Top to Bottom–Part Two: Low Back and Belly

Special note: An audio version of this piece is available on the Everything Elsa podcast. Visit: anchor.fm/ellen-sanders-robinson

In this second part of the series, “Top to Bottom,” I address two more areas prone to tension and dis-ease during times of stress. The back, in particular, may be vulnerable during the holiday season, as it also houses a large part of the Bladder meridian: As part of the Water element in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Bladder and Kidney organ systems correspond with Winter. When weak or obstructed, the Bladder meridian (which runs from the base of the skull, down both sides of the spine, and the back of each leg) contributes greatly to back pain and stiffness. Further, anxiety and control issues can arise with an unhappy Bladder meridian.

And, oh, that belly: It will be no surprise that the foods and emotions that often spring up at this time of year can wreak havoc on digestion. To steady this area will go a long way toward instilling peace into your holiday time; emotionally, a balanced belly keeps frustration and resentment at bay.

In working with the lower spine and abdominal region, the Second and Third chakras will be awakened. These energy centers, when functioning optimally, ensure a sense of stability and confidence: With the powerhouses of esteem strong, one can proceed through any challenge with positivity.

The practice begins with pelvic tilts. On a chair or seated crossed-leg on the floor (with bolstering, if necessary), inhale to tilt the pelvis forward; exhale to gently tilt it back. If the low back is stiff, this movement may prove elusive at first. Stick with it: As your breath deepens, and the muscles warm, the pelvic rocks will become more fluid. Continue for 1-3 minutes.

Then, move into Sufi Grinds. This movement uses the pelvic tilts, plus a subtle lift of the pelvis to either side to create a perceived circling of the pelvis: Inhale to tilt he pelvis forward and then raise the right side of the pelvis; exhale to tilt the pelvis back as the right side lowers. The exhale continues as you roll through the now-rounded low spine to the left. Then, seamlessly begin to inhale as you “hike up” the left side of the pelvis, and then tilt the pelvis forward again; continue the inhale as you circle through the front space to begin the full “grind” again. 

Once you have the pelvic “circles” down, let the rest of the torso go along for the ride. You will begin to feel that the spine is naturally extending (arching) as you circle forward, and then rounds (flexes) as you circle through backspace. Continue for 1-3 minutes, then switch directions (circling to the left) for another 1-3 minutes. Always circle clockwise first, then left (counter-clockwise): This pattern mimics the progression of digestive processes.

Now, if on the floor, lie down, and prepare for a modified Bridge Pose (feet flat, knees bent). If in a chair, come to the front edge of the seat, and place the hands firmly next to the hips. Make sure the chair is stable, and that you have space in front of you. In either position, inhale to push the hips forward and up, opening the front body; exhale to lower down. Continue for 1 minute.

Now, draw the knees in, so that your body comes into a tight ball; try to tuck the nose between the knees. In this compressed position, begin Breath of Fire through the nose. Continue for 1 minute.

Open yourself up again, and resume the elevated portion of your previous Bridge Pose. This time, stay up (hips lifted). Repeat Breath of Fire, but through open, rounded lips. Continue for 1 minute.

Next, come to sit with the legs extended out and wide. (If in a chair, stay perched on the front edge: Feet can be on the floor, but allow the legs to spread as wide apart as possible.) Inhale to twist slightly toward the left leg; exhale to bend forward over the leg. Inhale to rise up and twist gently toward the right leg; exhale to forward bend over that leg. Continue alternating from one leg to another for 1 minute. Then, repeat the movement for 1 more minute, moving up and down into the space between the legs: Inhale up, exhale down, breathing through the nose.

And now, for the final series of movements, come to standing. Place the hands on the waist: Reach the thumbs in toward the lower spine. Bend slightly to one side, then the other. As you do so, let the thumbs find the tough, cable-like muscle that lies between the lowest rib and the top of the pelvis: This is the quadratus lumborum, or QL.

Special note: The QL is the culprit in many lower-back complaints. Interestingly, however, it is actually a deep abdominal muscle, lying at the rear of the abdominal wall. Thus, to work with the QL can soften tension through the abdominal region, thereby calming digestive issues while simultaneously soothing the low back.

As you lean slightly from side to side, hold the thumbs steady; let the tips press strongly into each side of the QL, by dint of the alternating side bends. Inhale as you come up and pass through center; exhale to either side. Continue for 1 minute, or until you feel an easing through the QL

Next, let the arms hang loosely. Take your attention to the rib cage: Begin a sliding, or shifting of the entire rib cage from side to side. Aim to inhale for a count of 4-6 as you steadily glide the ribs from left to right; then exhale for 6-8 beats as you continue to move the ribs from side to side. As you deepen the breath and find fluidity in the movement, tension will ease throughout the entire torso, and even into the hips and shoulders. Continue for 1 minute.

Close out this movement sequence with a round of full-spine flexion and extension. Standing, begin to round and arch the spine as you would in traditional Cat and Cow on all fours. As you inhale, the belly and chest open as the shoulders and tail move back; exhale to round deeply through the spine, allowing the head to hang and the arms to move into the front space. Continue this opening and closing for 1-3 minutes.

Finally, return to your favorite seated position, either on the floor or in a chair. Place one hand on the Dan Tien, or low belly: Let the palm rest softly here, as the tip of the thumb comes to rest on the navel point; the other hand lies on top. With eyes closed, begin guide the breath through a soothing pathway. Take your attention to the belly-button: Inhale from there into the Dan Tien (the area covered by the hands). As you exhale, use your mind’s eye to send the breath down to the perineum, and then loop it upward to the back point, just behind and in line with the navel. Continue the exhalation as the breath splits: it travels to the left and right, around the waist, and returns to the navel point.

You will notice that the breath pathway must travel a distance on one exhalation. Once you are familiar with the trajectory, the extended exhale will be easier. Again, inhale to draw breath in to the navel point and down into the low belly (Dan Tien): Exhale to guide it visually down through the genital region, up into the low back, and around the waist to return to the belly-button. Continue this qigong breath visualization for at least 5 full cycles, allowing the breath’s pathway to infuse the area with balanced, restorative energy.

Next Time: Conclusion—Knees and Feet

Homestead Series–Part Two: Creativity and Its Expression (With a Nod to Dementia)

My mother, aka Old Mom: whole-hearted listener, warm hugger, cookie lover, art appreciator, helper of all helpers, poet.

My mother with dementia, aka New Mom: curious listener, warm hugger, cookie monster, mystified observer, determined participant, wordless warrior.

Two days ago, my mother with dementia became reacquainted with the original—New Mom met Old Mom.

Lest you wonder if I was adopted or have a step-mother, allow me to clarify: The two mothers I describe are the same woman—one body, one heart, one mind, one soul, one poet, one intrepid doer of Life. As are many whose loved one has for whatever reason shifted in their cognitive abilities and psychological states, I am bewildered by the changes in my mother: At this point in her nearly 10 years of waning, altered mental capacity, I think of this woman as New Mom. 

Old Mom was younger; New Mom is old. 

Old Mom could spar or speak without a beat; New Mom shrilly rants or goes silent, watching an invisible ticker tape of vocabulary rise up before her inner eye, then tangle, fade, and disappear.

Old Mom wrote poetry; New Mom reads her old poetry.

Which is what she did the other day.

During our daily phone call, she asked, “Do you have a minute?” She then proceeded to explain that she had written a book: Did I know that? When I assured her that yes, I knew all about the letters and memories of her father that she had compiled nearly 30 years ago, she seemed relieved, albeit somewhat surprised that I knew such a thing about her. She does not always know that this person with whom she speaks on the phone each morning is one of her two daughters. 

I do not mind. I used to, but that was when I thought Old Mom could or would rally and return. That was before New Mom stole my heart, and I became a more-than-willing accomplice to the theft.

And yesterday, when she was eager to share her writings with me, I listened with joy, with soft sadness, and with my head and heart silently thanking God as Mom spoke. I could hear the pride and pleasure in her voice as she read the deeply considered and impeccably chosen words that she had written. That she realized that they had come from her; that they sparked a connection between her remembered past and misty present; that she could discuss without frustration her Old Brain and New Brain… these wonders fed both of us with an abundance of peace and gratitude.

Ironically, the New Mom who no longer can hold a thought or find a word is the Mom who produces the greatest insight into what it means to think, to feel, and to create. New Mom’s “deficits” give Old Mom’s advantages a run for their money: With the loss of vocabulary and short-term memory comes the intriguingly pointed question, “What happens to Creativity when dementia enters the arena?”

That the ability to dream, to connect, and to usher in new modes of Creativity does not die with dementia is ferociously disarming: If one can not decide to create—motivate to create—how, then, does one engage creative energy?

And that is where my own tune changes: Is To Create the same as Being Creative? Does Creation exist without Expression?

If a tree falls in the forest…

In the framework of Old Mom/New Mom, organized mind versus dementia, Creativity oddly leaps to the fore. New Mom’s creativity now manifests as imaginary friends and visitors; as vivid observances of color and shape; and of acute experience of emotion. In some ways, New Mom’s creative essence shines brighter—by megawatts—than Old Mom’s consciously arranged and edited creative productions. 

Creativity can be unconscious; To Create is not. One may be creative without words or forethought or analysis; to become Creation, though, requires a facilitator—Expression.

Creativity exists without thought, and therefore without our bidding. What one often regards as Creativity is, instead, Expression. Creativity thrives despite our conscious awareness of its activity; it becomes Creation when we attach our intention to its release.

For the purposes of this series of practices, then, Creativity must be linked to Expression, actively and consciously. In sum, the Second Chakra must align with the Fifth: Stoke the generative fires, and usher them through the expressive stacks.

The first phase of the practice energizes and coordinates the partnership of the Second and Fifth chakras. The sequence begins on your back, knees bent, feet flat and hip-width apart. Allow the arms to rest on the ground naturally. As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, creating a slight arch in the lower spine. Simultaneously, let the chin move gently down toward the chest. Upon exhale, roll the pelvis toward you (thereby slightly rounding the low back), as you let the head tip back, opening the front of the neck. 

These movements require focus, as the tucked chin with inhale and pelvic tip forward initially may seem counter-intuitive (as may the curled tail and open throat upon exhale). Stick with it, repeating the inhale/exhale combinations 12 times.

Next, interlace the fingers behind the neck; bring the elbows as close to the floor as possible. Inhale deeply through the nose; exhale powerfully through the mouth, creating a sounded expulsion of air. As you exhale and cleanse the throat, pull the low belly in strongly. Repeat 12 times.

Now, extend both legs into the air, arms resting back down by the sides. Inhale through the nose; exhale to push the pointed feet straight up, lifting the hips slightly. This move thoroughly engages the low-belly muscles: Try not to let the legs swing toward you as the hips push up; rather, push the toes up, as if to pierce the air straight above. Repeat 12 times.

Repeat the entire 3-part sequence (each move with 12 repetitions) 2 more times, for a total of 3.

Then, help yourself into any comfortable seated position. Place both hands on the low belly, one atop the other: Let the thumb of the bottom hand rest in (or on) the navel. With your mind’s eye, trace the following line of the breath. As you inhale fully through the nose, imagine energy moving from the belly button downward into the palms on the belly; exhale slowly through the nose, and guide the breath down between the legs, to the perineum, and back up into the lower spine, behind the navel. 

Continue the long, steady exhale as the breath splits: Send it around to the left and right waists, and allow it to circle all the way back to the initial point of the navel. Inhale to begin again, drawing the breath into the Dan Tien (where the hands rest); exhale calmly and steadily to push this breath through its long journey back to start. Breathe this way 8 times.

Special note: This visualization and breath meditation also soothes moderate lower-back ache. 

Next, place the thumb and index finger of the right hand on the right and left sides of the throat, respectively. With a firm, slow motion, stroke down from the jaw to the collar bone. As the right hand reaches the collar bone, bring the left hand up to continue the downward stroke (left index finger on right side of throat; left thumb on left side). Move the hands in a seamless round, in order to create a continual stimulation of the Throat Chakra.

Finally, rest both hands in the lap, palms up, one nested inside the other, thumb tips touching. As you inhale deeply through the nose, allow the jaw to fall open; simultaneously visualize the breath coming in and down to the Second Chakra. The exhale becomes the mantra, “Aum.”

Special note: Often, this is written as “Om”: However, the threes letter of Aum convey the desired 3-part sounding—Ah/Oh/Mm.

As you exhale, chant, “Aum,” slowly dissecting the mantra into 3 parts. By the end of the third sound (“mm”), the mouth will be gently closed. Inhale to gently drop the jaw and send the breath into the Creative energy center of the Second Chakra; exhale to chant slowly and steadily, feeling the vibration through the expressive Throat Chakra as the mouth closes softly. Continue for 3 minutes. If you like, settle into Svasana for a few minutes of rest and integration of energy.

Next Time: Homestead—Part 3: Solar-Powered and Heart-Centered