Sitting, Breathing, and Kundalini rising.
The largest force field we experience is gravity. Like change, it is our constant, invisible and ever present, so definitive that we forget its power. Pulling directly downwards, towards the center of the earth, the force of gravity is the counterpoint to every aspect our physical lives.
Leaning, rounding forward over anything— work, technology, books, food, a guitar— creates a constellation of weaknesses and strains, habits and symptoms often exacerbated by exercise because we are so unaware of what we consider “normal”. Like aspects of our personality that are only highlighted in interpersonal conflicts, we most notice our posture when we feel stress and strain.
The most common constellation of physical habits result in: tight hamstrings, sore lower back, stiffness in head, neck, feet, and shoulders along with weakness in lower abdominals and upper back. Shallow, erratic breathing is a natural result of these stiffnesses, which compress the organs and rib cage; low energy is the direct result. The details are different from person to person, but the broad strokes are universal.
So… what do we do?
First, we straighten the spine. This takes effort primarily because we are engaging attention and breaking habits, but once we establish a new pattern, we will find that there is a natural increase of energy, because we are no longer fighting gravity. The main physical support for the body is the spinal column; when gravity can flow directly through the vertebral column, then the musculature no longer has to work to hold the body in lines that oppose gravity. When the external muscles relax, and the postural muscles (deep, close to the spine, like the transverse abs and hip stabilizers) naturally engage, then we feel both relaxed and alert. There is extra energy physically as well as psychologically when we stop fighting against the energetics we live in, and start harnessing them instead.
Once you build the structure, you no longer need the effort of support. Like scaffolding, you can dismantle the external structure, releasing and reducing unneeded materials. With this letting go process, you may lose weight, feel inspired to reduce the quantity of your belongings, notice new levity to your movements, and feel more space in your mind.
All good things.
The challenge is to maintain the new straight spine without falling forward into what has not changed: your work, technology, love for books, food, guitar. The inertia of past habits takes time to unwind; new habits need new energy (especially in presence of attention), new space (especially in your ribs) and new strength (especially in the bandhas).
What yogis described as energy locks correspond physiologically to the inner arches of the body. As in engineering, our body arches, which include the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and the ankle bones, catch energy and are excellent supports for physical weight when constructed evenly. Evenness in the body begins with evenness of the breath.
The habitual breath can be brought into conscious awareness, in varying degrees: intensely when it is the focus of our practice, gently when we are moving throughout our work days, and again with more energy when we are connecting with our loved ones through speech, touch, and shared presence.
To enliven the breath, we lift it up from the low belly, where it tends to dwell heavily. Subtle engagement of the pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles tones the lower chakras and directs the breath upwards, where the diaphragm is enabled to work open the ribs, empower the solar plexus, and enrich the energetic circulation of the organs.
The diaphragm is a unique arch in its connectivity to both bone and soft tissue. It attaches, at the front, to the lowest ribs, and at the back, to the lower spine. It shares attachments with the heart, above it, and the stomach, seen, liver, below it. Rhythmic breath creates even movement for these organic, for the cerebrospinal fluid, and for the free movement of the ribs themselves, which allows full lung expansion and satisfying breath.
Working the bandhas with the breath helps to tone the nervous system, making the yogi not only stronger in breath and body but also more resilient to both sudden and chronic stresses of life. The Jalandhara bandha is at the cervical spine, where there is a center of parasympathetic nerves. Uddiyana bandha is at the solar plexus, and connects the sympathetic nerve centers at both the thoracic and lumbar spine. Mula bandha is at the base of the spine, where there are a high density of nerves, especially for the parasympathetic nervous system.
Rhythmic breathing and steady strengthening of the muscles associated with the bandhas will rebalance, restore, and relax the nervous system. Enhancing the breath work with the practice of asana will aid emotional release and energetic cleansing; practicing Yamas and Niyamas will reduct conflict between inner beliefs and outer life. The whole practice of yoga conserves, sustains, and increases energy flow while reducing tension and conflict.
Coming in tune with the inner rhythm of the body creates a unique sensitivity. The inner ear’s tinies bones, which make up the vestibular system, are for hearing as well as for balance— you will be able to “hear” your inner balance, the fine tuning of physical sensitivity as well as your inner dialogue. With increased awareness of the front/back body balance, the inner/outer support of the spine, and the pace/depth of the breath, you will feel inspired when all is well, alert to imbalances, and aware of when stress dulls your perception/interoception.
Part of the journey is encountering the blocks and traps set along the spine. They may feel like stiff points, weak points, or places that cannot be “felt”. You can think of them as blocks in the chakras, or as physical memories, or as postural holding patterns— all are true.
These interferences with an easily straightened spine were put in unconsciously or consciously, when they served a protective purpose or sustained a discrete trauma. The blocks and traps need to be undone for a good energy flow along the spine.
What is the difference between an energy block and an energy trap?
A block is usually unconscious— when we run into them we often don’t see them, and don’t have emotional reactivity or memories attached to the space/tension.
Traps are those we’ve seen and covered back up with increasingly complex, and often emotional, layers. This is neurotypical/“normal”, meaning that everyone does it. And though it isn’t the healthiest way to address difficult points in body-mind life, the blockages serve us all in the same way: by protecting us from experiencing overwhelming floods of energy and overly intense perceptions of daily reality. (Those of us who seek a more direct experience of life either do the long hard inner work of yoga, or dive in and out of drug induced states, or both. Of the two options, yoga gives the more sustainable, longer lasting high.) Maslow called this ability to perceive direct truth “being cognition.”
Today, we like to reduce complexities into easily definable, quantifyable, google-able metrics. Being cognition falls outside that realm, as does the concept of chakras, which as created when humans saw themselves as systems of systems, reseting in dynamic equilibrium, a holistic wholeness. This is the broader perspective in which the Gita taught the first written instructions on yoga, which can be summarized as:
Find a clean spot.
Sit with a straight spine.
Clear the mind.
The straightness of the spine is of primary importance here: only when energy flows directly through the spine, without fighting inner blocks or the outer gravitational field, can we fully enter the meditative state. This theory flows with the concept of kundalini, the embodiment of vital life force that sleeps, dormant, unconscious, until the spinal energy is cleared for kundalini to rise and create an awakened state of being.