By Tami Link
Fellow yoga teacher Jules Mitchell goes to Bulgaria every year to film a large number of classes for the online yoga service, Udaya.com. This past August, I made the long journey to Bulgaria and spent four days filming several classes a day as a student of Jules.
During that time I got the opportunity to film my own class! I decided to share my exploration of the fluid potential of movement. This is something I practice and teach and is inspired by my love of the ocean and my own need to remember to move fluidly. I called the class Ocean Motion.
Now, much of this fluid movement is about the spine and there are technical things to talk about regarding the proper function of the spine that I also teach, but that isn’t the focus of my class or this blog. My focus is to introduce some imagery to connect to help develop the fluid movement capabilities of the spine and body. However, one might find some “sticky” spots in this practice, as we don’t often move our spine in the variety of ranges it has. We may want to work on gaining some more movement in those sticky areas. For example, my upper and lower spine can feel quite rigid and don’t move so easily at times, and I can feel that when I perform this fluid spinal movement. I continue to improve with some skillful practice, breathing, mindfulness of daily habits, etc. Is my spinal movement perfect? No. But if I get caught up in thinking everything has to be perfect, I actually get more rigid — mentally and physically. So it’s a balance to work on the skills that allow for movement in this fluid manner without looking for perfection.
Thankfully, Jules ended up filming a fabulous class called “Slinky Spine” that broke down the specific movement of the spine and gave some fantastic ways to work on finding articulation through the whole spine. I don’t have that video to share here, but here is Jules sharing something similar. If you discover some parts of the spine that don’t move as much as others, perhaps practice these great skills from Jules some days and on other days do some Ocean Motion play. It takes some practice but if you stick with it, your brain and body will start to remember. After all, this fluid movement ability is built into us. We just need to be reminded.
Back to my inspiration for Ocean Motion…
I have always felt very connected to the ocean and everything in it. I’m fascinated by the world under water. It’s comforting, peaceful and sacred to me. (Which is funny that I live in Phoenix, Arizona!)
When I was a little girl, I would spend hours in the water. Even as a young girl I remember having great awareness of the fluid-like movements I could make as I glided and moved my spine, arms and legs under water. My parents would call me a little fish, and I truly did like to swim like an ocean critter! One of my favorite animals is a dolphin. I would dive down into the water and try to swim like a dolphin – putting my arms at my sides and making the wavelike undulations of a dolphin as it swims. Oh the joy when I got to swim with them as an adult a couple times. Heaven!
Several years ago when I was playing in the ocean in Cancun, Mexico (because I never stopped playing in the water!), I was kneeling on the ocean floor with the water up to my shoulders looking through the crystal clear water at the fish swimming around me. The waves were very gentle. I let my body get loose with just enough support of my legs to not fall over. What I felt was the fluid-like motion of my body being moved by the water. My arms and spine made sweeping movements like seaweed. It reminded me of our fluid movement ability and I began connecting to that ability more in my yoga and Pilates
Exploring Ocean Motion
Imagery is an important aid in helping us get in touch with our anatomy and movement. It enhances your mind’s ability to gain an awareness of your body’s function. Our early learning of movement is by observing and exploring. In the movement practices I’ve included some images from the ocean so that you can explore movement from observation and imagery. Since a large percentage of our body is made up of fluid, using images from the world under water seems fitting.
As much as I love the details and specifics of anatomy and function, this is more to find an imagery that connects to movement without being overly technical. Try to feel more than think for this practice. If you cannot feel anything, it’s ok. For now, just imagine, notice and explore.
Why jellyfish? Last year while in Australia, I spent a lot of time in the amazing ocean including the Great Barrier Reef. An absolute dream for this ocean lover. Jellyfish are abundant in Australian waters certain times of year. Because the jellies were on my mind often (meaning, I’d hoped I wouldn’t receive one of their infamous stings!), it occurred to me one day how they resemble our big breathing muscle, the diaphragm. So now when I describe the diaphragms’ function in breathing, I use this graceful, fluid creature for imagery. It’s my very favorite image and I find it quite calming.
You can see that when the jellyfish expands it has the appearance of descending slightly. As it folds back in, it ascends. This is very much like your diaphragm. (Although the diaphragm descends more on the inhale, the image still works.) On inhalation, the diaphragm descends and flattens, gently expanding the lower circumference of the ribs. On exhalation the diaphragm lifts back up and the ribs release back in. The jellyfish tentacles even resemble the muscular attachments underneath in the center of our diaphragm that connect to the spine. Compare the jellyfish with this cool animation of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm has connection to the spine, ribs, muscles and tissues surrounding the spine. With normal, full breathing, there is a harmonious interplay in all this connection to support the stability and mobility of the spine.
Watch the video of the diaphragm, then the jellyfish. Then, sitting in an upright but relaxed position, close your eyes and take your awareness down to the bottom circumference of your rib cage. On your inhale, image the jellyfish (diaphragm) gently moving down allowing the ribs – front, back and sides – to expand. On the exhale, imagine the jellyfish (diaphragm) floating back up and ribs gently releasing back in. Allow this to happen without force or effort. The movement is subtle. If you don’t feel the ribs moving much, that’s ok for now. Just let your mental image of our friend of the sea take hold of your feeling of the breath.
You may also try this lying on your back and on your stomach. Explore how the feeling is different in each position. Can you imagine the spine being very subtly moved or lengthened as you breathe?
Invite this image of the breath into other movements and throughout your day.
This movement takes the spine through flexion and extension in a wave-like motion from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Imagine a gentle rolling wave more than a crashing wave.
Begin on all fours. Start the wave in the lower spine by curling the pelvis under so the tail bone moves toward the floor. Continue the movement into the lower spine. Rounding (flexion) moves through the lower spine, mid spine and upper spine/neck and ends out the crown of the head. Imagine each vertebrae moving one at a time but allow it to be continuous and fluid. Then reverse the motion of the pelvis by tilting the tailbone up creating the extension wave from the lower spine all the way through the rest of the spine to the head. As soon as the wave finishes at the top of the spine out through the head, it immediately starts again in the pelvis. See the video below for this.
The key with this and the other movements is to not think too much about it for our purposes here — Imagine and feel. Allow the imagery to move your body.
Check out this beautiful video of a kelp forest.
I love the image of seaweed or kelp for the spine. The spine is like the long stem (stipe) of kelp — strong but flexible.
This image occurred to me some time ago spontaneously in my movement practice. I closed my eyes and just imagined the seaweed and found the movement so relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve used it ever since.
Kelp is rooted to the ocean floor and the varying movements of the water move the kelp stipe and it’s leaves. The video below shows me in Hero’s Pose but I also practice this sitting in a chair as well. When seated in chair, start on the sit bones with feet grounded, legs hip width or wider. Imagine that your feet and/or legs are rooted to the ocean floor and that your pelvis and spine are being moved by the ocean current. Explore all the directions that might move you in, front to back, side to side, diagonal. You can even add the arms moving them like the leaves (called blades on kelp) off the stipe flowing with the movement.
The movement is the same wavelike movement you found in the Spinal Wave, just vertical with various directions. The movement begins at the base of the spine (pelvis) up. If you are allowing the movement to start in the pelvis, you will feel the sit bones gently rocking underneath you as you move. But don’t get too caught up in the specifics. Just try to let the image move you. I usually close my eyes to get a better mental image. I suggest watching the kelp forest video first to really see the movement you are looking to embody. There are even sea lions at the end who display some delightfully
beautiful fluid movement for more inspiration.
Spinal Wave in Downward Facing Dog Pose
In Down Dog/Elephant, I start with some flexion/extension (think Cat/Cow or Arch/Curl). Rounding the whole spine then extending the spine. Bending the knees a bit on the extension can help allow the pelvis to tilt and aid in the extension. Then move into that wavelike spinal movement from the pelvis rolling up through the spine. Allow the
movement to be continuous. As soon as the wave finishes at the top of the spine out through the head, it immediately starts again in the pelvis.
The video just shows my spine and torso so here is a photo of the position this is done in. It’s actually me teaching my Ocean Motion class in Bulgaria! The ladies are on a chair to show a modification that is helpful if your shoulders or hips are less mobile. Place the chair against a wall so it doesn’t slide away from you.
These are just a few of the many ways you can play with fluid motion. If you have always viewed your spine or body as a rigid structure, perhaps invite a little inspiration from the ocean into your motion. Enjoy!