The Axis Of Asana: Exploring the Spine

The spine is the physical and metaphoric axis of yoga. In fact, one way of viewing asana is that it’s designed to move the spine in all directions: flexion (forward bends), extension (backbends), lateral flexion (side bending), and rotation (twists). By manipulating the spine’s physical anatomy—bone, muscle, connective tissue, and nerves—we impact systems throughout the body. But there’s more to “the core” than muscles and bone.

In yoga, the physical body is a springboard for going beyond anatomical structures to the energy that informs them. For example, the spinal nerve plexuses and spinal cord relate to the seven chakras and the three major nadis, or pathways of energy anatomy. Also called subtle or esoteric, this anatomy is invisible to the human eye, revealed long ago to India’s rishis (seers) through internal observation—what they sensed and felt during meditative experiences.

The rishis shared this knowledge orally, passing it from teacher to student, and it was later recorded in the Sanskrit texts known as the Puranas. In pre-literate societies, key information is often transmitted through easy-to-remember verses, symbols, or stories. One such story, The Churning of the Ocean, comes from the Matsya Purana, written down roughly 1,500–2,000 years ago. This tale, central to Hindu beliefs, is rich with metaphor for students of yoga and ayurveda.

In Sanskrit, the spine is meru danda; the mountain called Meru was the legendary axis of the earth. In this legend, the devas and asuras—the forces of light and darkness—gathered at each end of a great serpent wrapped around Mount Meru and began to pull back and forth. The mountain became a stirring stick, churning the ocean and causing many things to rise to its surface. Both sides hoped to gain the ultimate prize, amrita, the divine nectar of immortality hidden in the ocean’s depths.

This cosmic struggle represents the battle within each of us. The ocean is chitta, the storehouse of mental and emotional impressions, and from it, various obstacles arise before we can taste the nectar of grace or enlightenment. Through yoga practices, we refine our powers of internal observation. When we move the spine in asana, for example, we may stir up toxic stagnation, suppressed memories, unexpressed emotions, etc. As we gain discernment, we observe the things that arise with dispassion (vairagya), freeing ourselves from limiting thoughts and behavior.

The next time you take to the mat, be guided by the axis of your spine rather than distracted by the extremities (the heels in Downward-Facing Dog, for example). In Dandasana, the spine becomes like a holy man’s staff or a royal scepter, symbolizing great power. In inversions, the spine’s poles are reversed, recharging the body’s energetic battery. In twists, the spine’s spiraling ascent resembles life’s path: We come round to the same experiences, but with a higher level of understanding. This is the true “core” of yoga.

When you use your inner vision during asana, what do you see? 

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