Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sacrum:  The Strong Holy Bone

Sacred Places:  The Sacrum
The triangular bone at the base of the spine, the sacrum, mirrors the triangular bone at the base of the skull, the occipital bone.  They are at opposite ends of the spine pointing in opposite directions.  The sacrum is literally holy.  There are holes in the bone through which nerves leave the spinal cord to travel into the legs.  The sacrum isn’t just holy because of the holes.  The similarity of the words sacrum and sacred is obvious.  The sacrum was the part of the animal used by some ancient peoples as the sacrificial bone because it houses the procreative organs.

The spine running from the base of the skull - the occipital bone - to the sacrum, houses the spinal cord. The spinal cord carries millions of very long and very small axons – so small that one needs special equipment to see them. These axons connect the neurons of the brain to the legs.  This is all rather elementary of course, but worth being attentive to nonetheless. 

The spinal cord is also thought by yogis to house something called the sushumna.  The sushumna is one of three main nadis (energy channels) connecting the energy centers known as chakras.  We will keep it simple here and attend only to the sushumna.  The sushumna connects the root chakra to the chakra at the crown of the head so that prana (life force) can flow freely.  There is also said to be a dormant life force coiled at the base of the spine as a serpent.  This primal life force is called kundalini.

The sacrum is home to the first two chakras and kundalini.  Like axons, one cannot see the nadis with the naked eye and we do not yet have special equipment with which to see them.  We must therefore rely on the testimony of what many practitioners of yoga have experienced and perceived in their own bodies. 

The word sacrum comes from the Latin sacred.  The Greek word for it, “heiron osteon” means strong.  The sacrum, and the muscles around it, supports our bodies in the variety of positions (postures) we place ourselves in during the course of our daily lives. 

When I hurt my back recently, I suddenly felt unsupported and consequently rather fragile.  Postures that I am used to taking for granted I can hang out in without discomfort, brought pain and fear.  In my asana practice I moved with hesitancy rather than confidence.  I could not trust my sacrum to support me. 

About the same time as I was feeling the pain in my sacrum, a red shouldered hawk flew into my window.  The sound of it hitting the window was loud and startling.  It took a few moments for the realization of what had happened to penetrate my brain.  As soon as it did, I raced outside to find the hawk lying on its side stunned.  I picked it up and put it upright on its feet on the deck.  Not knowing what else to do, I sat and watched it.  After what seemed a long time, I saw its feet opening and closing. I carried it to a branch and found that it was able to hold on.  Again I stayed with it, watching.  After what again felt like a long time, it looked at me, seemed surprised (though it had repeatedly looked at me before), and flew off to a nearby tree. 

Consulting Ted Andrews, author or Animal Speak, I was intrigued by the following:  “The red tail (Andrews uses the red tail but it could also be applied to the red shouldered) is very symbolic.  It has ties to the kundalini, the seat of the primal life force.  In the human body it is associated with the base chakra, located at the base of the spine the coccyx or tailbone.”[1]  Interesting that a bird that soars so high and majestically and whose call I hear every morning in the spring, would be connected to the base of the spine, the root, the part of us that is connected to the earth.

As my back began to feel a little better, I continued to find myself hesitant and fearful, particularly about handstand.  I still could not trust my sacrum enough to kick up with confidence.  One morning during my asana practice, a light bulb exploded in my understanding.  Trust goes both ways.  How could I expect to trust my sacrum to support me if my sacrum could not trust me not to hurt it? 

The sacrum, the sacred, the hawk, the earth – the earth that we have so deeply harmed in our taking and taking and forgetting that it too is sacred.  Living in a time when it seems the pace of destruction of the earth is moving faster than the pace of learning how not to harm; when the harm we do may soon be beyond the capacity to reverse or renew; how can there be a sacred trust between humans and the earth?  How can we soar when the roots are damaged, in pain and in fear?

In my own body, I began to move out of pain when I more consciously and clearly practiced something called moola bandha.  Moola Bandha is often referred to rather too quickly or is taught in a way that creates problems by over-tightening the pelvic floor muscles. Put simplistically, moola bandha is a lift of the muscles of the pelvic floor, specifically the perineum. What appears simple is quite the opposite.  It takes time, patience, consistent practice and careful observation to learn to work with these small muscles.

Therapeutically, working with the pelvic floor is very important and is rarely called moola bandha.  Large numbers of women have incontinence and both men and women suffer from pain in the pelvic floor, so much so that Stanford published a book called, A Headache in the Pelvis in 2005.  The pelvic floor can be hypotonic (too weak) or hypertonic (too tight) or both.  It can be as important to learn to release the muscles of the pelvic floor, as it is to strengthen them.[2]

A bandha is a kind of lock, often compared to the locks used to raise a ship higher and higher in order for it to transition to the next large body of water.  Swami Buddhananda who wrote Moola Bandha: The Master Key, calls the lock paradoxical.  “By locking or contracting certain muscles on the physical level a subtle process of unlocking goes on simultaneously on mental and pranic levels.”[3]  He also suggests that moola bandha has a direct effect on the brain.  With this comment we circle back around to the sacrum connecting to the skull through the spinal cord or the sushumna; to the hawk soaring but closely connected to what is happening on the ground; to the pain in my sacrum. 

Sitting in meditation in the morning I begin to feel free of pain again as I become more skilled with my moola bandha practice.  There are some moments when I feel my mind is deeply quiet and expansive. There are moments of feeling something is indeed unlocking, of spaciousness within stability. And then I hear the call of the hawk – high and haunting and utterly beautiful. Later, I kick up into handstand with more confidence. 

[1] Andrews, Ted, Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small (St. Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2003) p. 154.

[2] For more in-depth information on yoga and the pelvic floor see Leslie Howard: leslie howardyoga.ccsend.com.  Brenda has also trained with Leslie and is in process of receiving her certification from Leslie.  

[3] Swami Buddhananda, Moola Bandha: The Master Key, (Munger, Bihar, India:  Yoga Publications Trust, 1978) p. 2.