The Blissful Spine

This came from some notes for a class I recently gave — thought I’d share.

What does Bliss feel like? Is it extreme pleasure, or is it (as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, among others, says) more accurately defined as the absence of pleasure or pain, a state beyond mere pleasure and pain, a pure merging with all that is.

So, what does this mean for our yoga practice? That yoga is not practiced to make us FEEL anything — although certainly both agony and ecstasy can be induced. It is all too tempting at times for some of us to push for a feeling (of ecstasy) and through pushing too hard, wind up in agony. The reverse can be true, too……that by enduring a bit of agony, ecstasy may come as the reward. Then again sometimes, for some of us, it’s just about feeling something, ANYTHING (see my earlier post, The Yoga Addict :).  However, this is not the true goal in asana.

The nature of the spine is to be blissful.  The nature of the spine is to be a channel for force to flow through. It is not for force to act on. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! Sadly, so many of us are so accustomed to feelings of pain in the spine that the mere absence of pain may translate as pleasure. To be an effective channel, the spine should not be obstructed. It should not be disturbed. The spine should be supported, but not locked in a vice grip. The spine should feel free.

Of course, this is not to say that the spine does not move in yoga and in life! As we know, the spine has an incredible range of movement. Healthy mobility and healthy stability are not mutually exclusive. They always coexist. They rely on one another.

If there is an obstruction to the flow of energy through the spine, how can we remove the blockage without putting force on the spine? We utilize the breath to unclog the channel. We use the breath to access the force behind the breath — prana, chi, life-force, mojo.  This is the key: movement of the spine, whether slight or extreme, is always initiated from the inside, from a base of support and freedom.  Movement of energy through the channel of the spine  inspires the outward movement of the body, rather than forcing movement of the outer body in hopes of clearing the spine.  So, from a practical perspective, what does this mean? How do we support the spine in an authentic way, through a wide variety of movements?

Let’s first re-think the spine. What are some words we would use to describe the spine? Perhaps what comes to mind first is the skeletal spine. Which is, of course, important, but over-emphasis on this one system may lead us into a narrow experience of the spine described by words like “bony”,”fragile”, “segmented” …all of these are accurate descriptions of the spine in a sense, but they are not the whole story. The spine, like the rest of the body, is multi-dimensional. All of the body’s systems operate through movement of energy through the channel of the spine. And all of the body’s systems support one another, not just the skeleton supporting everything else.

What about the digestive system? My current yoga teacher Lisa Clark poetically refers to the digestive tract as the “serpentine spine”, and emphasizes using the digestive tract as support for the skeletal spine in asana practice. This has been incredibly effective for me in finding not just fluidity but also strength in my practice, as I learn to source strength from the dense, buoyant and moist quality that the organs offer. In fact, developmentally, the organs form before the skeleton. The spine and ribcage grow around and in response to the organs. So it makes sense to move from the organs and allow the skeleton to follow, thinking of the body as a suspension in the matrix of gravity and levity, rather than letting the organs just “hang” from the outer structure. Considering the entire digestive tract — from mouth and soft palate to the anus — as an aspect of spine is a powerful tool for rethinking the axis of the body and where movement comes from, which in turn can profoundly affect the quality and experience of movement itself.

What are some other aspects of the spine? There is the nervous system, that delicate and sensitive passageway for electrical impulses and cerebro-spinal fluid, that precious transmitter of movement from the brain to the body at large, of sensation from the rest of the body to the brain. What are the qualities of this dimension of spinal awareness? How does awareness of these qualities affect movement?

A useful exercise may be to practice a simple movement (like rolling up from uttanasana to tadasana, or good old cat/cow) initiating movement of the spine from different systems — from bones, from the jelly-like disks between the vertebrae, from the lungs, from the nervous system, from the organs, etc. To take it a step further, allow the movement to evolve carried by whatever system is being focused on. See what asanas may spontaneously arise from awareness of the different aspects of “spine”. I have found that by allowing the bony spine to be supported and “carried by” other systems, instead of trying to use the bony spine and muscles to support and “carry” the other systems, the inner channel of the spine is liberated, and energy may flow more freely, thereby inspiring further movement (or stillness).  When the spine is calm in asana and we are not distracted by extreme physical sensations, we can attune ourselves more fully to our breath and the  subtle sensations of prana  moving through sushumna, the etheric level of spine, the true “core” of the body. When the central channel of the body has been cleansed this way, gently and  from the inside, that is when the illusive feeling (or non-feeling) of Bliss is likely to spontaneously arise.  That “pure merging with all that is.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?

One thought on “The Blissful Spine”

  1. I love your posts because I can read them three and four times and get more each time…

    This idea of Bliss being absence, or merging, NOT feeling, is so interesting! It might help us from going too far in our poses, like in twists where we want more and more and a bit more… to realize that we’re there, in fact we’ve passed it… the sweet spot of NOTHING.

    And the different aspects of “spine” is great to think about, I will get a lot of mileage out of those exercises. Thanks!

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