At the western edge of the New Jersey town where I grew up, a lovely park spread from the boulevard down to the bay, with generous hills for rolling in autumn leaves or winter snow, sprinklers to run through in summer, and a well-outfitted playground for every season. The rides were simple then: a wooden merry-go-round that you’d push as you ran alongside and then hop on and wheeeeeeeeeee until the world swirled around you; monkey bars for strength and determination; aluminum slides (we called them “sliding ponds”) and butt-banging seesaws. But my favorite by far were the swings. There were swings for the smaller kids that were like chairs in the air, with a little metal bar across the front so you didn’t fall out. When your legs were (almost) long enough to touch the ground, you graduated to the big-league swings: a painted green plank hung on two long chains that sometimes pinched your fingers if you gripped them the wrong way, but left the satisfying, astringent scent of metal on your hands when you were done.
What strikes me when I think about the playground is how, with the possible exception of the baby swings, all the attractions required your full participation. There were no pretty-horse carrousels or vertiginous rollercoasters that carried you to sensation. You were the motor that made the ride go. Your arms swung you from bar to bar, your legs pushed you off the ground or softened your landing. My beloved swings were a real full-body workout. If a parent or sister or friend were there with you, you might get a push to get you started or give you a boost. But gravity would always bring the swing back to a standstill – unless you pumped. You pumped with your legs, you pushed and pulled those chains with your arms; as the swing rose forward you leaned back, soles stabbing the sky, then bent your knees and dipped your upper body forward as you arced down and back. You could get so good at it that at the top of the arc you’d feel like you might do a full circle, or lose the pendulum effect and come crashing straight down. Sometimes you could stop pumping and coast. The wind whistled in your ears and if you closed your eyes it felt like flying.
Quiet and steady
Though many parts worked to keep the swing swinging, I also remember the sensation of my lower body moving through space – lower back, hips, butt. This area wasn’t as active as my arms and legs, but it, too, was working quietly and steadily to get me where I wanted to go.
This central place – your lumbar and sacral spine, your pelvis – is your support. It bears the weight of your upper body, enables mobility of the hips, legs, and trunk, and protects the nerves that connect the lower regions of the body to the brain. The muscles in this area are a powerful motor for movement. When you walk, lift something, sit, stand, and oh-so-much more, your back muscles turn on – which is a good and natural thing. But if you contract your back consistently and unconsciously, beyond the purpose it was meant to serve, it will surely speak to you, and its language is Pain.
Watch your back
Lately in my somatic practice I’ve been spending a lot of time with people’s lower backs. Over and over again I’ve been feeling the tension that so many hold in that area (and its neighbor, the abdomen). Sometimes posture is to blame, or staying in the same position for too long (especially sitting), or pushing too far in sports or work tasks. Sometimes the tension is related to a different kind of imbalance. If you are struggling under the weight of obligations, suppressing anger, avoiding conflict, or trying to help others without taking care of yourself, your back may get the message that it should contract in order to maintain control, push through, or hold on. The lower body may also shut down as a coping mechanism in reaction to physical, sexual, or emotional trauma.
Every body is different, so general “fixes” for lower-back tension will only take you so far. You need to feel your own back and see if, when, and how it may be working overtime. It may need rest, or it may need to move; you may need a helping hand to sort it all out.
Having said that, here are three things I can recommend to help focus some healthy attention on the area:
Imagine a small sphere in the center of your pelvis, just below your navel. When you inhale deeply, this sphere expands in all directions, pushing your abdomen out slightly, but also filling out your back and sides. When you exhale, the sphere returns to its original size.
A simple movement with a fancy name, the basic idea of pandiculation is to contract and then release your muscles, letting them move or stretch as they like. If you’ve ever seen a cat get up after a nap, arch its back, and then stretch out long, you’ve witnessed pandiculation. To try it for yourself: sit, stand, or lie down and notice any tension in your lower back. Resist the temptation to get rid of this tension. Instead, increase it slowly but surely. If your butt is squeezed, squeeze it more. If you’re hiking up a hip, hike it more. If you’re sucking-in your belly, do it harder. Same if you find that your pelvis is scooped under or tipped backward: do it more. If you don’t feel anything particular in your lower body, simply contract the whole area. And when it’s all nice and tight and you really feel the muscles working, slowly release the tension. Then if your body wants to stretch or move or shake, go ahead and let it do what feels good. Pandiculation actually allows your brain to re-train its habitual tensing of your muscles and sets up your body to make a healthier choice.
Think about the following questions (or even better, write down your thoughts). Maybe they will lead to more questions, or allow you to observe behavior that might be causing stress for your back:
– Who can you count on? Who’s “got your back”? Are there any strings attached?
– Who counts on you? Do you support yourself well enough to be able to support others in a healthy way?
– How do you handle your anger? What happens in your body when you get angry?
– Do you have reasonable expectations of yourself? Are you always running? Are you trying to do too much?
– Do you believe in your ability to land on your feet, to be independent? Do you trust that whatever happens, you’ll be able to see yourself through?
The sacrum (from the Latin os sacrum, “sacred bone”) was once thought to be where the soul resides. Be good to your holy center. Don’t let it get stuck. You need it to carry you through. In life’s playground, you are the motor that makes the ride go.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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