it all together.
Exploration: Bring yourself into Legs-up-the-wall. Your legs go straight up a wall, your spine is flat against the ground. If your hamstring are tight, you may need to push your hips away from the wall, resting your legs an angle against it. The angle of the legs against the wall doesn’t matter. What matters is finding ease with straight legs and a relaxed spine.
Bring body awareness into your pelvis, and breath into the area. Imagine there’s a large balloon in your pelvis and as you inhale you’re blowing up the balloon. Where does the inhale go?
Tune into your spine, and where it touches the ground. On every exhale, melt it down into the ground, and through the ground.
Tune into your legs. Inhale and expand the balloon inside your pelvis, exhale from the centre of your pelvis, through the hips joints, down the middle of the leg bones and out the heels towards the sky. Do this repeatedly. Notice any blockages, dark places, tension or denseness. Stay present and aware, be curious about your experience.
Explore the micro-movements of the pelvis in tandom with the breath. What happens when you inhale and press the top & back of your pelvis firmly against the ground? What happens when you exhale and release your pelvis into a forward tilt, feeling your tailbone against the ground? Do this repeatedly with the breath.
Bring the legs out wide, and explore here. How does this change things? Rotate your legs externally. What does that feel like? Rotate your legs internally. Find the middle point. Be curious. Listen to your body’s intuition in the exploration.
Use your hands underneath your thighs to bring your knees into your chest. Press your feet firmly against the wall, and your pelvis firmly against the ground. Breath into your hips joints and lower spine. What does that feel like?
There’s something about breathing into the pelvis, through the joints, and out the legs which helps release the tension accumulating in my spine. How does it feel in your spine?
Over time, with awareness of my body and breath, these techniques have helped me release tension in the lower back, hips and pelvis.
May they trigger a similar release for you, and further explorations and ‘a-ha!’ moments.
Remember, it’s your body, your journey. Go within with full presence, and let your own body’s infinite wisdom guide you.
Kara-Leah is a writer and yoga teacher who has always been infinitely curious about the make-up of the human psyche and body. Regular yoga helped her heal and recover from chronic back issues, including a spinal fusion at age 16, and two episodes of psychosis at age 29.
Her daily home yoga practice began in earnest when people kept asking her to teach them yoga. She’s since trained as a teacher with Shiva Rea, and immersed herself in practicing, teaching yoga and writing about yoga. Kara-Leah lives just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand with her son Samuel.
She’s the publisher of The Yoga Lunchbox and published her first book, Forty Days of Yoga – Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice in 2013. Her second book, The No-More-Excuses Guide to Yoga, has just been released. She’s also a regular contributor to the Elephant Journal.