According to the Bhagavad Gita, the definition of yoga includes both "a serene mind" and "skill in action." In asana practice, it's often the skill that makes the serenity possible. Certain key movements in yoga create alignment, openness, and comfort, and these movements lay the physical foundation for mental peace.
Familiar examples include the lift of the chest that frees the neck in Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and the sidebend from the hip joint that aligns the spine and head in Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose). Another example is the focused use of lower-back muscles to position the pelvis and lower spine in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose).
It's common to overuse the mid- and upper-back muscles to keep upright in Bound Angle, and this creates pain and tightness in the midback beneath the shoulder blades. But if you train yourself to use your lower back skillfully, you'll not only eliminate midback pain but also strengthen your lower back. With practice, you can also learn to refine your movements with this technique to enhance your forward bends and deepen your seated meditation.
The overuse of upper-back muscles in the upright version of Baddha Konasana starts with a chain of events at the legs and hips. The pose stretches the inner-thigh muscles (the adductors) and rotates the thighbones outward, and these actions team up to tilt the top of the pelvis and sacrum backward. This tilt, especially pronounced if you are naturally tight in the hips, tends to make you slump in your chest so that your whole spine rounds over and forms a C shape. To prevent the chest from falling down and caving in, the natural response is to strongly contract the muscles in the midback in an effort to unbend the C. But these muscles are not designed for this, so after just a couple of minutes of heroic effort, they start to hurt, and soon afterward they give out.
The way to correct this misalignment is to tilt the top of the pelvis forward to reinstate the natural concave shape of the lower spine. This tilt draws the vertebrae of the lower back (the lumbar spine) forward, placing them underneath the vertebrae of the midback (the thoracic spine), where they can support the weight of the upper torso, shoulders, and head.
The need to tilt the pelvic rim forward sufficiently in Baddha Konasana is clear, but the question is how to do it skillfully. The easy but less skillful approach is to elevate your pelvis on a stack of blankets that is so high that it takes most of the stretch off your inner thighs and most of the rotation out of your thighbones, allowing the top of the pelvis to flop forward without much resistance.
The skillful approach is to consciously use a group of back muscles known as the erector spinae. These long muscles run vertically up the spine and rib cage from the pelvis and sacrum to the neck and head. Most of us are accustomed to using our erector spinae muscles only in a crude all-or-nothing way: You contract them all as one unit to backbend the entire body, as when you lie on your belly and lift your head, chest, and legs off the floor in Salabhasana (Locust Pose).
But the key to using them with skill in Baddha Konasana is to differentiate your movement, so you contract one part of the erector spinae muscles very strongly and another part much more gently. The part that you need to contract strongly is in the lower back, your lumbar erector spinae. This subsection of the erector spinae muscles spans the lumbar spine, connecting the back of the sacrum and pelvis to the back of the lower ribs and adjacent vertebrae.
The part that you need to contract gently is in the midback, your thoracic erector spinae. This subsection of the erector spinae group traverses the middle part of the thoracic spine, running from rib to rib or from vertebra to vertebra.
Focusing your main effort on contracting your lower erector spinae muscles, rather than muscles higher up the spine, tilts your pelvis efficiently in Baddha Konasana without straining your midback, because the section that crosses the lumbar region is by far the strongest part. When you emphasize the low back, the muscles there do all the work necessary to put your pelvis in optimal position, leaving the midback muscles free to do what they do best: elongate the already open, normal curve of the thoracic spine, and lift the chest.
This movement pattern—powerfully engaging the lower-back muscles while only modestly engaging their counterparts in the midback—is nonintuitive, so it takes a bit of practice to learn it. But mastering it will pay off. For example, once you've gained the strength and technique to really activate your lower-back muscles, you can replicate this skill to tilt the pelvis further into forward bends without overtightening your hip-flexor muscles or overstressing your spinal disks.
You'll also be able to stabilize your spine in other upright seated poses, such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose), without developing discomfort in your midback. When you can remain steady in a pose like this, it allows you to hold your brain still over a longer period of time, and this helps quiet your mind. In this way, using your low back to position your pelvis creates part of the physical foundation of meditation.
Stack It Up
To learn how to emphasize the action of your lumbar erector spinae muscles in Baddha Konasana, it helps to first feel what happens if you don't engage them. Sit flat on the floor and bring the soles of your feet together. Drop your knees to the sides in Baddha Konasana, hold your feet or ankles with your hands, and lift your chest as strongly as you can. Unless you are quite flexible in this pose, the top of your pelvis will tilt back, your lower back will flatten or round outward, and your midback muscles will feel some strain. In that case, come out of the pose and elevate your hips on folded blankets just high enough to give you a fighting chance of lifting your pelvis fully upright. But be careful not to make the blanket stack so high that your pelvis moves upright without any effort. If you don't need any blankets to bring your pelvis upright, then don't use any.
Once you find the sweet spot of just enough support to allow you to position your pelvis while still requiring some effort, leave your blankets at the ready.
Now come to your hands and knees to engage your erector spinae muscles in a distinct way (but not so strongly that you strain your back). Lift your tailbone and your head, and sway your whole spine down in the middle into a backbend. Next, reverse the spinal action and release the erector spinae muscles by tilting your tailbone down and forward, hanging your head down, and arching the middle of your spine up toward the ceiling as high as you can. Notice that in this position your front lower ribs tuck into your body, up toward the ceiling.
Stay in this position on your hands and knees. The next movement will incorporate a combination of the previous two actions, and it's the essence of this practice. With your lower ribs still tucking up toward the ceiling, lift one hand from the floor and touch your front lower ribs. Keep your lower ribs tucked up and into the body and maintain the arc of the upper body toward the ceiling (keeping a convex thoracic spine), and at the same time, tilt your tailbone up as high as you can so the middle of your lower back changes direction and arcs downward (creating a concave lumbar spine).
Notice that the top front rim of your pelvis (the part near the waist) tilts toward the floor as you do this. Without causing discomfort, exaggerate the contrast between the opposing movements of the lumbar and thoracic spine by continuing to tilt the pelvis in isolation, lifting the tailbone higher and higher while taking your head further down and tucking the front of the rib cage upward more. Feel the strong contraction in the lumbar erector spinae muscles and the release of contraction in the midthoracic erector spinae muscles that this action creates.
Now come back to Baddha Konasana, using the amount of support that you determined you'd need in the initial stage of this practice. Deliberately slump your entire pose by tilting the top of your pelvis back, dropping your chest and head downward, and rounding your whole back into a C shape. Notice how this movement mimics the movement you used to create the convex thoracic spine when you were on your hands and knees.
Enhance Your Freedom
Place one hand on your front lower ribs, and keeping them tucked back into your body, contract your lower-back muscles to create an isolated forward tilt of the top rim of the pelvis. Keeping the ribs tucked in and the chest down, continue to tilt the top of the pelvis forward as far as you comfortably can. Feel your lumbar erector spinae muscles contract forcefully while your midback erector spinae muscles remain relaxed.
Next, keeping your lumbar muscles contracting strongly, gently lift your chest and head to a neutral, balanced upright position. Feel your midback erector spinae muscles contracting mildly as you do this, but take care not to put a strain on them. To begin to refine your Baddha Konasana, feel your lower back with one hand. If it feels too concave and compressed, relax your pelvic rim slightly back until your spine feels balanced. If your lower back feels too flat or convex, come out of the pose, create a higher prop to sit on, and try again.
Extend this nuanced technique to enhance your freedom in forward bends and your tranquility in seated meditation. When you do, you'll be applying "skill in action" to achieve serenity of mind. And you'll be practicing the ancient art of yoga.
Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and pPranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.