“I have more important things to think about than my posture,” I thought. In fact, I think I may have actually said those words out loud to a few friends over the years when complaining about my mother’s “encouragement,” which extended long beyond my awkward teen years when I lived in her home. The admonition was repeated well into my thirties when I’d visit.
It’s so ironic now, as a yoga teacher, to find myself repeating, over and over again in each yoga session, directives like, “roll your shoulders back and down” and “encourage your shoulder blades toward each other.” And if I could, I’d help my students wipe away all those other “more important, intellectual thoughts” and think of nothing else but their shoulders.
Why? Besides a better physical appearance, why worry our pretty little (or great big) heads about shoulder placement? Why do yogis sit so erect? What’s the point? It’s a really important point, actually. So I have to start filling my yogi and yoginis' heads with all the reasons why they should focus on those shoulders. I need them to see that it makes sense.
It seems funny, at first, to mimic the stereotypes of ramrod-straight yogis sitting cross-legged, hands extended past knees with forefingers touching thumbs in peace-sign gestures. It’s a hippy archetype, right? An artifice of peace copped from an ancient mystical culture.
What was up with that culture? The yogis who invented this posture had no modern science, no scalpels, X-rays, or ultra-sound imaging to tell them what was best for human health. They got all their information from sitting like this and paying attention. What they deduced was that the human body is a vessel that conducts energy. It has a massive channel of energy that runs from the crown of head to the root of the spine, complemented by side channels and swirling vortexes. Pretty far out and cool, if you’re a hippy.
If you are a member of Western society, what relevance does this have in your life? Well, think central nervous system. We know that our hollow spine is a conduit for a huge cable of nerves that run from our brains to our tailbone, with a network of smaller nerves throughout the body, funneling information to this central telephone line. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that scientists discovered electricity (qi, or prana) and realized that nerves weren’t hollow tubes but rather acted as electrical conduits. Increasingly sophisticated technology is helping to unravel the mysterious complexity of nerves and neurons in our brains and bodies. This work is watched closely by the meditation community, which applauds the “proof” with what the ancient sages discovered by sitting quietly, ramrod straight.
So back to why “ramrod straight.” There are three reasons, I tell my students:
For one, it only makes sense. Water flows faster through a straight hose. It’s important to maintain strength and straightness in the spine so the precious conduit remains clear, strong, and healthy for the central nerves.
Two, when the back is straight, when the shoulders are back and down, it opens the chest. The chest is home to essential organs that don’t like to be cramped, especially the lungs. An open chest allows us to fill the lungs fully with air. Why use our full capacity for air? Well, energy is fire, and it takes oxygen to make that combustion take place. Full inhalations equal more energy. Full exhalations expel the resultant waste, or carbon dioxide and pollutants. Keeping our chest open maintains our capacity for creating maximum energy.
Finally, even though we all tend to slump over the dinner table, hunch over our desk, and grip the steering wheel, we can consciously undo the damage these tendencies have to weaken our spine and diminish our breathing capacity. We can consciously remember to put those shoulders back and breathe deeply. And we can notice right away that we feel better! That our energy level rises. We can be “conscious” of this effect, and consciousness is the ultimate goal of our practice.
My mother is a sweet person who meant her reminder in the best spirit. Sadly, she never had a loving guru to teach her in the gentle ways of Eastern traditions, so she could only share her wisdom as she learned it, in a chin up, “A-TTEN-TION” culture that values toughness and militant discipline.
I am so lucky to have had teachers on the mat, who were trained in a tradition of loving kindness passed down for centuries from nations considered entirely foreign to our own. We yogis will help spread kind words, encourage deeper breathing, and watch in amusement as science works to “discover” the magic that unfolds as we assume an “easy pose.” We’re not 1960s burnouts, we are the ones lighting the fire, Shoulders back, chests proudly thrust forward. And, incidentally, we look great!
Tina Skinner, RYT-200, will offer a yoga/meditation class on Tuesday, May 6th at 7:30 p.m. Regular class fees apply.