The following set of exercises are designed to help you feel you pelvis, low back, ribcage, neck, head and shoulder blades. These exercises are designed to help you experience your body by moving specific parts slowly, smoothly and repeatedly with rhythm. You can then focus on feeling the parts that you are moving.
Once you’ve learned to feel these parts individually, you could then practice feeling them in the context of some action, whether a yoga pose or a tai ji movement or rowing or weight lifting or any activity that you do. The more you experience your body, the better you can feel it and control it in any situation. The intent is not to program you and say that this is the right way or the wrong way, but to allow you to feel and control your body so that you can use it in a way that is appropriate to what you are doing at the time. Better yet, it is to give you the ability to feel the possibilities for each of these parts so that you can choose from among them.
As an example, in the twisting section there are four different exercises. One involves twisting with the ribs expanded, another while the ribs are pulled inwards. Another involves twisting with one side expanded while the other is contracted and the other variation is the opposite.
Now even if you can only do the first two options (expanded or contracted) you can try these options and notice which one makes twisting easier, or helps you to twist further or which simply feels the most comfortable given what you are doing at the time.
These exercises are all designed so that they can be done while sitting. You can sit on a chair (while looking at your computer) or you can sit on the floor. If on the floor you may find it to sit on a block or a book so that your can move your pelvis freely relative to your legs. Ideally, you can move roll your pelvis far enough forwards that you lumbar spine can straighten or even assume a “normally curved” position.
In the context of basic principles and foundation, you can consider these exercises foundational building blocks for feeling your body and using it in different contexts.
Ribs and Spine Together-Lengthening and Relaxing
Learn to feel your ribs and spine by bending your spine forwards and allow your ribs to sink. Hold and concentrate on feeling the “weight” of your ribs and allowing weight to sink down. Notice (and allow) spine to bend forwards. Think “Couch Potato” or simply slouch. Also allow the head to go forwards and down relative to the ribcage.
Next slowly pull ribs and head upwards. Pull up on the back of the head so that the back of the neck feels long.
Work at making the ribcage feel expansive and spacious. You can also focus on creating space between the ribs.
Relax ribs and head down and then and then Lengthen entire spine, ribs and head upwards. Gradually shorten the time in each position and move slowly and smoothly from one to the other. Notice the difference in sensations. You may notice that you naturally inhale while lengthening and that you exhale while relaxing. That is because lengthening the spine and opening the ribcage expands the lungs while doing the opposite compresses the space that they are in.
For the next exercise, which can continue from the previous, keep the spine upright and long and only move the ribs.
Because you are only moving your ribs, you may notice that each breath is a lot smaller.
To maximize your breath, focus on each part of your ribcage individually. While inhaling and exhaling, focus on moving your front ribs forwards and up, and then back and down. Bottom side ribs move outwards and up and then inwards and down. The back ribs simply lift up and down.
Focus on feeling or sensing each of these actions separately first and then all together. To feel your ribs move put your awareness on them or in them.
For the next exercise, keep the spine long and the ribs lifted and allow your front belly (the front of your belly) to move as you breathe. It’ll move forwards as you inhale and back as you exhale. Once you have the hang of this, focus on the bottom half of your lower belly (the bottom quarter of your belly)-halfway down from the belly button. Hold this part of your belly inwards while inhaling. There should be a slight feeling of tension running from side to side. You can imagine pulling the front edges of your pelvis inwards slightly.
Allow your upper belly to expand while holding your lower belly in. Slowly and smoothly relax your entire belly completely while exhaling.
Now try the same action while lifting and lowering the ribs. While inhaling gently pull your lower belly back while allowing your upper belly to expand. Allow your ribs to lift and expand at the same time. You may get the sensation that you are using your upper belly to push your ribs upwards.
Smoothly relax everything while exhaling.
The diaphragm pushes downwards on the abdominal organs while inhaling in this exercise. The abdominal organs then push outwards on the abdominal wall. It also can cause the “Pushing Up” sensation on the ribcage.
Roll the Pelvis and Straighten the Lumbar Spine
Changing gears slightly, sit on a chair or on a book or block so that you can roll your pelvis freely back and forwards. Start with it rolled forwards so that you lumbar spine is bent backwards (normal curve.)
Slowly rock your pelvis back just far enough so that your lumbar spine is straight. Then rock forwards. Practice slowly smoothly rocking backwards and forwards while feeling the change in position of your pelvis and lower back.
You may find it helpful to use a mirror. Notice when your lumbar spine looks straight and notice the feeling that accompanies this straightness. You might try fine tuning this position if there is a position near straightness that feels really comfortable or nice-as if the lower back is open or full.
You can add the previous exercise to this one and allow your upper belly to expand while rolling your pelvis backwards. You can pull your lower belly in at the same time. You then straighten you lumbar spine and expand your ribcage each time you inhale. You relax them both while exhaling.
Pulling head Up, Straighten Cervical Spine and Spreading Shoulder Blades
We’ve already practiced pulling the head back and up while straightening the spine, but here we’ll isolate the movement.
Relax the ribs and allow the head to sink forwards. Now focus on pulling the back of the head back and up. The chin can pull inwards at the same time. You may notice that this action naturally causes the front of the ribs to lift. Now slowly relax your head forwards and down. Repeat and make the movements smooth and slow.
Adding the shoulder blades, focus on feeling the inner edges of your shoulder blades, the part closest to the spinal column. This is the attachment point for most of the muscles that stabilize the scapula with respect to your ribcage.
As you pull your head back and up move the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You may notice that your back feels wider, broader, more open. Relax while exhaling. While doing this action, try to keep the muscles that sit on your shoulder blades relaxed. Keep your large chest muscle (Pectoralis Major) relaxed also. You may have to focus on slowly moving your shoulder blades in order to feel this action, and in order to feel the position where the inner edges of your shoulder blades are flat on your back.
Twisting and Turning the Ribcage
With hands in prayer in front of your sternum, keep your hands there and turn your ribs to the right. Turn your ribcage relative to your pelvis and lumbar spine. Twist your ribs relative to each other.
Keep your ribs and head lifted and move your upper belly while breathing.
Hold for a few breaths and then pull the ribs in while continuing to twist. Hold for a few breaths noticing whether pulling ribs in makes twisting easier or harder. Did you twist further?
Next contract the left side of your ribcage and open the right side. How does this help (once you get the hang of it.)
Try the opposite.
Rest and then try the same options while twisting to the left.
In any exercise where we are twisting and turning the ribs, we can expand the ribs, contract them or expand one side while contracting the other. As mentioned, one option may be more appropriate given what you are doing at the time.
Bending the Spine Backwards and Forwards
Again while sitting, bend the spine backwards. Tilt the pelvis forwards at the same time. You can tuck the chin in and focus only on bending the lumbar spine and thoracic spine (back of the ribcage) backwards. Notice as you do so how your belly lengthens and the front of your ribcage opens. To assist this action, Focus on the side of your ribcage and push the sides of your ribs forwards.
Just for the experience also try pulling the sides of your ribs back.
Notice how each movement assists or doesn’t assist the backbend. For myself (currently,) pushing side ribs forwards makes bending spine backwards feel better.
Next bend the spine forwards. Pull the side ribs back and then try pushing them forwards. Notice the results. Again, my personal observations (yours may be different) are that pulling the side ribs back make this action easier while sitting.
When holding each position, experiment with different types of breath to see which one is easiest.
I find that when bending backwards, holding my lower belly in and breathing into my upper belly and front ribs feels comfortable. While bending backwards, I can breathe just a little into my upper belly but I then I put most of my effort into breathing into the back of my ribcage.
Stretch and Relax
To stretch and relax the muscles you’ve been using you may find it useful to do an assisted or relaxed twist.
Use a knee or the side of your chair and the back of your chair or the floor for leverage, use your arms to twist your ribs while relaxing your waist and ribcage.
Make both your inhales and your exhales feel relaxed and smooth.
Most of these exercises involved using the muscles of the abdomen or intercostal spaces (the spaces between the ribs) in one way or another. They also, ideally, will help you to develop your ability to both feel and control your spine, the elements that make it up (the head, cervical spine, ribs, thoracic spine, lumbar spine and pelvis,) and the relationships between these elements.
In Basic Principle terminology we can use the word “idea” instead of the word “element.”
Note on Ideas and Relationships
The ideas we can learn to feel using these exercises are: The head, neck (cervical spine), ribcage, thoracic spine, lumbar spine, pelvis, shoulder blades.
Because the neck, thoracic spine and lumbar spine are actually made up of smaller elements, we can actually learn to feel and control the relationships between these smaller elements. Thus these elements could be considered as ideas or as a system of relationships.
Other relationships that we can learn to feel and control include those between the following pairs of ideas: head and ribcage, ribs and thoracic spine, ribs and pelvis, shoulder blades relative to each other, shoulder blades relative to the spine.