When I was young, my mother always told my sister and I, “stand up straight,” or “keep your back upright when you are walking!”
Growing up, keeping our backs straight was standard protocol in my household. When I used to walk to school, my mother would always be watching me from her window, so I worked very hard to walk “properly” in order to please her. At the age of 19 I started dancing, and that helped me keep my back even straighter, especially in ballet. In my ballet classes, I learned to squeeze my belly in to lift up my back. With daily stretching and training, I became really flexible. Or I believed I was, only because I was able to kick my leg to my face.
Looking back now, my movement pattern was not well balanced. Luckily, I never hurt myself throughout a decade of dancing nor my musical theater career. I never bothered learning much about my body; I didn’t feel like I had to, because I had no particular issues.
I loved movement. So when I discovered yoga much later in life, I was naturally drawn to the flowing practice of Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Dharma…you name it. This was post 9/11 in New York City when everybody was rushing to yoga classes to attain peace of mind. In these classes, I was able to focus on my breath and just move to the music without any care. Stretching also felt great, so I kept on stretching my body till no end. I would look at the beautiful yoginis in Yoga Journal covers and thought I could be just like them if I kept on practicing. I went to classes everyday in attempt to put myself in seemingly impossible poses.
Eventually, my body started to give – it was hurting all over the place to the point where I was in pain 24/7. I could no longer relax–even in Savasana. I was not able to get up from it without a great deal of effort. I was too ashamed to talk about my pain openly with my peers and believed the cause of my pain was all my fault. I realized I needed to change the course of my practice and began seeking out for alignment base classes. Around 2003, one yoga lineage was very popular. I would go to different teachers in that system and kept on hearing the same cue: “Tuck your tail bone.” I had a lot of pain around my lower back and hips, so I would go up to the teachers and ask how to help my back pain. They would reply, “Make sure to tuck your tailbone.” So I would go home and practice tucking my tail.
I had no idea what was happening to my body, and what the teachers were saying sounded correct. I was a yoga teacher by then, so I also started to mimic the language of “tuck your tail,” or “plug your arms into the sockets,” or “stretch your arms overhead and slide your shoulder blades down.” I didn’t realize these cues may be beneficial to some, but were actually harmful to others. Surely, my condition did not improve – it got worse and worse!
In 2005, during one of my yoga trainings in Santa Cruz, I met a chiropractor who said I had reverse curvature in my spine. “I have never seen anything like it,” he exclaimed, “your spine is completely reversed from the beginning to the end!”
This was very new to me. I didn’t have the slightest idea on what it meant. He suggested I see a local chiropractor who could do a subtle manipulation. When I returned home to NYC I found a chiropractor who told me I had a bulging disc in my L4 and L5. He adjusted my back which had gotten increasingly looser, but really didn’t address the issue of my pain. By then I was beginning to understand my body a little. My lumbar spine was very flat and stiff, and had zero mobility – zero! No wonder my upward facing dog had been a struggle! But I knew it wasn’t always this way. In my dancing days, I had no problem getting into deep backbends, so why was it getting hard now?
What if over tucking my tail was taking out the necessary curvature from my already flat spine, causing further tightness?
After studying with Amy Matthews and Leslie Kaminoff at The Breathing Project for a few years, I discovered Yoga Tune Up®. I went to Kripalu Center to do the Level 1 training with Jill Miller and Lilee Chandra in 2011. At the time, I was recovering from a frozen shoulder and chronic lower back and hip pain. I remember once during the training, Lilee walked over to me because she saw me having trouble with a particular movement. The conversation went like this:
“Kyoko, I see that you are not moving your lower back. Why?”
“Oh, because… because…”
Lilee took a pregnant pause and looked at me straight in the eyes. She said, “because it hurts?”
I started to cry uncontrollably.
Over time, this pain had become a part of me so in order to avoid it I found a way to shut down my body. I had stopped “feeling my body” or recognizing the effects of my defense mechanisms. I was a good daughter and student who listened and followed the direction of others, like those of my mother and the various dance and yoga teachers, to the point where my spine became immovably stiff and flat like an ironing board. I never paid attention to what my body wanted to do. It had been saying, “I want to heal.”
It was then with my newfound realization, that my life started to take a turn. During that week of YTU training, Jill and Lilee had me face my pain and helped me figure a way out of it. Once I started to listen and work with it, my body began responding, and the change took place rapidly and dramatically. Today, I don’t struggle with that same debilitating pain. And when the pain tries to come back, I know how to care for it without relying on others.
Now that you know how this journey in self-care began, please join me Friday for further exploration of the spine!
This post is interesting on many levels, from the internal self belief of pain or the cause of pain being a persons “fault”, as if they somehow chose to have pain, to how muscular activity, habitual movement patterns and compensation can change the entire alignment of the spine. Thank goodness this author was able to learn and explore new ways to move that supported the body mechanics to improve her function and reduce eliminate pain.
I had a very similar experience to you, Kyoko, and found out a few years ago that my spine had gone completely flat. One origin of my spine dysfunction was “tucking the tailbone” and another way relaxing my neck way too much in yoga postures. It is amazing how things can change when someone lovingly opens the door to awareness of what might really be going on. I am so happy to hear that Jill and Lillee helped open that door for you! For me it was a physical therapist who offered up ideas about alternative movements and alignments in my yoga practice after watching me do a variety of postures – they never said “don’t do that” but instead said “how does it feel when you do this?” And that opening to just feeling my own body without someone judging me or having an agenda made all the difference in unraveling the bracing in my spine and reclaiming the curves of my back (among many other things). I have found the work with the coregeous ball to be extremely helpful in feeling and moving different segments of spine along these lines of inquiry.
I relate a lot to your story. I have also been a ballet dancer and then a sea cadet being repeatedly told to stand straighther and to raise my chin and look higher (a.k.a. please hyperextend you spine!). I also had a meltdown as you described. It takes time to undo all that conditioning, but at least now I feel empowered to do so. Thank you for sharing 🙂
What a empowering story! And a good reminder that not all cues work for all bodies. For good or ill, yoga teachers (any kind of teacher, really) hold a lot of power, and people defer to teachers more than they should at times, and in certain respects. One of the great things about the YTU methods is that we can help people to become aware of what is happening in their own bodies and empower them to be an expert of their own body.
Thank you for this testimony which shows me once again all the benefits of taking control of your health. It is without doubt one of the most complex things for the man to admit his pains.
I love how YogaTuneUp helps teach us about our blind spots. I’ve found that I moving my body better now than ever before.
wow, kyoko! amazing article. this describes my situation exactly. i have already started to discover how healing yoga tune up is, and i hope to find the answer as you have. my back is also flat and my lower back used to always be in pain. now, i don’t have it on a regular basis and when i do, i use the therapy balls and the pain goes away.
Like you, I’ve learned to listen to my body and not do things that hurt it. Still figuring out what heals it. I agree with one commenter’s response, standard yoga teacher trainings do need to provide more info.
Thanks for sharing your story. We can all learn to listen to our bodies especially when it starts to scream. It’s time to and regress and find the best way to help ourselves.
I, too, was a “victim” of tuck your tailbone! The relief I have found is immeasurable! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing your story Kyoko. It’s amazing how sometimes we want to help but we end up making the situation worse. Having a really good understanding of how the body should move and being able to help each person with their own needs is an art!
This is beautiful, thank you. Coming from a ballet background, it is difficult to know what a truly neutral spine feels like because we become oh so good at flattening out the natural lordosis of the lumbar spine. I am hopeful that yoga’s influence on ballet is growing stronger and encouraging healthy spines.
Thanks for sharing your story! I also have lower back pain that YTU has helped greatly, but it keeps returning. I hurt my lower back years ago and kept tucking in my tailbone trying to stretch the muscles, erroneously thinking I was ‘helping’ it. Maybe that’s my problem as well! I’m taking the level 1 course now, i might have to ask my instructor!
Kyoko, thank you for sharing your story. I still hear the cues of “tuck your tailbone” (to attain a neutral spine, no less!) and “roll your shoulders back and down” very often. As a fellow yogi whose spine flattened out from yoga, what you said really resonated. I also liked your ideas of how the pattern of pleasing people relates to our movement practices and how this can also disembody us. Pilates in neutral actually helped me rebuild my curves–ironically because in Contrology, Joseph Pilates also advocates for the idea flat spine!
Thanks for sharing, Kyoko. I have had similar issues with the obsession with retracting you shoulder blades cue. An action is helpful only until it isn’t, and not every action is helpful for every body. I wish this was taught more in teacher trainings.
This is a touching post. I don’t believe, however, that the damage was done by encouragement to maintain good posture in everyday life. As we know, in the performing arts, the performer is required to produce an esthetic effect, which may or may not be right for each body. The rest of us often find ourselves in postures not pleasing to the body, e.g., cell phones, and even though the activity does not represent our livelihood, we feel pressure to do it. We can choose, as the author did, to listen to our bodies.
People come to class with all kinds of perspectives. As I as leading my class today I had one lady actually apologize for not looking like she thought she should look in a pose and another lady commented after I instructed the class to press there sacrum toward the mat in happy baby that there was space between her low back and the mat. That’s your natural curve I told her. That’s good!
Last January I suffered a lumbar injury from ACRO Yoga. I had some x-rays done after a botched Chiropractor visit. I regarded my spine for the first time with a growing knowledge of the spine. I could see the weak lordotic curve to my cervical spine and the excessive lorodotic curve to the lumbar spine. After a year of swimming and YTU I have changed my spine. The new x-rays this month prove I changed it!
My healthy cervical and lumbar spine are proof that YTU works!!
Thank you for sharing your story! I think people, including me, have been “good students” who listened to thier teachers whitout asking themseves why they needed this or that pose. Your article is a great reminder that not all cues are for everybody and again to choose the cues even more wisely.
Thanks for sharing such a personal story! I think it’s so important to recognise the emotions that exist within our physical pain. It’s great that you’ve been able to let go, and achieve a better quality of life because of your realisation. It’s so important to recognise that not every cue is good for one person, and that not every person will respond the same way to every cue. This is a great reminder to be aware in the classes we teach, and pay attention to how our students are responding to the cues we are giving.
Kyoko, I am grateful that you opened up with vulnerability to tell your story. I too have been on a long journey of increasing awareness about the structure and health of my spine — after awakening (about 6 years ago, after a bike accident) to the reality of my scoliosis and how that has impacted my health. I cringe now to think of the way I had practiced yoga ignorant of my condition in the past (in ways that may have even exacerbated my curvature) — and am empowered now to be able to use yoga wisely, to help expedite my healing. Constant awareness and modifications of my posture, along with physical therapy and chiropractic care, have also been essential to get me to the place I am in now – with a spine approaching a proper “S”! As I begin my journey of becoming a yoga teacher, I would like to help others realize that just as we can unconsciously create patterns of dis-ease in our bodies, we can consciously restore ourselves to our original and innate form. I believe that if we are willing to wade through the discomfort and change our habits, we can free ourselves in body and mind! Thank you for being a light and an example of what is possible.
YTU has definitely opened my eyes to how inflexible my spine is (especially the lumbar spine). By stretching and mobilizing my spine, I have found my movements are more dynamic and efficient. The spine is the foundation to all movement. We are constantly sitting and compressing our spine and therefore incorporating spinal mobility and exercises is a must for systemic functional movement.
Thank you Kyoto for sharing your story. It is a great reminder that not all cues are for everybody and again to choose the cues even more wisely . Especially since there are all the images out there how a pose “has to look” without considering the body type, muscle and bone structure. It also took me many years to realise that my flexible body does not need more flexibility but that I have to focus more on stability and strength.
I have experienced the same frustration with my lumbar spine. The number of times I have heard the cues “tuck the tailbone”, “pull the bellybutton inwards”, “flatten your back”, “remove the space between your back and the floor,” etc… these cues have put my spine into a compromising position, one that I would have never realized until a YTU teacher pointed out my lack of lumbar extension. I have since found yoga tune up to be my saving grace. Taking it back to basics has been humbling (and frustrating) but a necessary part of my growth as a trainer and as an athlete.
Thank you for sharing your story. In the yoga classroom I find that people really want to take the curve out of the spine. I always felt like I was encouraged to scoop the tailbone to no end in so many poses while I was sacrificing my lumbar spine. So glad to know that yoga doesn’t have to be practiced or cued that way now.
Thank you for being so open about your journey. I have had similar experiences, and luckily I out out of the mindset of creating the perfect shape or doing just as the teacher says early! I’m so much more into taking care of the body now then ever, thanks to the little minor injuries I’ve had in my prior vigorous yoga practice. Now my practice is a lot gentler and mindful. I hope to take some classes or workshops with you some day! We actually met at Om Factory and assisted you in an acroyoga class. I loved your teaching style!
Thank you for sharing this great post. I recently discovered how much my posture (chest out/belly in) has affected my body and blind spots.
Thank you Kyoto. Great reminder that all cues are not for all people. I completed related to this as for years I was over tucking my already posterior tilted pelvis which casused much pain. With experience and tuning in to my own body I realized I needed a curve not a flat lower back and the tuck the tail cue was not for me.
Thank you for sharing your story, Kyoko. I studied piano starting at the age of 5 and the ”keep your back straight” sentence was part of the few things I would hear all the time. On the bright side of things, I think more and more people in the yoga scene – teachers as well as students – are curious about their bodies and the term ”neutral spine” or ”long spine” is starting to make more sense for everyone. Hopefully this global awareness helps preventing injuries.
“I had stopped “feeling my body”… this sentence really took me back many years ago when I was taking yin yoga (or meditation in motion) classes with Monika Herr in Ottawa (she made me understand that my body should not rest in a posture in pain but made me use many props to allow it to relax), undergoing physiotherapy treatments at the same time for what had become chronic painful pain in the hip and my lower back each time I would walk or just stand up for too long. I was trying to find out a solution. At that time, my office changed location and I moved, trying different yoga practices. That’s how I discovered Mimi’s classes using Yoga TuneUp balls. Alltogether, little by little, I began to identify parts of my body that I had completely shut down. It takes time, patience, breathing in your body but change can happen in a human body whatever its age. Thank you for reminding me of those steps!
Hi Kyoto , thanks for this article. My mother and my father always shouted at me belly in chest out. I never knew how I should stand in a correct way. So even as an adult it is difficult for me. Parents should be more sensitiv and should know that the spine has an S-shape.
Hi Kyoto, thanks for this article. My mother and my father always shouted at me belly in chest out. I never knew how I should stand in a correct way. So even as an adult it is difficult for me. Parents should be more sensitiv and should know that the spine has an S-shape.
Thanks for this article. My mother and my father always shouted at me belly in chest out. I never knew how I should stand in a correct way. So even as an adult it is difficult for me. Parents should be more sensitiv and should know that the spine has an S-shape.
Great article Kyoto, we still hear those cues way too often and people tend to forget that a natural spine does have an S-shape, and until we do get these curves in the spine we are not able to stand and walk…why then would we want a “straight back”?…it’s certainely something that people should be more aware of, thanks for sharing!
I too had a mother and a father who always said: Stand upright, belly in and chest out. I did it and I alwas felt like an idiot. Even now I don´t really know how to stand correct. But during the last 20 years I noticed that belly in and chest out is not the correct posture.
Thanks for this article
J’ai moi aussi été la bonne élève de ma mère et de mes professeurs de yoga. Sans même me poser de questions j’ai essayé d’appliquer à la lettre les différentes instructions même si j’avais des douleurs. Yoga Tune Up m’a amèné à me questionner et à sentir mon corps. Assouplir mes idéaux en étant bien dans mon corps et mon esprit au lieu de rester pris entre des murs que d’autre ont construit.
I really enjoyed reading your post. I too grew up in a household that standing up straight, no slouching, was a requirement. I found yoga during a similar period and I too found a true love of the practice, both in my flow and spiritually. I have definitely learn, much like you, to listen to my body. Stress, of all types, can really affect the body and found that the more I pushed during my practice, the worse I felt. There is definitely something to be said for, even if you can do it, it doesn’t mean that you should do it.
Great post!! Thank you!