Freeing the Spine—A Key to Lifelong Youthfulness

“The process of life may be seen as one in which we start out 99% water and end up virtually solid… In the course of aging, most of us find ourselves increasingly sedentary and confined, moving less and less. We may claim our static state results from pain, fatigue or laziness, but which, in fact, comes first?

To function properly, the body relies heavily on the movement of fluids, and as rigidity sets in, the fluid flow is impaired.”   -- Joseph Heller

In this interview, Anita Boser, author, yoga therapist and former President of the American Hellerwork Structural Integration Association, discusses the importance of the spine for long-term health and well-being and gives a few highlights of her webinar, Spine Anatomy for Lifelong Back Health on YogaUOnline.

Yoga U: Anita, you are a great advocate of the importance of the spine—and spinal movement—for long-term whole body health. How did you become interested in this area?

Anita Boser: Well, I had injured myself in karate, and developed a recurring back injury in my upper back. The only person who was able to help me was a Heller work practitioner (Ed: Heller work is a variation of Rolfing® or structural integration bodywork). She released the connective tissue between my shoulders and my back and taught me how to move my body with better alignment.

What really changed my life, however, were the tiny small spine movements that are part of the Hellerwork, also called undulation exercises. These empowered me to find the places where I was restricted in my own body; they helped me feel into my spine and discover places I had pretty much ignored. That’s what led me to study the spine and get a deeper understanding of what it’s capable of, how to keep it healthy, and what causes long-term injuries or problems with the spine and back in general.

Yoga U: Can you give an example of undulation exercises?

Anita Boser: We all get stuck in limited patterns of movement; they’re so automatic that we go to them without even thinking about it. However, fluidity is the one quality that distinguishes the young from old. It’s so well expressed in this verse from the Tao de Ching. 

“Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard,
Plants are born tender and pliant; 
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.”

So the purpose of undulation exercises is to reactivate parts of your body that might be asleep and/or locked up and rebuild fluid and youthful movement. It is about moving your spine in novel ways. We usually start with people moving from side to side, swaying to the left and right and feeling where that movement is easy in their body and where it’s stiff, what part of the body finds it difficult to sway. Then you come back to center and let the stiff places start to move.

This encourages the body start to move itself in ways that are very healing and freeing. If you can come back to your habitual movement patterns and think, “Okay, I’m going to move in a different way. I’m going to try to bring movements into places that normally don’t move." It’s very freeing.

And, it makes a huge difference in how well you age. The conditions that we normally associate with aging – stiffness of the joints, arthritis, osteoporosis, hardening of the arteries, the drain of energy, general aches and pains – are completely opposite of the soft and supple conditions we associate with youth. Genetics and luck play a part in the aging process, but how you move your body is also a huge factor. Learning how to move better helps the body stay fluid and capable of moving in any direction.

Yoga U: Interesting. So it involves not just stretching and movement, it sounds like you’re also training your proprioceptive ability—the ability to feel into body tissues and sense what’s going on?

Anita Boser: Yes, and of course, some people catch on to that really fast. For others, the thing they work on the most is just being able to feel in and hear what the body has to say, and from there, letting the body lead movement. For many people, it’s a big discovery that the body actually can do that; most people think that the brain always has to tell the body how to move.

Yoga U: You are both a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, and a trainer in Robin Rothenberg’s Essential Yoga Therapy program. Do you integrate undulation movements in your yoga teaching or yoga therapy practice?

Anita Boser: Yes, I integrate undulation in most of the yoga classes I’m teaching. For example, after doing a series of traditional yoga asanas, if I see that students may have pushed a little too hard and have been straining in a pose, then we’ll go into a body-led undulation. This is a great way to bring students back into their center, and it helps release some of the tension that they might have created with a pose.

Undulation is a great means to increase proprioception, or body awareness, in students. It gets people in touch with their body in a deeper way and helps them develop a better sense of what they can and cannot do, so they don’t push too hard into a place where they might injure themselves.

Yoga U: You also note that moving the spine in general is important to help release blockages to energy that might restrict the flow of prana in the body. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?

Anita Boser: The flow of energy in the body typically gets blocked where there are fascial restrictions. For some people, energy blockages are in the pelvis and for others it might be in their spine. You can free those restrictions through myofascial release therapy, undulation, or through yoga. There are several different ways to go about it. When you free the restrictions, then the energy can flow through the matrix and you free the flow of life energy in the body.

Yoga is not just about stretching. Yoga is a way to expand the possibilities for movement and energy flow. We all have our patterns, our habitual patterns of movement. In the spine, for example, there are over 140 different joints that make movement possible. But most of us use only a fraction of those joints. That’s like only using a fraction of the potential that’s there. When we practice yoga and expand our movement repertoire, so to speak, it’s also a way to free up the wider mind-body compex. If we’re conscious, and practice in a way that continues to free up the spine, so the energy can flow more freely through our body, that’s very different from practicing yoga the same way over and over. In the latter case, we’re just embedding our current movement patterns into our yoga practice.

Yoga U: Very interesting. Is this one of the things you’ll be discussing in the webinar you will be offering?

Anita Boser: The webinar is really about understanding the way the spine is put together and what that means for the movement we can do throughout life and what yoga students can do. What is the full range of motion of the spine for different types of movement?  What does that look like in yoga poses? Where is the risk of injury—both in people with limited range of motion, and in students who are hyperflexible?

In the second part of the webinar, we’re going to talk about some common spine conditions that people develop as they get older, and that many older yoga students might be struggling with. These include bulging or herniated disks, spinal stenosis, or osteoarthritis of the spine. Whether you’re a yoga teacher or a yoga practitioner, it’s important to know what the spine can do, and how to modify yoga poses for certain conditions.

We also created a video yoga practice, which will be available as an online download as part of the webinar. This includes traditional yoga poses, such as bridge pose and Bhujangasana, cobra pose, but with a focus on creating more awareness and articulation in different parts of the spine. 

Yoga U: Will the online yoga video be integrating some of the undulation exercises?

Anita Boser: Yes, the undulations include Free form and Happy Dog, the perfect complement to Down Dog and Up Dog.  Undulation grows naturally out of the understanding of what is possible for the spine. When you learn how the spine is actually put together and how it’s designed to move, undulation becomes a very natural thing to include, whether it’s in a yoga practice or the way we walk and run and sit. So it just gets integrated naturally into the practice.