Originally written by Zara M on 11 December 2013
It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? The spine is curved. Yet all this time, in each yoga class I have attended, for some reason I have aimed for a flawlessly straight back in my yoga postures, because that is what I have always assumed ‘sitting up straight’ meant. In tango too, when I am dancing and focusing on my posture I have always thought that the right way is the straight and tall way. But I’ll tell you what, maintaining an inflexibly poker-straight back is exhausting. After a while it even starts to hurt. So I’m very, very happy to discover that my suspicions have been right all along – the spine curves naturally, and there is a reason it doesn’t feel natural when I attempt to force it straight for longer lengths of time; it’s not designed to be that way! What a relief.
I really love it when I have these ‘aha’ moments in my yoga classes; when something is explained logically and suddenly everything clicks into place. At the beginning of the class last weekend we were shown a little trick to help us sit up tall when sitting cross-legged on the mat. They always say, “sit up tall, back straight, shoulders down”, and it is the same when dancing; in every basics tango class I have attended I have been given the exact same instructions. Mostly I feel like a soldier standing on duty whenever I try to make my back completely straight, and my shoulders have a tendency to do the opposite of relax. This is because in my mind I am trying to imagine my spine completely straightened, which isn’t natural, and so obviously it doesn’t feel natural when I attempt it, it’s hard work. To me “straight’ relates to “stiff”, and if that is the way my mind interprets it, then that is the effect it will have on my whole body when I attempt it.
The trick though, is not to imagine your spine straightening per se, because it is not designed to do that; but to visualize the way your spine behaves in a more realistic way, and focus instead on feeling each part of it lengthen rather than straighten. Often in yoga I want my body to look right in each pose, which is understandable in this modern world where vanity in society dictates that appearance is often more motivating than health or what feels good, but this is the wrong attitude. In yoga we should not be striving to look beautiful or “correct”, because there is no one right way; only what is right for you as an individual. In certain poses there will be those people who can straighten their legs out completely, but the point of the pose may not be to having beautifully straight legs, it is more often than not about being able to feel a certain stretch somewhere else in the body, perhaps somewhere you are not expecting. For example, when I sit up tall with my legs straight in front of me I cannot bend forward enough to reach my toes without bending my knees and curving my back, but the emphasis of this pose is in fact to feel the crease at the hip joint working, which doesn’t require me to reach forward fully, certainly not at this stage. I may not look like everyone else in the class who is practicing the stretch, but I am still feeling the benefits of it, just as they are. Nobody looks exactly the same in yoga anyway.
Now about this trick for sitting up “straight’ – You take a deep breath in through your stomach and up to your chest so that the upper part of your body inflates (this is what sitting up straight actually refers to, nothing to do with having a poker straight spine!) Then you assume a wonderfully clichéd yoga posture in which you touch the tip of your thumb and middle finger together and then place them facing upwards on your knees so that your biceps rotate and your shoulders are naturally pulled downwards, allowing you to lengthen the upper part of your spine and the back of your neck. The spine is beautifully stretched out, and you have the appearance of a straight back, but of course the spine is not necessarily straight, you are just sitting up nice and tall, in a relaxed and natural manner. It is actually quite comfortable!
The best part of the yoga class was the demonstration. I think we should have at least one annotated yoga demonstration in each session. It really helps to see a professional yoga instructor act out a sequence of poses slowly and with a running commentary, bringing our attention visually to what we are learning in the session and how the natural anatomy of the body behaves. The demonstration showed the Yoga4Tango Sun Salute sequence, and the body was paused at specific points in the sequence to show the different curves of the spine working. Seeing the whole sequence in this fractured fashion really opened up my mind to the flexibility of the spine, and what an important part the different curves play. The spine is in fact a very beautiful part of the body, and the natural curves are what make the body look so elegant. Seeing it in action, like a wave in the sea, sort of freed my mind from the mental block of imagining my back as a straight and rigid thing.
There was even a part in the sequence demonstrated, just before the lunge I think, when the instructor paused and it was pointed out that this was the posture we all aim for when dancing tango. The spine was not fully straight at all; but it was lengthened, and the upper part of the body was inflated with inhaled air, with the shoulders down. The whole body was curved but beautifully poised at the same time, with no slump, and nothing collapsing inwards. It looked to me like the body was a sun with rays of light bursting outwards from all directions, a bit like that scene in The Lion King where the lion stands on the edge of a cliff and roars up towards the sky, and then all the other animals below do the same thing! It is an open posture that exudes power, strength, courage and pride.
Our instructor pointed out that for some people sitting or standing up tall and open with relaxed shoulders is more difficult because this is a part of the body where many people hold their emotions. Psychological fear or a timid nature that has been ingrained over time is often physically manifested as tension and retained in the shoulders, naturally closing the body up. I think that I am a naturally introverted person, I was a shy and studious child and I didn’t have a generous flow of confidence; I have always been very cautious, and so I find it challenging to open up my body. I have to do so consciously now.
It feels great when I can achieve this sense of openness, especially when dancing. I usually revert to being closed up again afterwards, when the yoga session or tanda is over. I suppose this is why both yoga and tango are life-long pursuits. They are journeys of personal self-discovery, and it is only over time that these natural changes will take place. I am looking forward to discovering the ‘whole new world’ our instructor describes; “When you embrace change and allow it to happen, the whole world will seem different.” He was talking in literal terms; because standing up straight and tall allows you to see everything from a different visual perspective, and you become equal and level with your environment. What he says also has mental relevance though, because yoga brings the mind and body into unison.