Without the spinal column, you'd never experience back pain — but then again, you couldn't walk upright either! The backbone enables you to bend forward, backward, and sideways, and it also allows you to twist. You perform all these motions every day, but you may do them unconsciously and without adequate muscular support. Yoga uses the natural movements of the spine to train the various muscles supporting it, which contributes to a healthy back and prevent back pain.
Although the spinal column's elegant curvature is well-designed for the upright position, people aren't always very clever about using it correctly. The 33 vertebrae, or backbones (24 of which comprise the flexible part of the spine), are held in place by a series of powerful muscles and ligaments that require regular exercise to maintain top working order.
The spine as the axis of your world
According to Yoga symbolism, the spine corresponds to the axis of the universe, which is pictured as a gigantic golden mountain called
Mount Meru. At the top of this mountain (that is, in your head) resides heaven, where all the deities are seated.
Numerous muscles, arranged in several layers in the front, back, neck, and perineum (the area between the anus and the genitals), maintain the spine in position. When they become weak or damaged from inadequate or improper use or injury, any one of these can pull the spine out of alignment, leading to discomfort, pain, and inadequate nerve communication to the organs and other parts of the body, which may lead to further complications.
The spinal column is so important because it protects the spinal cord — a bundle of nerves that runs through the bony tower, your backbone. The nerves feed the trunk and limbs with information from the brain, and the brain returns the favor. If the nerve connection is severed at any point, you lose conscious control of the affected part of your body.
The spine also has psychological significance. A person of integrity and strength of character is said to "have backbone" and a coward is said to be "spineless." Because people believe that outside presentation reflects inside influences, they tend to judge a person's mental state from his bodily demeanor. If you're chronically hunched over, you signal to others that you're also inwardly collapsed. On the other hand, if you stand straight and tall, you give others the impression of self-assuredness, energy, and courage.
From a yogic point of view, the spine is the physical aspect of a subtle energetic pathway that runs from its base to the crown of the head. This pathway is known as the central channel or sushumna-nadi ("gracious conduit," pronounced soo-shoom-nah nah-dee). In traditional Hatha Yoga and Tantra Yoga, the awakened "serpent power," or kundalini-shakti, rises through this channel. When this power of pure consciousness reaches the crown of the head, you experience a sublime state of ecstasy. We say more about the central channel in Chapter 21.
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