How Emotions Shape Your Body
For most of my life, I experienced lower back pain. As a young gymnast, I was taught to arch my back in routines and, over time, habit became posture. I walked with an arched back, dumping the whole weight of my upper body onto the lumbar area. As an adolescent, a mere hour of walking in the mall resulted in twinging back pain. In fact, I was first drawn to Forrest Yoga because it alleviated that pain and taught me how to support my back through a few basic, effective moves and by building core strength. Perhaps you’ve experienced low-back pain too and my story will inspire you.
I always assumed my back pain was purely biomechanical, caused by the strain of a dysfunctional posture. But as my yoga practice progressed and I became a Forrest Yoga teacher, I learned to go deeper and to track not only the physical causes of pain, but the emotions, attitudes, and beliefs that contribute to posture in the first place. In my anatomy training with Ellen Heed, a renowned teacher and sexological bodyworker, we discussed how experiences shape the body. Heed describes a trajectory whereby emotions become gestures and repetitive gestures, over time, become encoded in our posture and may even affect our bone structure.
I have seen this pattern in my own life and, after years of teaching, can recognize the emotional roots of gestures, postures, and structures in my own students’ bodies. For example, in the strict religious environment in which I was raised, I see many women, particularly tall women, adopt a kyphotic (hunched or stooped) posture once they hit puberty to reduce their visibility as sexual subjects. Our postures communicate so much about our emotional journeys and affect the way we feel and carry ourselves in the world.
I now recognize that there was an emotional component to my arched back. I’m petite (4’8” to be exact) and for many years, I lived in a constant state of hyper-vigilance because of the volatile arguments that dominated my home. Like a small animal, I thrust my chest forward and arched my back as an unconscious form of defense. I made myself bigger, puffing up my chest, to unconsciously intimidate “attackers” and create a physical shield. It was a startle response, a habitual maladaptive state, caused by the constant stress of an unpredictable environment. This is a common posture known as lumbar hyperlordosis and it had become my default posture.
After twenty years of practicing yoga, I’m still making discoveries about this trouble-spot in my body. Each time I think that I’ve reached the bedrock of my low-back issues, I uncover yet another metamorphosed layer that points to my emotional past. Recently, in a yoga class with my teacher and mentor of twelve years, Erica Mather, we focused specifically on the spot where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet. In the front body, this is the space between the lowest floating ribs and the abdomen—the exact spot where I tend to arch. In yoga-speak it’s the Third Chakra, a center of personal power, located two inches above the navel, at the base of the rib cage.
With Erica’s help, I realized that I was finding space and extension through my upper body in backbends by compressing (or “crunching”) at the thoracic-lumbar junction. That was the physical realization. And then, while standing on tip-toes, backs against the wall and arms overhead, Erica asked us to press our bottom back ribs against the wall and I had the deeper realization, tracking this drawing-in movement of consolidation to my past. True, my tendency to thrust my chest and, specifically, my floating ribs forward was a learned behavior from gymnastics and a gesture of defense in a hostile environment, but it was also an expression of energy-loss. In a family where one person’s ego requires constant coddling, the other members of the family are called on to give relentlessly. Therefore, the energetic resources available for my ego-development—the development of self-esteem and self-love—were siphoned as I opened my heart to concede my power and energy.
If this suddenly became too “woo woo” for you, do this simple exercise:
Stand up tall with your feet directly below your hips and thrust your chest forward, sheering your low-ribs ahead of the line of your pelvis and arching your low back. What do you feel?
Return to a neutral position. Now, draw the lowest, floating ribs toward your back. At the bottom or your next exhale, suck your navel back toward your spine, tuck your tailbone, and move your sit-bones toward the floor to lengthen your low-back. How do you feel?
Which position feels more stable and powerful? Can you feel that the first posture may appear strong but actually feels unstable and draining, while the second posture consolidates and preserves your energy?
Such is the sort of information that we hunt through Forrest Yoga and that a regular practice divulges. As the hunt continues for me, I find I carry myself differently, with more awareness and confidence. And if such self-study can not only reduce pain but change the way you feel in your body and move through the world, isn’t it worth your attention? Embodied knowledge is a powerful thing.