When I was young, my mother always told my sister and I, “Stand up straight”, or “Keep your back upright when you are walking!”. Growing up, keeping our backs straight was standard protocol in my household. When I used to walk to school, my mother would always be watching me from her window, so I worked very hard to walk “properly” in order to please her. At the age of 19 I started dancing, and that helped me keep my back even straighter – especially in ballet. In my ballet classes, I learned to squeeze my belly in to lift up my back. With daily stretching and training, I became really flexible. Or I believed I was, only because I was able to kick my leg to my face. Looking back now, my movement pattern was not well balanced. Luckily, I never hurt myself throughout a decade of dancing nor my musical theater career. I never bothered learning much about my body – I didn’t feel like I had to, because I had no particular issues.
I loved movement. So when I discovered yoga much later in life, I was naturally drawn to the flowing practice of Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Dharma Yoga…you name it. This was post 9/11 in New York City when everybody was rushing to yoga classes to attain peace of mind. In these classes, I was able to focus on my breath and just move to the music without any care. Stretching also felt great, so I kept on stretching my body till no end. I would look at the beautiful yoginis in Yoga Journal covers and thought I could be just like them if I kept on practicing. I went to classes everyday in attempt to put myself in seemingly impossible poses.
Eventually, my body started to give – it was hurting all over the place to the point where I was in pain 24/7. I could no longer relax – even in Shavasana. I was not able to get up from it without a great deal of effort. I was too ashamed to talk about my pain openly with my peers and believed the cause of my pain was all my fault. I realized I needed to change the course of my practice and began seeking out for alignment base classes. Around 2003, there was this one yoga lineage that was very popular. I would go to different teachers in that system and kept on hearing the same cues. “Tuck your tail bone”. I had a lot of pain around my lower back and hips, so I would go up to the teachers and ask – “How can I help my back pain?” They would reply, “Make sure to tuck your tail bone.“ So I would go home and practice tucking my tail. I had no idea what was happening to my body, and what the teachers were saying sounded correct. I was a yoga teacher by then, so I also started to mimic the language of “Tuck your tail” and “Plug your arms into the sockets” or “Stretch your arms overhead and slide your shoulder blades down”. I didn’t realize these cues may be beneficial to some, but were actually harmful to others. Surely, my condition did not improve – it got worse and worse!
In 2005, during one of my yoga trainings in Santa Cruz, I met a chiropractor who said I had reverse curvature in my spine. “I have never seen anything like it,” he exclaimed, “Your spine is completely reversed from the beginning to the end”. This was very new to me. I didn’t have the slightest idea on what it meant. He suggested I see a local Chiropractor who could do a subtle manipulation. When I returned home to NYC I found a Chiropractor who told me I had a bulging disc in my L4 and L5. He adjusted my back which had gotten increasingly looser, but really didn’t address the issue of my pain. By then I was beginning to understand my body a little. My lumbar spines were very flat and stiff, and had zero mobility – zero! No wonder my upward facing dog had been a struggle! But I knew it wasn’t always this way. In my dancing days, I had no problem getting into deep backbends – So why was it getting hard now? What if over tucking my tail was taking out the necessary curvature from my already flat spine, causing further tightness?
After studying with Amy Matthews and Leslie Kaminoff at Breathing Project for a few years, I discovered Yoga Tune Up®. I went to Kripalu Center to do the Level 1 training with Jill Miller and Lilee Chandra in 2011. At the time, I was recovering from a frozen shoulder and chronic lower back and hip pain. I remember once during the training, Lilee walked over to me because she saw me having trouble with a particular movement. The following conversation went like this.
“Kyoko, I see that you are not moving your lower back. Why？”
“Oh, because… because…”
Lilee took a pregnant pause and looked at me straight in the eyes.
She said, “Because it hurts.” I started to cry uncontrollably.
Over time, this pain had become a part of me so in order to avoid it I found a way to shut down my body. I had stopped “feeling my body” or recognizing the effects of my defense mechanisms. I was a good daughter and student who listened and followed the direction of others, like those of my mother and the various dance and yoga teachers, to the point where my spine became immovably stiff and flat like an ironing board. I never paid attention to what my body wanted to do. It had been saying, “I want to heal”. It was then with my newfound realization, that my life started to take a turn. During that week of YTU training, Jill and Lilee had me face my pain and helped me figure a way out of it. Once I started to listen and work with it, my body began responding, and the change took place rapidly and dramatically. Today, I don’t struggle with that same debilitating pain. And when the pain tries to come back, I know how to care for it without relying on others.
The human spine consists of five parts. There are seven vertabrae in the cervical spine (Neck, C1-C7), 12 in the thoracic spine (upper back, T1-T12), five in the lumbar spine (lower back, L1-L5), and five in the sacrum (Secrum, S1-S5, fused), four in the coccyx (Tailbone, fused). A healthy human spine when viewed from the side, has a beautiful S-shape curve. The convex forward shape is called the lordotic curve, present in the cervical and lumber spine. The concave forward shape is called a kyphotic curve, present in the thoracic spine.
Over time, the shape of our spines changed according to our primal needs. First, while our ancestors roamed around the ground on their four limbs in search of food, the thoracic spine formed into a concave shape (out) in order to push their bodies away from the ground. Secondly, the neck had to be picked up to its convex position (in) so they could look for food or spot out a predator, before they could approach. The lumber curve (in) became more necessary as our ancestors started to gain the ability to bear weight on lower extremities – and began walking on two legs. The lumber curve is a human specific feature. (“Yoga Anatomy” by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews). The spine was developed over millions of years of human evolution to support the body’s weight and to protect the spinal cord. The curve of the spine can withstand great amounts of stress by providing a more even weight distribution. Also, when we walk or run, our spines undulate to support our movements. Amazingly, almost every human movement is assisted by the movement of our spine. If the spine doesn’t move well, we have to compensate by engaging other parts of the bodies.
I remember looking at my parents form and thinking it must be genetic that I have a very flat spine. Or is it cultural? (My parents spent their youth during the Second World War in Japan where standing straight or bowing correctly were considered to be proper.) There are things I can do to reclaim my S-shape spine. One of the YTU exercises that helped me a lot was “Spinal Undulation”. When I teach this in my class, it is shocking that the majority of people are not in touch with their spines. When we go into “Cat and Cow” in a yoga class, most of us automatically go into the movement pattern we are used to. Moving from what moves…like the lower back, while part of our thoracic may be completely locked. By moving habitually, you won’t be able to figure out where your blind spots are. Try YTU Spinal Undulation, take your time, remember to breathe, and feel the movement in your spines. The part that’s not moving needs to be awakened and retrained. The part that is moving a lot may be the answer to the pain in your back. This exercise is helpful for you to feel your S-shape Spine. One of the biggest reasons why YTU is so helpful is it makes you become more aware of your body – Not anybody else’s, but yours!
One of my favorite activities is to go to the Museum of Natural History in NYC to visit the Dinosaur exhibit. When you see the different bony structures from over many millions of years, the result of evolution is evident. Yet, we are all exactly alike. When I witness this I get welled up with the realization that we are all ONE.