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At the opening of a class at Hot Yoga Charlottesville not long ago, my teacher, Julia von Briesen read this by Roshi Joan Halifax:

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet – strong back and soft front – is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.

Right away, I recognized the false “strength” of a brittle, defended heart that strikes out in an unskillful attempt to protect.
I do this a lot in traffic.
And while reading the news.
And otherwise being a scared judgy-pants.

Since hearing this quote (and subsequently printing it out and reading it daily), this has been my practice: (1) when I find myself snapping out at someone
(as in “what do you think you’re doing, pulling out in front of me in your enormous SUV with a bumper sticker I don’t like?”
or as in “what kind of heartless, thoughtless, short-sighted politician are you?”
or any other snarky, angryness that pops out of me),
(2) I pause and say a little metta (or loving kindness) for myself
(as in “may I be safe, may I be loved, may I know peace”)
and
(3) I say a little metta / loving kindness for the person I just snarked on
(as in “may you feel safe, may you feel loved, may you know peace”)

When I do this, I feel a little taste of the choiceless compassion that Roshi Joan Halifax tells of. It’s not much, I grant you. But it’s a start.

What can you do today that will strengthen your spine, your core, and soften your heart?

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how to have a classic thoracic
Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

The thoracic spine (the section of spine that is connected to the rib cage and pronounced thoh-RAS-ik) curves outward by design to balance the inward curve at the neck and low back. But our lives over keyboards and cutting boards and ironing boards (does anyone iron anymore?), our forward-leaning momentum over steering wheels and grocery carts and lawnmowers and baby carriages, exacerbates that curve. Throw in a bunch of crunches at the gym and you’ve got a mid-back that is over-stretched and weak and a front body that is shortened and tight. Yikes.

For the sake of body, breath and heart, counterbalance all of this by strengthening the thoracic spine and opening the front body. In short, do some back bending from the mid-back and heart rather than from the more-mobile lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine! Here are 7 ways to get a classic thoracic heart opening:

During the day…

1. Stand up and stretch
Every 30 minutes or so, get up from your desk, lace your hands behind you, and stretch your shoulders and chest for several deep breaths. Feel the squeeze and strength in your mid-back.

2. Doorway push up
Place your hands flat on an open doorway at shoulder height with your feet a foot or more away from the door. Lean your weight onto your palms and let your chest open and your shoulder blades slide together. Hold for 3-5 breaths. (Thanks, Diane Goodbar!)

3. Chair Check
Check your posture in your favorite chairs – desk and otherwise. Do you hunch over after even a few minutes? Consider sitting on a physio ball or using a standing desk or both!

4. Ten Big Breaths
A couple of times during the day (perhaps before or after a meal), pause and breathe deeply into your back and side ribs. It can help to place your hands either on your front ribs and feel them knit together as you breathe to the back and side, or on your side ribs to feel the expansion into your palms. Ten big ones!

5. Lead with the Heart
Use an intention to lead with your heart. Whether you are driving or walking or dancing or working, let your heart move first with a gentle pull up and forward. Even holding the image in your mind of you moving through the world heart first can create a shift in your very bones.

In the morning and/or evening…

6. Locust and Cobra pose
Experiment with either of these back-strengthening belly-down poses. Find instructions for Cobra Pose here and Locust Pose here .

7. Supported Back Bending
Lying on your back on the floor (not on a bed) place a rolled towel or firm pillow under your heart and let your body passively rest in the heart opening position. For more stretch, you can use a half or full foam roller, or a yoga block (and you may need something also to support your head). Especially if I’ve been writing or cooking a lot, I often hang out in this position while watching TV or listening to music to get a nice long opening. Which leads me to…

BONUS: I am a big fan of Yin Yoga which holds poses for several minutes to let long-held connective tissue unwind and let go. It’s a class that is taught more and more so find one and check it out. Read more about why it’s worth a try here.

AWARENESS NOTE: When working on increasing the mobility in the thoracic spine, notice that the lumbar and cervical spines have more mobility (since they don’t have the whole rib cage attached to them) and may jump in on the mobility game without letting the thoracic spine in on it. Stay aware of what’s happening in your low back and neck when doing these exercises and do your best to stabilize the upper and lower spine so your mid back gets some action.

Do you have ways of creating strength and mobility in your mid-back? Please share them in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page!

A strong back cracks open the heart, my friends!

thoracic love

Most of us don’t pay much attention to it. It’s at the back of the body, of course, so it’s easy to miss. Oh sure, I hear about low back pain and car seats with lumbar support. I hear about neck issues and headaches. But mid-back? The central span of spine often goes unnoticed.

Do a little posture and movement observation, however, in yourself and in the people around you and you will see that most of us have both a rounded and immobile mid-back. It’s a scourge of slouching.

Given both our anatomy and our culture, it’s not surprising. The thoracic spine has a natural outward curve to balance the natural inward curve of the lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine. What’s more, the ribs attach along the 12 vertebra of the thoracic spine. The bony cage, including the flat length of sternum bone, tends toward immobility by its very design. Add that to our cultural norm of forward-orientation over screens and steering wheels, grocery carts and baby carriages, and the result is that in many of us the whole mid-section of spine has an exaggerated rounding. [For a great article on this, check out this piece in Yoga Journal.]

Even as a movement instructor, I forget that the slump of my shoulders comes less there and more from my mid-back. But as a yogi, I know the intensity and power that come from strengthening the over-stretched, weakened muscles in the thoracic spine and lengthening the shortened, tight muscles in the front body. After a few backbends, I’m usually flat on my mat with my heart gasping, “Whoa.”

Even though (and perhaps because) it is challenging for most of us to strengthen the mid-back and stretch the front body, it’s well worth the effort: for body, for breath, and for heart.

Body

The brilliant design of the human body is based on interconnection and balance. When habit and misuse create disconnection and imbalance, the body does its best to compensate. So when I spend too many hours with my head hovering over my keyboard, the small muscles in my neck will do their best to hold up my heavy noggin. When I spend too many parties standing around in high heels, my low back will do what it can to keep me upright. But there is a cost to compensation. There is a price for not using the body as it was designed.

If you have low back pain or headaches, it might seem counter-intuitive to look to your thoracic spine. But strengthening your mid-back and opening your front body brings back the natural balance of the spine. And the more balance and alignment, the less strain and the less pain.

Breath

Since the thoracic spine is directly connected to the rib cage, its strength and mobility is also directly connected to your breath. If the mid-back is solid and immobile or if the front ribs are collapsed forward, the breath has nowhere to move.

It’s a reciprocal relationship: the more I strengthen and mobilize my thoracic spine, the deeper I can breathe. And the more I breathe deeply (especially into the back and side ribs), the stronger and more supple my back will be.

Heart

If my mid-back is stuck and slumped, so is my heart. A slouched posture can seem protected and safe but that’s an illusion. Just as a slouch is a weak physical posture, it’s also a weak emotional one.

A strong back cracks open the heart.

By focusing attention on physical movement in the thoracic spine, the energy of kindness, compassion, and love get moving, too. Back bending can feel vulnerable, exposed, even scary but these movements also unleash energy and freedom. Feel the connection between a physically strong back and relaxed chest and the emotional ability to walk through the world with love.

In Tuesday’s Art in Action post, I’ll share some ways to strengthen the thoracic spine for the benefit of body, breath and heart. In the meantime, simply paying attention to your mid-back goes a long way toward more ease and energy in all realms.

kind without caving dalai lamaIn yoga this morning I’m finding my feet in the flow of poses, feeling the ripple of my spine, bobbling, tipping, falling over, then finding my feet and spine again. When I get myself into a pose, I am determined to hold it, keep it, not lose it. That’s when Liz, our instructor, glides past my mat and says, “Be soft and strong at the same time.”

I lose my drishti and eyeball her. I so want it to be one or the other. I want my poses to be all soft and bendy or I want them to be crisp and sharp. I don’t even know how to do both. My brain and body look at Liz and knit their collective eyebrows, “At the same time?

Even though it feels unfamiliar and even counter-intuitive, I practice being both soft and strong on my mat. Over and over, I plant my feet and lengthen my spine and get strong and grounded without caving my chest or collapsing my core. And then I soften: soften my jaw, soften my eyes, soften my heart. There is a sensation when I can find the balance – a sweet spot of both/and.

It’s no shock that I deal with this bamfoozelment off the mat, too. With people, to be perfectly candid. I am forever figuring out how to be soft and strong at the same time.

I want to be kind. I value kindness. Kindness feels good. I never regret kindness.

So I practice kindness as I make my way through my day. I practice sending kindness to that zipperhead who just careened past me on the highway. I let my tight hands soften on the wheel. I melt my scowly eyebrows. I practice kindness with the person who cannot put their phone down ~ not at the table, not in yoga, not while driving. I breathe softly and wish her well. I practice kindness with the friend who is so stuck in his self-sabotaging pattern ~ a friend with whom I’ve had this exact same conversation 6000 times.

And yet. I want to be strong. I value strength. I don’t want people to walk all over me or take advantage. I want to call it like I see it. I want to have a backbone.

So I practice standing up for myself. I practice saying what is so and doing my best to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or embarrassing or not what the other person wants to hear. I practice asking for what matters to me…without being controlling … or saying what doesn’t need to be said … or overstepping my bounds or….

Argh.

How do I do this? How can I be soft and strong at the same time? How can I be clear without being defended? How can I be kind without caving? It feels like when my first ballet teacher told me to draw my front ribs together. Um, what? I don’t think I even have muscles that do that. Be soft and strong? Be kind without caving? I don’t even know how to begin.

To unwind this contradiction, I’m bringing in the big guns: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He said,

Cherishing others does not mean ignoring our own needs and caring only for others….While one form of self-interest is selfish, stingy, and irritable, another is wise self-interest that understands that benefiting ourselves and helping others need not be contradictory.

As is often the case with HH14, I find myself wanting him to explain more instead of turning away from the microphone right when he’s going to tell me how to do it.

If I sit with his words, though, just as if I sit with the sensation in a yoga pose, I can feel the difference between “selfish, stingy, and irritable” and “clear and strong.” I feel my attachment to controlling my friend or other drivers and phone users — and that attachment is not strength. I feel my resistance to the way people are and the nature of things — and that resistance is not soft. What I’m looking for is a middle way just like when I can feel my feet planted and my spine lifted while my neck and shoulders relax.

Like everything, it is a practice. “Soft and strong” and “kind without caving” have distinct sensations. The practice is becoming more familiar, more intimate with how that middle way feels and when I lose it — which I do, over and over — to keep coming back.

INOF gold netThe Invisible Net of Love is around you always. It can’t be seen, though, only felt. Reach out, ask for help, and there it is. You’re in the weave of someone’s net when you offer a hug, an ear, a pot of soup with crusty bread.
INOL ribs

Your rib cage is your body’s net of love. The home of the heart and lungs, it is the place of energy exchange. Sometimes in fear or pain, the rib cage tightens or collapses in. Take a breath. Feel your heart. Move your thoracic spine. Open to love going out and love coming in.

spine tatYour spine is a strand of love: 33 bead-bones threaded with the spinal cord. The top is deep behind your eyebrows. The bottom is low at your tail. Your spine is solid and electric: it makes you human. Relaxed rootedness and visionary creativity emerge from mindful, spinal movement.

At the base of the spine are the sacrum and coccyx. Fused and solid, they look like a curved palm. Inherent in the structure of your spine’s base is support and grounding. (See Diane Goodbar’s story about this.)

The top two vertebrae are the atlas and the axis. Your eyes and head direct your attention-energy. Inherent in the structure of the top of your spine is vision and imagination.

Inherent in the spine’s form and function is grounded support and vision to see beyond what is. Just like love. So, you’ve got love running through your core. A strand of love. Feel it?

spine woman externalIn yesterday’s post, we explored the possibilities of focusing awareness on the design and structure of the spine, in particular the very top and base of it.

At the base are the sacrum and coccyx which are more solid that much of the rest of the strand of spinal bones. In fact, when seen from the side, they look much like a curved palm of a hand. When I imagine that hand behind me, something in relaxes a little.

Relaxed Rootedness

A few years ago, Nia practitioner Diane Goodbar shared a Nia story* that comes back to me every time I’m in traffic. After a Nia class in which we focused on the supportive “hand” of the sacrum, she was stopped at a light and saw a car barreling toward her from behind. She had no way of getting out of the way so had no choice but to allow herself to be rear-ended. She writes,

…as I “braced for impact” I just sat in my car totally relaxed, looking straight ahead, and feeling that hand [of the sacrum] supporting me. My car was hit really hard but I ended up with absolutely no injuries. In fact, I wasn’t even slightly sore and in less that 24 hours was back at the gym doing my normal workout. (You can read Diane’s whole amazing story here.)

Right now, imagine the relaxed support and the dynamic rootedness provided by the sacrum and coccyx. Experiment with adjusting what you’re doing to enhance that sensation.

The Spine’s Design: Top

The top two vertebrae of the spine are the atlas and the axis which allow the head to nod and turn. Most people move their head very little, opting instead for the “marshmallow on the toothpick” approach. This lack of movement over-stabilizes the muscles and joints in the neck and constricts the flow of energy. No shock that neck and head aches are miserably common.

The top two cervical vertebrae are positioned right behind the center of the eyebrows. The eyes and head direct our attention and energy, so movement of the top of the spine is essential for us to see and connect actively with the world. We call strong leaders and courageous creators “visionary” for their ability to see beyond the obvious. (Think of one of your heroes, and I expect that in your mind’s eye they are not looking down but are upright and looking out!) Mindfully moving the spine from the top connects us to this visionary nature that we can all access.

Spine Divine

As the main conduit of the nervous system, tremendous energy is moving through the spine in every moment. Enhancing our awareness and honing our movement particularly at the top and bottom of the spine offers more physical ease and comfort. I’ve also noticed that after moving the spine mindfully, when I quiet down, I also have access to insights, ideas, and creativity that was not accessible before.

Experiment with both big and small movements at the atlas/axis and at the sacrum/coccyx. Then sit or lie down quietly, letting both the body and mind settle down and see what comes to you from this aware and relaxed place.

This post is one of the things that came to me. I’d love to hear your experience.

* Do you have a Nia story?  Something big or small about how the practice has affected you or how you use the practice outside the studio?  I’d love to hear it!  Send it to me at sjmnia@gmail.com and maybe we’ll use it as a focus for class and the blog!

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