Wednesday, 31 July 2013

What is your fifth limb?

The classical yoga of PataƱjali comprises of eight so-called "limbs" (stages/practices). Ashtanga, by the way, means eight limbs (ashta=eight, anga=limb). In his system the fifth limb is Pratyahara, often translated as 'withdrawal of the senses'. But that's not the 5th limb I want to talk about here.

I want to talk about your fifth anatomical limb - your spine. My teacher Jonathan Monks defines Hatha Yoga as the liberation of the fifth limb. But what does liberation mean, and why would you want to do that to your spine?? Liberation means the act of setting free, or being free from limits. Do you see your spine being limited? About 8 in 10 people in the western world have one or more bouts of lower back pain in their lives. It's also the most common reason for absence from work and having to go to the doctor. So developing increased flexibility, strength, and awareness in the spine is absolutely crucial for living a healthy life - especially as you get older.

Your spine is the major trunk road connecting everything in your physical body (and energetic and spiritual body, but let's not get too technical). Your legs extend downwards from it forming, together with your pelvic floor, your roots. The very important psoas muscle connects the inside of your thighs to your spine, and its flexibility combined with that of your sacroiliac joint (SI joint) and your lower few vertebrae affect how your hips and pelvis move, your gait, and your posture. The SI joint is in fact a firm favourite for discussion in the yoga literature (see this excellent article) as it can end up hurting as a result of incorrect yoga practice. In the Japanese tradition, your hara - your central engine or energy battery - sits in front of the spine, in your belly.

Your shoulders also hang off your spine. Maybe you often feel tension up here too. One of the main causes of those painful muscle knots often stem from our sedentary lifestyle containing short bursts of activity or sustained holding from a hunched or forward-head posture.

So you can see why liberating the spine is so important. In the YogaMonks practice that I've been studying this last few years, it's an absolute focus. The practice Jonathan sets for us (mere beginners) is all about opening our root - bringing physical freedom of movement to the lower spine and pelvis, awareness to our perineum (pelvic floor), softness to the belly (and hara), and an increased (energetic) connection to the ground.

And as our spines start to move more and more independently of our other limbs, many wonderful things start to happen! As this lovely article puts it, our "hips are the body's junk drawer - they hold emotional stressors when you’re not sure where else to put them, yet you're not entirely ready to release them." So increased flexibility in the hips and pelvis can have a serious effect on our emotional body, releasing stuff that might've been stored there for years.

A loose and relaxed upper spine allows your breathing to become free and easy. Eventually (so Jonathan says) pranayama starts to happen spontaneously. Pranayama is the conscious direction or movement of energy around the body, usually through the breath.

Ultimately, a liberated spine will allow you to sit comfortably in padmasana (full lotus), the body stable, solid and connected to the ground, and the mind quiet, alert, and inquisitive. And that's all we want - the rest of it just happens in it's own time.



I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

What's your relationship to your 5th limb? What have you found that helps develop this relationship? Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.

No comments:

Post a comment