Naturally Aligned In A Neutral Spine With Rebecca Ketchum
When Rebecca Ketchum’s class began, at Kula Yoga Project, on Friday morning, it may have looked like a bunch of yogis gone wild. But really, we were just practicing a Qi Gong bouncing exercise.
“The very focused control and precision of asana is healing, in some ways, but the freedom and release in the Qi Gong bouncing feels like a different kind of medicine to me, because it allows me to relinquish control of the body, and get out of my head. I like to start off class that way because it helps to hydrate the joints, gets the heart going and blood flowing, and warms the body. As Thomas [Thomas Droge, Qi Gong instructor at Kula] said yesterday, ‘it helps shake the chaos out of the body,'’’ Rebecca told me after class.
Following the Qi Gong bounce, we immediately went into a brief Savasana, where the shift inside my body felt obvious. Though my heart was racing quickly, there was a calmness and clarity achieved throughout.
While lying on our mats, Rebecca spoke about the natural curvatures in our spines. She asked us to place both hands underneath our lower backs to feel the space between our bodies and the floor. She then told us we would be working with neutral spines throughout class.
To warm up, while still lying on the floor, we placed the strap around one foot, then lifted that leg off the ground, trying to keep it straight. Noticing that many of us had sacrificed our lower backs to bring our straight legs in closer to our chests, Rebecca demonstrated, at the front of the room, what she wanted us to do: Keep the lengthened leg a little farther away from the chest, to keep the integrity of the neutral spine.
It was a dynamic warm-up, particularly when one-legged Planks were introduced—with an extended leg out to the side and a neutral spine.
“If I seem like a neutral spine zealot, it’s because I am,” she said. After class I asked her to elaborate.
“I want people to practice yoga safely, with a neutral spine! I see so many students straining and compressing the anterior part of the spine in order to touch their hands to the floor in Uttanasana, or get their head to their shins in Parsvottanasana, for example. Everybody's spine is unique. If I can encourage students to find their neutral spines, there is a ripple effect throughout the body. When students find a neutral spine from the vertebrae, they tend to do less-superficial muscular straining to find the asana.”
“Asking the body to find a neutral spine can also help to keep the ego in check,” she added, noting that prioritizing maintaining a neutral spine might encourage backing off a little and practicing patience.
Once standing, we began the next sequence, which started in Down Dog. We lifted one leg up into Down Dog Split keeping the hips square, then bent that knee into the chest, without hunching the spine. We stepped that leg up to lunge, then lowered the back knee to the floor for what I thought would be Anjaliasana, but, instead, we brought our hips back, so the front knee was 90 degrees over the front ankle. A simple twist came from here before stepping back to plank and moving through the vinyasa.
Rebecca’s sequencing was creative and unexpected. She spoke clearly and her direction was straightforward.
After class, she said, “I use the Kula flow sequencing principles as my foundation. Rather than using a peak pose for sequencing, I like to sequence my class around an action in the body. Today it was maintaining the natural curves in a neutral spine. I chose poses that I thought would challenge people's habit of rounding the low back, or reversing the lumbar curve.”
While we definitely moved through several postures, never once did it feel like we were rushing. Rebecca’s tone was calm and easy, and amidst her anatomical instructions were reminders to stay connected to our breaths.
In our post-class chat, she said, “I try to set up an even pacing for the class; at Kula, we call it a metronome. Similar to a breath-centric meditation, I'd like people to have the breath as the anchor, what we return to when the mind is racing or distracted. There are moments in class when I want one movement per breath and others when I want people to hold the pose for longer. I try to leave enough room for people to maintain their own rhythms, but also to move together as a unified group,” she said.
Backbends came in the form of yogi’s choice, with the suggestion of Full Wheel, Bridge, or Supported Bridge. Rebecca encouraged us to ask for help.
“I think it had been seven years of practicing before I found out where to place the block underneath my sacrum, so please don’t be shy to ask for help.”
With about ten minutes left in class, Rebecca suggested an inversion, and either Seated Forward Bend or Baddha Konasana for closing postures.
Before taking final rest, we went into a reclining twist and Happy Baby.
During Savasana, Rebecca came around with oil, and offered invigorating face massages.
When we came back up to sit, she reminded us to feel our neutral spines, and we placed our hands in front of our heart centers.
With one “Om,” we closed class.
Afterwards, I took a few minutes to sit tall and appreciate the benefits that come from practicing with a neutral spine.