It doesn't matter what style of yoga you practice; a major body part you work on is your spine. From gentle cat-cow warm ups, to downward/upward facing dog, to sun and moon salutations, to headstands and shoulder stands, to crazy leg behind the head poses, most yoga poses move the spine in all sorts of directions, in much greater depths than most sports and activities ever require. There are apparently 5 major ways to move your spine: flexion, extension, axial rotation (twists), lateral flexsion (side bends), and axial extension (lengthening). Before I started yoga I thought I had a limber body. Now I feel like I'm finally using my spine the way its intended - built to be curved in so many ways, as long as the muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments etc coordinate with the vertebrae.
When I started yoga I came to heal my spine. My lower back was hurting me, and when I first started Ashtanga it felt worse. I couldn't tell if I was doing the poses wrong or if my lower back was just weak. I asked the teacher and he said my poses looked okay and he didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing. Primary series was supposed to be therapeutic right? So I tried to suck in my belly button more whenever I felt discomfort in the lumbar spine, hoping the sensation would go away soon. Either that or I would have to quit yoga and switch to some other activity. Thankfully, after 6 months the lower back weirdness went away. So it was indeed a weakness and the primary series helped strengthen my spine in a major way.
Then there was my neck. Ever since I started yoga, I noticed I had a neck ache. I went to see a massage therapist which helped make it better. However after a month the achy-ness came back. I learned it was probably due to the turtle haunch position that I have been assuming in front of my computer screen for the past 10 years. I went to see a chiropractor, which tried to fix my imbalance in terms of left twist vs. right twist, but I felt it was such a money scam because he only worked on me for about 20 minutes at a time and charged me $40 per session, and asked me to go back for 8 more sessions. My yoga teachers adjusted me more than the chiropractor during a 75 minute yoga class, and I pay way less for a class. I tried to lengthen my neck whenever I notice my turtle shrug, but the discomfort persisted. Then I noticed headstands made my neck uncomfortable so I had to stop practicing that at home. I still did it in class but usually only for like 5 breaths and often with the teacher supporting my legs. I notice my neck felt worse when I tried to assume thumb drishti in trikonasana and utthita parsvokonasana, so I stopped looking up in those poses and just focused on lengthening my cervical spine.
Recently, my teacher has been coming by, putting fingers on my back and telling me to engage my lats and pull my back muscles down the spine. Hmm, I can't seem to engage my lats at all. I consciously pull them down for a few breaths, then the next time I check my shoulders are up to my ears again. Sigh. That must be the reason why my neck hurts.
I am just noticing recently that I don't use enough of my back strength in matsyasana. When I engage my back more, uttana padasana suddenly feels a lot harder (I've been arching my back and not engaging back muscles in these 2 poses all this time). So suddenly I am feeling a new sense of strength building in my spine. My headstands are feeling better in the neck, and in setu bandhasana, I am finally taking my elbows off the floor and crossing my arms over my chest. It feels pretty creepy but I can feel strength building in my neck as well. I am really hoping this period of neck strengthening will get rid of the neck discomfort once and for all.
Backbends: now that I am starting to attempt drop backs, I am feeling weirdness in my lower back return. Actually, a few posts back I complained about lumbar spine weirdness in urdhva dhanurasana. So it went away for awhile and I thought I was done with low back strengthening, but I guess I'm not done. I look at my own wheel pose in the mirror and it has such a mild arch, despite how intense it feels. And then I look at pictures of yogis grabbing their ankles in their wheel poses, and I wonder exactly what needs to stretch to get to that point. Kino's article and video suggests that we hang over upside down without touching the mat for a few breaths; I'm sorry but I don't have enough strength to hold it half way. I am either upright with a little back bend or I'm all the way down. There's no in between. Does it mean my back is just too weak?
So many people I've seen come to yoga with a haunch in the shoulder/upper back area. When I look at the pictures of long term ashtanga practitioners, they all seem to have a straight back, and when they bend either forwards or backwards, they bend right at the waist, instead of rounding at the thoracic spine. I don't know if this is the case, but has all these forward bends where the teacher has been helping me flatten my spine on my legs resulted in shifting of imbalances to the upper (neck) and lower (lumbar) part of the spine instead?
One thing's for sure: I definitely need more back strengthening and continue to engage my trapezius and lats to keep my shoulder blades down the back. The fascia and the connective tissue stuff I have no control over; they'll just have to keep restructuring on their own. I wonder if non-Ashtanga yoga styles also re-work the spine in the same way, since most yoga styles I know don't emphasize forward bends.