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

Silent Sundays: Let It Slide

Recently, I have found myself doing a lot of what I think of as “sliding” movements. I have realized that without conscious intention, I have been working to ease a renewed sense of freedom and fluidity into my joints. Certainly, after several years of ultimately debilitating arthritis, it should come as no surprise that I would focus on the health of my joints. The interesting aspect, though, is that I began to do a series of movements that “appeared” in my body: I did not mindfully create them, and I did not intellectually know why I was doing them. They arrived unbidden, they felt good, and so I did them.

From time to time, you may notice that you have introduced a particular move or set of movements into your  daily routine. I have learned that it pays to inquire why they have become part of your practice: What is your body trying to tell you? This can be a highly beneficial practice that educates you about your physical and perhaps emotional needs; further, it can build overall discernment. When we engage with the body on a conscious level, with the specific intention to hear its messages, we begin to train our ability to ferret through distraction, and ultimately, on a metaphoric, perhaps even esoteric level, to sift through layers of meaning.

Today’s practice thus may be used in a variety of ways: First, as a joint-friendly routine unto its own—one that provides a feeling of ease in the body, along with a sense of peaceful grounding. Or, turn to this routine when you want to see beyond typical or habitual outlooks: The  unusual, yet soothing movements will remind you that a shift in perspective can yield profound clarity and insight.

Finally, embark on the following practice with the idea of granting yourself permission to veer from its suggested trajectory. For example, you may begin, and quickly discover that your body is clamoring from within to be released from directive: On this Silent Sunday, quietly cede control to whatever vociferous demands arise from within. If, during the first movement, your felt energy craves something other than the next move, go with your personal, intuitive inner guide. To stray from the routine as prescribed may be the best outcome of all.

Special note: You will need a stretch of bare floor for part of this routine. If you prefer not to be directly on the floor, place a small towel underneath you. You  may also use this towel or wear socks for one set of movements.

To begin, come onto all fours. Instead of placing the hands in line under the shoulders—as if to do Cat/Cow—bring the hands several inches ahead of the shoulders. The tops of the feet should be flat on the floor, toes extended back. Keeping the right shin in contact with the ground (you may be on the mat or rug for this move), inhale to slide the knee straight forward, so that it moves between the hands (just next to the inside of the right hand).

Then, exhale to slide the leg straight back: Keep the shin down for as long as you can. At some point, the toes will naturally tuck under, and the knee will rise away from the floor as the leg straightens out behind you. The front of the ankle will rise away from the floor, as the heel pushes back, bringing the foot into flexion.

Inhale to draw the knee in, passing through all fours, and then straight forward again, sliding on the shin, with the toes pointed back. Repeat the move 12 times: inhale as the knee slides forward between the hands; exhale to slowly unfold the leg into its full length behind you. Then, switch to the other side for 12 repetitions.

After this freeing move for the hip, knee, and ankle joints, bring yourself prone onto the bare floor. On your belly, prop up on the forearms, as if in Sphinx or Cobra pose. Begin to slide, or drag yourself forward by alternately crawling with the forearms. As the right arm works, the entire lower body swings, or slides to the left; when the left arm works, the hips and legs swing to the right. This move takes a moment to accept ease: Once you have released into the rhythm, the feeling of free sliding will occur. Continue for as much space as you have, then turn around to travel back across the space.

Now, you will definitely need socks or a small towel under your feet. From the forearms and belly, press up onto all fours. With the towel under the feet or in socks, hover the knees a few inches off of the floor: This is the starting position. Then, slide the feet back, so that the legs are fully extended; you will be in Plank Pose.

From Plank, pike the hips up, as if moving into Downward Dog: As you do this, let the feet slide in toward the hands a bit, effectively narrowing the Down Dog position. Then, slide the feet all the way back, allowing the body to return to Plank.

Continue the reversal of this sliding vinyasa: From Plank, draw the knees in under you, so that you return to the starting position. Then, again, slide the feet straight out behind you into Plank: pike the hips up as the feet slide in a bit; slide the feet out, back to Plank; and draw the knees in to the original hover position.

Inhale to slide out to Plank; exhale to pike; inhale to slide out to Plank; exhale to draw the knees in. Repeat a total of 8 full rounds.

After the Plank Slides, rest for a few deep breaths in Baby Pose. Then, roll up to sit on the heels. Even if you can sit comfortably here in Rock Pose, I suggest the use of bolsters: The extra lift and support will allow for greater ease in the following movement.

Seated in supported Rock Pose (pillow or block under the buttocks), begin to slide the rib cage from side to side. If this movement is unfamiliar to you, think of a string threaded through the rib cage, from one side to the other: As you inhale, the line is pulled gently to the left, sliding the ribs that way; as you exhale, the string is pulled to the right, shifting the ribs to the right. The entire rib cage remains in the sagittal plane as it moves—no leaning or curving forward or back. Experiment for about a minute; as the muscles understand the request, and the breath deepens, the entire barrel of the rib cage will experience newfound freedom.

Now, extend the arms to the sides at shoulder level, palms down. Point all the fingers down, sending a deep stretch through the forearm extensors. Touch the thumb tips to the inner, base edge of their respective ring fingers: This mudra for release and elimination will heighten the freeing effect of the rib cage slides. With the arms and mudra in place, continue to move the ribs from side to side for 1 minute.

Next, keeping the arms extended to the sides at shoulder level, turn the palms up. Bring the hands into Gyan Mudra, and again, point the fingers down, including the mudra. (Upturned palms will shift to face out to the sides, significantly stretching the flexors in the forearm.). Now as the rib cage moves, the Third and Fourth chakra energy centers receive the healing wisdom of the Universe, via the activation of Gyan Mudra. Thus, with the movement and mudra, your personal sense of Self, along with your seat of compassion for others, becomes linked to the Truth of the Divine. As you continue to slide the ribs from left to right for 1 minute, your energies release into this eternal connection.

Finally, help yourself into Svasana. Remain in deep rest your as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Homestead–Conclusion: Solar-Powered and Heart-Centered

Last week, I began this series, “Homestead,” with a question: What is your psycho-spiritual, interpersonal, most balanced state of being? From where does that particular energy emanate? In sum, what is your Center of Operation, your Homestead?

In Part One, I offered what I perceive to be my personal set-point: Intuition, and its (for me, sometimes elusive) energetic harmonizer, Rootedness. The routine provided the means to connect the First and Sixth chakra, so that the base of the Lower Triangle could readily accommodate the near-tip of the Upper Triangle of chakras.

Then, a few days ago, I explored Creativity and its necessary colleague, Expression. In sum, the practice stimulated and joined the Second and Fifth chakras, so that one’s creative spark could find its way to manifestation.

Today, in conclusion, I suggest what arguably could be the most essential Homestead pairing: the Third and Fourth chakras. Regardless of the energies that seem to come most easily for you, or those that you turn to when challenged, the vibrations that stir from the Solar Plexus and Heart Center are fail-proof for all. When in doubt, turn to your Heart; when beleaguered, delve into the Solar Plexus for confidence and perseverance.

With that in mind, today’s practice may be seen as The One to use as a catch-all boost or remedy. I, for example, who feel most at home in the Sixth Chakra (or Third Eye), often need to stimulate the Earth-based energy of the Root, or First Chakra. Because that vibration is not my strongest, I need Sun Energy to motivate me; and because I want to ensure that any practice resounds with Truth, I need to include the vibration of the Heart Center. Thus, no matter your Homestead—your comfort zone—its energies will be enhanced by this Solar-Powered, Heart-Centered practice.

To begin, lie on your belly. Place the arms in “pitchfork” or “scarecrow” position: upper arms at shoulder level, elbows bent to 90 degrees, with the forearms perpendicular to the upper arms. The palms face down; the head may lie on either cheek.

With eyes closed, begin long, deep breaths through the nose. Because you are prone, breathing requires more effort, as the belly, ribs, and chest must work against the floor. Use this sensed resistance to focus on the physical regions of the Third and Fourth Chakra: from the base of the ribs, to the sternum. With each inhale, consciously draw the intention of awakening energy to these areas; with each exhale, send the gathered vibrations out through the torso and limbs. Continue this opening breath and visualization for 3 minutes.

From lying, press back into Baby Pose. Interlace the hands behind the back, with the index fingers extended and together to form a pointer. Lift the arms as far up and away from the back as possible; extend long through the elbows. This stretch opens and charges the Heart and related meridians that run through the arms. Inhale in the raised-arm position; exhale to lower the arms down to the back. Move as rapidly as you can: inhale arms up, exhale down. Continue for 3 minutes, taking a break as needed.

From Baby Pose, roll up to sit on your heels, and then “stand” on the knees. (Use whatever bolsters or padding you need to make this possible.) With hands on the low back or bottom, inhale to curve back into a modified Camel; exhale back up to neutral. Continue this moving, modified Camel—inhale to arch back, exhale to re-align—for 1 minute.

Then, immediately come forward into a Plank Pose, as in the initial position for push-ups: if necessary, bring the knees to the floor as a modification. Hold this strong, long position, and begin Breath of Fire through the mouth: rapid, equal breaths, like a panting dog. Continue for about 30 seconds, and then close the mouth and continue Breath of Fire through the nose for another full minute.

Immediately return to the Moving Camel position. Standing on the knees, hands placed on the low back or buttocks for support, inhale to arch back, exhale up to neutral. Continue for 1 minute.

Now, instead of Plank, help yourself onto your back. Immediately raise the legs—straight and together—1-2 feet off of the ground: The higher the lift, the less taxing it will be for the low back. Simultaneously, raise the head and shoulders up, reach the arms straight out, and gaze at the feet: Begin Breath of Fire through the nose; continue this Stretch Pose for 1 minute.

From this highly energizing posture, lower the legs. Bend the knees, and keep the feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Raise the hips into Half-Bridge; interlace the hands under the lifted body, and extend the arms toward the feet. Roll the shoulders open as much as possible, feeling the stretch across the chest. Breath fully and deeply, allowing the belly to rise and fall as you do so. Continue for 1 minute.

Next, lower down, and draw the knees in toward the chest. Make yourself into as small and tight of a ball as possible; begin rolling back and forth on the spine for about a minute. This movement helps to consolidate, and then spread the stimulated Solar Plexus and Heart Center energies throughout the system.

Special note: This Ball Roll (appropriately called “Roll Like A Ball” in Pilates, and ubiquitous as a transitional move in Kundalini Yoga) is an exceptionally centering and elucidating exercise on its own. Practice the Ball Roll for 1-3 minutes anytime you want to shed or neutralize unwanted energy, and replace it with calmness and confidence.

From Ball Roll, shift yourself into a seated posture. Place the left hand on the chest, so that the thumb tip and index finger tips reach up to touch the collar bone; the palm is splayed wide against the chest wall, with the other fingers together, relaxed, and pointing to the right.

Place the right hand beneath the left, against the Solar Plexus. The right thumb extends up to touch the lower (pinky-side) edge of the left hand, with the right fingers together, relaxed, and pointing to the left.

With eyes closed and the mudra in place, begin long, deep breathing through the nose. As you breathe, use your mind’s eye to draw an oval of circulation from the right palm into the left, and back into the right: Continue this visualized loop of breath for 3- 7 minutes. When you feel finished, ease into Svasana for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…