How many hours a day do you spend in your car’s bucket seats? Slouching on the couch? Slumping at your kitchen counter’s barstools? Hunched in front of the computer? If you’re like most people living life, it’s quite a few. The good news about all this hunching, slumping, and slouching is that your body is already really good at a two common Pilates maneuvers—tucking the pelvis and flexing the spine. On the other hand, how many hours a day do you spend arching your back and popping your ribcage forward to counteract all that hunching? Then tack on the number of hours spent practicing backbends like upward dog, wheel, and camel pose in yoga class to reverse the slumping from the day. It all adds up to your body being able to do two things: flex the entire spine or extend the entire spine.
A lot of yoga classes start with a simple warmup called cat/cow- which involves flexing and extending the spine. Many Pilates classes teach pelvic bridging and roll downs which involve only flexing the spine. So if you do Pilates and you start to embody that shape as your daily posture, you might be pretty good at tucking your pelvis like Elvis and rounding your spine like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Or maybe you’re really good at backbends but continually thrust your ribs like Mary Lou Retton long after your “heart opening” yoga practice has ended?
When people who are doing all the “right” exercises yet still have pain, their body blind spots are often the culprit. When I look at the kinds of movements my clients and students are doing, I sometimes find that the exercises they’re practicing a lot—because they’re so good at them—are actually reinforcing the same postural positions they hold all day long in their daily life and in their fitness routine.
Which side of the fence are you on? Are you Elvis with a tucked pelvis— really great at roll downs and roll ups in Pilates? Or are you a back-arching, booty-popping Beyoncé—a master at urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) and ustrasana (camel pose)? Perhaps you’re good at both: you can flex your WHOLE spine or extend your WHOLE spine. But herein lies the problem of differentiation: most people can’t flex their lumbar spine while extending their thoracic spine, and most can’t extend their lumbar spine while flexing their thoracic spine.
Challenging yourself to break out of the box of your established movement patterns can help get you out of pain and improve your posture. On Friday, I’ll get down to the nitty-gritty with an exercise I happen to love called the WAVE. It’s great because it forces people to do the opposite of what they’re good at, whether that happens to be tucking your pelvis and flexing the spine or arching your back and sticking your bum out.
Here’s what you’ll get out of the WAVE:
1. YTU ball placement is used to help locate bony landmarks in the front and the back of the torso. The breathing strategy fosters a “rest and digest” response that establishes a calm environment to explore body blind spots.
2. The wave-like pattern of movement helps establish new neuromuscular connections for students who have only experienced cat/cow pose or the traditional Pilates bridge using flexion in both directions.
3. Awareness of the interconnectedness of the diaphragm, TA, multifidus, and pelvic floor.
One thing the WAVE is especially good for is becoming much more aware of spinal articulation, the ability to exert muscle control over a particular part of the spine while revolving back and forth through flexion and extension into what’s called undulation. I started teaching this exercise when I noticed that many of my students had difficulty differentiating their pelvis from their spine, and their lower back/lumbar spine from their ribcage/thoracic spine. Many complained of back pain but were unable to pinpoint where it was coming from. Thanks (no thanks!) to stiffness, weakness, and/or imbalances in the spinal muscles, my students found it challenging to engage in multidirectional spinal articulation.
The lesson here is that you need to pick exercises that you aren’t good at and that may be frustrating. If an exercise is so ingrained you can do it in your sleep, then there are going to be a multitude of other types of movements that you need to do to challenge your motor control. If it is too familiar and comfortable you may be on the road to a repetitive stress injury.
With spinal articulation it’s not all or nothing—undulate a bit, and explore the spectrum from Elvis to Beyoncé and back again.
The WAVE is one of my favorite exercises for breaking out of doing only the movements our bodies are already good at. It feels so good to move when we pay attention to both the muscles we use all the time and the ones that never seem to come into play in our daily life and/or fitness “routine.”
My challenge as a teacher of movement is to make poses and exercises simple and enjoyable—even for folks who might not find them so simple. Sometimes I have trouble locating the right words, but I love breaking down complicated movements into bite-sized pieces. The WAVE might seem like a lot to keep track of at first, but you’ll find that it helps you explore your body’s blind spots, establish new neuromuscular connections, and become aware of how the diaphragm, TA, multifidus, and pelvic floor all interconnect.
Previously, I talked about the importance of being able to differentiate your pelvis from your spine, or your lower back/lumbar spine from your ribcage/thoracic spine. I also discussed how this lack of proprioception led to undifferentiated global back pain for many of my students and clients. They had pain, but they couldn’t articulate where the problem was.
That’s where the WAVE comes in. This exercise has helped so many of them strengthen and traction their spine on their own. It’s prevented their back pain from recurring and has given them a firmer grasp on what’s doing what inside their backs.
My husband often says, “Trina, use your words!” when I get tongue-tied. So here it goes… I will attempt to explain the WAVE exercise in words. For those who are visual learners I’m also including a video. We’ll be using the YTU therapy balls, which kinesthetic learners will find helpful. Some of us like multiple ways of learning; I know that I do. I hope you catch the wave and enjoy the ride!
1. SET POSITION with BREATH CHECK: Lie on the floor in ardha savasana/constructive rest position. Inhale and swell the belly, then the ribs, and then exhale. Repeat this breath pattern 3 more times. Noticing if there is any tension in your neck or the tops of your shoulders.
2. SELF MASSAGE: Place 1 YTU ball under your sacrum and the other one on or just slightly under your bra/bro strap. Rest and allow the balls to sink into these two areas of your body. The sustained compression will begin to soften the muscles and fascia here. On an exhale, round your lower back toward the floor slightly—use your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor. On an inhale, arch your lower back using the deep low-back muscles in conjunction with the transversus and pelvic floor. Continue this pattern for 5 more breaths, getting a sense of your body in the area from below the ribs to just above your tailbone. As you exhale and round your lower back, imagine rolling a marble from your pubic bone to your belly button. As you inhale, roll the marble from your navel back to your pubic symphysis. Notice if it feels easier to arch your lower back or to round your lower back. This will give you information about any front-to-back discrepancies in the strength of your tubular core muscles. Rest.
RE-SET POSITION in ardha savasana with BREATH CHECK: Take the balls out and notice any new sensations in your lower back. Does it feel heavier? lighter? warmer? cooler?
Inhale and swell the belly, then the ribs, and then exhale. Repeat this breathe pattern 3 more times. Is there less tension in the neck and tops of the shoulders?
3. THE EXERCISE: We’ll begin with WAVE UP in Flexion. Still lying on the floor, place 1 YTU ball on your xiphoid process—that’s the bony tip at the bottom of your sternum. Place the 2nd YTU ball on your pubic symphysis between your pubic bones. A muscle called the rectus abdominis attaches at these 2 places. This is the famous “6-pack” muscle on the cover of all the fitness magazines at the grocery store. It flexes your spine. Your feet are hip-distance apart with the toes pointing forward. Place one block between your feet and the other block between your thighs. On an exhale, press your lower back into the floor and peel your spine off of the mat one vertebra at a time until the pubic bone ball is much higher than the xiphoid-bone ball near your sternum coming into your bridge position.
4. WAVE DOWN in Extension: Embrace your inner Beyoncé and let the spine arch while you lower your tailbone down to the floor. Then sequentially roll through the sacrum, low back, and middle back, and finally return to the lifted bridge position.
Continue to wave through 5 more times repeating steps 3 and 4.
5. THE EXERCISE in Reverse: WAVE UP in Extension: Inhale and bridge up your pelvis with slightly extended spine.
6. WAVE DOWN in Flexion: Sequentially lower the upper back, middle back, lower back, sacrum, and tailbone. Continue to WAVE through 5 more times. Imagine that your spinal vertebrae are like dominos. One gets tapped and the others follow suit in a rhythmic sequential fashion.
7. RE-SET POSITION with BREATH CHECK: Inhale and swell the belly, then the ribs, and then exhale. Repeat this breathe pattern 3 more times. Is there more movement available to you in the belly and ribs on the inhalation? Do you have less tension in the neck and tops of the shoulders?
Because it asks you to do more than one kind of movement, the WAVE is a great way to break out of patterns that reinforce postures you use all day long. Becoming aware of spinal articulation is invaluable for the long-term health of your spine, motor control, and balance. If you want to know more about spinal articulation and the breath, check out this Yoga Tune Up® video of an exercise called “Bridge Lifts.”