I began teaching Yoga over 40 years ago when asked to by a fellow university student for instruction. I have studied with many great teachers, but mostly the Yoga practices have just blossomed naturally. Sri Gurudev’s example has always been one to bring particular insights. Another one of my teachers has been Swami Asokananda. Many years ago he shared the idea of “making space between the vertebrae.” When I heard this from him, I began to notice just how much my practice called me to take on this teaching and make it a central focus of the entire hatha Yoga regime. It has become The Core. Patanjali teaches that we are to master asana so that the body becomes steady and comfortable. Then, no longer a distraction, it even becomes a true friend for meditation.
For many years now I have been teaching lots of Yoga classes, about 15 to 20 weekly, and the students are from every age and walk of life. More and more I see the benefit of helping them discover the value of focusing on The Core. If they become aware of that beautiful energetic channel that runs from beneath the base of the spine right out through the crown, their entire practice shifts. They become much more centered. I watch their approach to each asana begin to take on a depth they had never before experienced. They begin to truly find a comfortable, upright seated posture where energy clearly flows richly through the sushumna. Pratyahara begins to happen naturally, and they slide more easily into deeper meditations. This takes place quite organically, just as Sri Gurudev taught us.
Following are some of the ways I myself practice this and share it with students. A few warm up stretches can be done while sitting (though they can also be done standing).
Stretch both arms toward the sky and take hold of one wrist (the holding hand has the little finger closest to the Let the breath enhance the stretch. Do the other side. Next interlock the fingers, turn the palms up and then press up and reach backward a bit while squeezing the shoulder blades. Release the arms down to the sides. Then loosen the shoulders and back by shrugging the shoulder blades so that the entire back feels the movement.
Place the palm of one hand beside the hip with the fingers pointing outward. Lift the other arm straight up. If the right hand is beside the hip and the left arm is raised, then the left side should be kept completely straight while leaning over toward the right. Do not bring the left arm over so that there is an angle. Keep the entire left side straight. Focus on and stretch out the left side. Be sure to use nice deep nasal breathing to complete the stretch. I encourage students to press the hip and hand away from one another to get a full stretch to the elongating side. Of course, repeat on the other side. Besides being great stretches, these tend to start energy moving along sushumna and draw the attention inward.
I usually use a cross-legged spinal twist in the warm up. Sitting cross-legged, reach across the body with the left hand and place it on the right thigh close to the knee. The right hand is placed in back pointing away from the spine. Sitting tall and pulling with the left hand against the leg, use the right arm to assist in twisting to the right. The students are reminded to have the spine lengthened while inhaling, and then release into the twist while exhaling. Twist the other way next. Again, by doing this early in the practice, the students become aware of The Core and begin to free it. The space between the vertebrae begins to open. Awareness is heightened.
There is another very wonderful stretch that takes some careful instruction if the students are to learn how to do it effectively. This is a simple standing forward bend (Figure 2). But please approach it slowly and deliberately. Usually people simply move too quickly thinking the idea is to lower their head and arms. But the best work can be achieved if you use it to elongate the spine, especially releasing the lower back. Give this a try. Stand tall with the feet close to one another (no more than an inch or two apart). Place the hands on the hips with the thumbs toward the back. Now begin to hinge forward from the hips. Only go to about 90º. It is okay to move the hands down the thighs a little if you find that helpful. The key here is to stretch the chin out front while pushing back through the tailbone (Figure 3). At this point, reach the arms out beside the ears, and push the hands and tail bone away from one another. Lower down about half way to the ground and again stretch out the chin, reach the arms forward (not down!) and press back through the tailbone. It is also useful to breathe into this lovely stretch. Once again lower down about halfway and go through the same stretching. Finally, release all the way down with the neck relaxed and the arms and shoulders soft. Take a few deep breaths to release the lower back even more. If you would like, it is fine to take hold of the toes or behind the ankles and pull in a bit extra while breathing into it (Figure 4). (But this extra squeeze is only for those of you who will find it like baby bear’s porridge—just right for you.) Come back up consciously, maintaining that wonderful openness throughout the spine. Place the hands back on the hips and stretch out the chin, lift the chest and come up. Once upright, it is nice to bring the arms out to the sides and raise them overhead while inhaling. Bring the palms together in front of the chest, and take a moment to center within. Once again, you have truly made space between the vertebrae and have gotten focused on The Core.
Finally, one more tip and how to use it. Swami Vidyananda, another great teacher, teaches us that we should Fig. 2 Fig. 3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5 be sure to use our mind to direct our hatha practice. She explains that the prana follows the mental direction. What we direct with our mind takes place. So, when we practice, for instance, Dhanurasana (the Bow Pose), if we direct the spine to lengthen, it will. However, many students have their backs compact when doing such postures. The spine shortens instead of lengthening. Yet, if we simply think energetically of the spine lengthening, it will. The same is true with all of the postures. Try to feel the spine getting longer whenever you are in any of the back bending postures. This is useful for the inversions, too. Regularly think of the spine lengthening. This sounds simple, and it is, but it must be done to find that comfortable, steady place in your asana. Two other wonderful postures to get energy moving richly through sushumna are Dandasana (the Staff Pose) (Figure 5) and Badrasana (the Gentle Pose – also known as Badha Konasana, Bound Angle Pose). Each of these postures offers a wonderful opportunity to focus upon The Core and establish the flow of energy along sushumna.
If you become aware of the space between the vertebrae and continue to nurture it, you will find your body feeling filled with light. May yours and your student’ meditations be a delight. Have fun.
Jayadeva began teaching Yoga in 1969 and was blessed with the opportunity to have studied with and lived near Sri Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, at Yogaville, the Integral Yoga Ashram in Buckingham, Virginia. He went on to serve as the Manager of the Integral Yoga Institute, New York City and was also the Director of Integral Yoga Teacher Training there. Jayadeva brought Integral Yoga to the Princeton area over 10 years ago, helped found the Princeton Integral Yoga Institute and currently serves as its Director. He teaches in many venues in the Princeton area and in New York City. Jayadeva is certified to teach all levels, directs the Integral Yoga Institute Princeton Teacher Training School, and is a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance.
(From the IYTA Newsletter, November, 2010)