Living in the Spine

Recently someone asked me: “You say that yogis need to live in the spine. What does that mean, and how can we do it?” Good question!

At Ananda, we so often speak of living in the spine that it’s easy to forget that its meaning isn’t obvious; in fact, newcomers sometimes think it’s downright strange. I’d like to address how we as Ananda Yoga teachers can use help our students understand experientially what it means, and why and how to do it — not only in asana practice, but in every aspect of life.

The Big Picture

Living in the spine means centering your awareness in, and acting from, your own divine Self. Okay, that’s a nice definition, but exactly how can we do this?

In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda gives an answer:

“To remain more in the Self means to live more in the spine, and at the point between the eyebrows. The yogi’s awareness of the spinal energy must ever be directed upward.”

One way to understand this is to consider its opposite: living at our periphery, i.e., living through the senses. We need our senses to function in this world, but when they become the focus of our lives (as advertisers hope they will), our energy becomes habitually directed outward rather than inward and upward.

So the process of growth begins with withdrawing life-force from the senses into the spine. Only then can we begin to move it up to the spiritual eye.

Now as you may have seen, newer students often don’t like the idea of withdrawing from the senses. It sounds like deprivation. How can we help them begin in a way that’s meaningful for — and clearly beneficial to — them?

I’ll focus on some very basic exercises, taking students through four simple steps that will show them from their own experience:

  1. Become more aware of the spine
  2. Straighten the spine
  3. Become centered in the spine
  4. Act from the spine

This approach is easier with regular students because you can develop it over time, but it’s also possible (though harder) with drop-ins. I’ll describe the steps sequentially, but they don’t have to be taught linearly. Also, please note that “the spine” really means “the astral spine”; however, since the physical spine is more meaningful to newer students, let’s begin at the physical level.

1. Becoming Aware of the Spine

It’s hard to live in the spine if you’re not aware of it, and many people are only vaguely aware of it. They know that they have one, and they can feel the bumps on their back, but beyond that, they don’t know much about it. We can show them pictures or models, and visualization — trained via pictures or models — can be helpful. More helpful, however, is their own kinesthetic experience of the spine.

For example, have your students stand in Tadasana and sway the body slightly left and right, mentally resisting the swaying with the spine. When the body sways to one side, the spine tries to pull it the other away, back to center. Let resistance gradually reduce the swaying until you come to a point of perfect balance in the center.

Then sway the body forward and back, resisting the swaying with the spine until you come to center. In the same way, you can circle the body in a small, inward spiral, gradually coming to center.

These simple exercises help students begin to feel the spine as a part of the body — and of their movement — rather than merely intellectually knowing that it’s there.

But why stop with Tadasana? You can do a similar exercise in many asanas. By swaying the body gently and resisting that sway with the spine, students will gain a greater awareness of the location and shape of the spine in that pose — and whether they have “lost their center” in the pose.

For example, sway forward and backward in Ardha Chandrasana or Trikonasana. Move side-to-side in Bhujangasana or Paschimotanasana. Switch back and forth between the two phases of Janushirasana. Or spiral inward in Ardha Matsyendrasana.

This simple exercise can be very illuminating for students, revealing both their habits of asana practice and their everyday habits of posture.

2. Keeping a Straight Spine

Everyone knows that one “should” stand and sit up straight, though they may not know why. But when students directly experience how their physical posture affects their state of mind, it is much more meaningful — and much more motivating.

For example, have students alternate between standing (or sitting) with a straight spine versus slumping. (Don’t add the element of smiling vs. frowning, deep breathing, affirmations, etc. — those can come later, to add other emphases.) Keep them in each position for several breaths, observing how the position affects the breath and the mind.

Students will notice how their breathing is easier, and their minds are clearer and more alert, when their spines are straight than when they are slumping. Call their attention to how quickly the mind is affected by the transition from a straight spine to a slumped spine. It’s not rocket science.

You can also explore “straight vs. slumped” in a variety of asanas in which the spine is ideally straight. Some good examples are Utkatasana (light vs. heavy), Trikonasana (dynamic vs. stagnant), Vajrasana (mental clarity vs. mental fog), and Ardha Matsyendrasana (open vs. closed).

This simple exercise can be highly motivating. “Gosh,” students will think, “I can affect my mind simply through my posture. I’d better be more vigilant about what my spine is doing.” This is the beginning of living in the spine. You might give students the “homework” of noticing this affect throughout the days until their next class with you — then discuss it with them at that class. It can be a real wakeup call.

Even if you offer your students no more than this little exercise, it would be of great value to them.

3. Centering in the Spine

The word “centered” is common these days: “He’s really off-center today,” or “She’s a very centered person.” Less understood, however, are the deeper yogic principles behind such expressions. One way to convey the point is through balance poses, which take people beyond being merely aware of the spine to being centered in the spine.

Balance begins with making the spine your physical center of gravity; without that, the pose is one big wobble — for as long as it lasts — and the breath and mind can get agitated. But with centeredness in the spine, the breath and mind stay calm, the pose lasts longer, and it’s more enjoyable.

This goes far beyond the physical center of gravity. It’s about where your concentration is, where the center of your reality is. That’s the real key to the asanas — and to life. To demonstrate this, have your students concentrate on the lifted knee in Vrikasana, making it the center of their reality. Guess what? It becomes harder to balance.

Or ask them to center their reality in their gazing point on the floor. Again, wobble city! Then have them do the pose while concentrating on the spine, feeling it as the center of their reality. It’s an entirely different experience; they’re still gazing at the spot on the floor, but their concentration is on where they’re gazing from rather than what they’re gazing at. Concentrating anywhere else makes balance more difficult, plus the overall experience less pleasant.

Again, translate this principle into non-balance poses. In Standing Backward Bend, ask students to concentrate on whatever they see; they might not wobble as they would in a balance pose, but the asana experience will certainly be, um, unremarkable.

Then have them do the pose while focusing in the spine; it’s a huge difference. Similarly, contrast doing Jathara Parivartanasana while concentrating on the out-stretched arm versus concentrating in the spine. In the former, you’re basically “just hanging out” as the body does its thing, while in the latter, you’re at the center of what’s happening in the pose, helping it to happen.

Breathing in the Spine

One excellent way to become more aware of, and more centered in, the spine is through learning to breathe in the spine. Of course, students with any knowledge of anatomy know that they don’t really breathe in the physical spine, but as you know, they do breathe in the astral spine. Focusing on, and tuning into, this process can be a wonderful teacher for your students, even if they’re relative beginners.

You did this often in AYTT and other classes, but let me remind you of some of the main aspects:

  • Sit upright with a straight spine.
  • Visualize the spine: Touch the tip of the tailbone (coccyx) with one forefinger, and the medulla oblongata area with the other. Visualize a hollow tube, about as big around as your thumb, connecting those two points, and energy flowing up through that tube with each inhalation, and down with each exhalation. This is the reality, whether students feel it or not; visualizing will gradually help them experience it personally. Next move the first finger to the spiritual eye and visualize breathing through the entire astral spine: from tailbone to medulla, then bending forward to the spiritual eye. Relax the hands to the lap and continue the breathing and visualization.
  • Use the Full Yogic Breath pattern: the upward wave of expansion in the torso on the inhalation coincides with upward movement of energy, while the downward wave of relaxation on the exhalation coincides with the down-ward movement of energy in the spine. The physical expansion and relaxation will help students tune into the energy movements.
  • Ujjayi breathing is an option: the constriction at the back of the throat slows the breath and helps draw one’s attention to the spine (since the back of the throat is very near the cervical spine).

“Spinal breathing” can help students focus on — and center in — the astral spine. Try it both in neutral poses like Tadasana, and in more-active asanas.

4. Acting from the Spine

Here’s the key: when every action — inside or outside of class — originates in the spine, and completes itself by returning to the spine, then we’re really beginning to live in the spine. As Swami Kriyananda writes in The Art and Science of Raja Yoga:

“I have found when skiing that if I deliberately center my awareness in the spine, feeling all my movements to be radiating outward from that center, I can ski very much better.

"One who can remain consciously centered in his spine will always be poised, ready to meet any situation that arises — even as a man who is well-balanced while running can turn quickly, whereas one who is not will very likely fall if he turns too suddenly.”

Let’s apply this to asanas: To enter a pose, center yourself in the spine and you expand from that center out into the periphery of the body. (That is, in fact, exactly what happens: energy moves out from the spine to your periphery in order to move the body.)

As you hold the pose, feel that in any area of the body that is active — the upraised arm in Trikonasana, or the straight leg in Janushirasana — that activity originates in the spine. Finally, when exiting the pose, draw all the energy back into your center, into the spine. Notice how even the physical feeling of release seems to move toward the spine.

Pausing in the ensuing neutral pose helps you to complete with withdrawal process, since it won’t be likely to feel completed merely by exiting the active pose.

The Energization Exercises provide another excellent way to feel this. When we tense, we send energy from the spine to activate a body part, contracting the muscles there. Conversely, energy returns to the spine when we relax.

Although we don’t use this full visualization during Energization — we simply focus on energy flooding the body part to cause tension, and withdrawing to cause relaxation — the radiating from and returning to the spine is what’s actually happening.

Particularly good illustrations of this process are:

  • Tensing and relaxing the calves and forearms
  • Four-part arm recharging and single-arm recharging
  • The “fencing” exercise (stepping one foot forward and thrusting the opposite arm forward, tensing the entire opposite side of the body)
  • The final exercise: double breathing without tension.

Full Spinal Living

We don’t want to limit our students’ experience of living in the spine to the physical yoga practices, however. Anything they do in life can be — and for a yogi, should be — a movement from the spine, completed by a return to the spine. Have your students experiment with the following exercises:

Walk from the spine

Let each step be an expansion outward from the spine. Don’t over-think this, else walking might all of a sudden become a complicated activity! Just feel it happening. The exercise will be both refreshing and centering.

In Paramhansa Yogananda’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained, Swami Kriyananda comments on India’s danda swamis, who carry a long, straight staff, symbolic of the spine.

This danda is an affirmation of the bearer’s centeredness in the Self within. The straightness of the danda is a reminder keep the spine always straight. An erect spine indicates a willing assumption of responsibility for one’s own life: an attitude that begs assistance from no one, that blames no one, but declares, “All I need lies at my own divine center.”

The danda is a courageous statement: “I am the center of my own universe, the sole cause of all that happens in my life. No outer circumstances condition my inner sense of who I am. In my divine Self I am forever free!”

“In your own life, similarly, try to live more in the spine. As you walk, mentally carry a danda. As Paramhansa Yogananda [said], only by accepting full responsibility for who we are and for whatever happens to us may we hope to change our destiny.”

Speak from the Spine

Here’s a real good one: Pause before speaking, and refer back to the spine any thoughts you’re about to express outwardly. Make sure that they resonate with your inner Self, with your own aspirations, before you clothe them in words.

How? Try to feel in your spine whether they are true to who you are, to who the listener is, to the situation at hand. Sound tedious? In the beginning, it is, because so many of us are accustomed to putting our mouths on “autopilot.”

With practice, however, it becomes more natural and, at least in my experience, a huge relief. You may be surprised at how much quieter you become, how much more truthful you become, how much more attentive to others’ feelings and ideas you become, how much more impact your words have on others — and how much less frequently your words get you into trouble!

Enjoy from the Spine

Whenever you enjoy something — good food, a hot bath, a massage, a walk in nature — refer your enjoyment back to the spine. Feel the spine as the origin of your enjoyment. Don’t allow the thought that the outward experience causes enjoyment, for in fact it does not. If that were true, everyone would enjoy exactly the same things — and clearly they don’t.

No, your enjoyment comes from inside yourself; the outward experience merely reminds you of your capacity for enjoyment. When we realize this, it’s very freeing. We see that our enjoyment of life is much less limited by circumstances.

Philosophy alone won’t give us this; it takes practice. Yogananda once said of such practice: “Most people don’t have the patience to practice it. I had the patience.”

Meditation on the Spine

When emphasizing “living in the spine” to your students, it can be helpful to begin and/or end class with the following visualization from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained:

You are not the rose, which scatters petals afar on the summer wind. You are not the body, which scatters energy abroad on winds of worldly desire. You are the subtle essence of reality, of all beauty and perfection. The essence that is you changes never.

Withdraw the energy of your body into your own center, in the spine. Relax.

Release your mind from its ceaseless busyness. Relax. Cast onto the wind all desires and attachments of your heart. Relax.

As you breathe naturally, feel your breath rising through the spine with every inhalation, then descending with every exhalation.

Train yourself to become more conscious, throughout the day, of your own center in the spine.

In his book, Meditation for Starters, Swami Kriyananda explains the best way to carry meditation-born awareness into daily life: “By developing a consciousness of your own center in the spine,” he writes. “Live outward from that center, rather than inward from your periphery.”

As you help your students learn this truth through their own direct experience, their lives will begin to change in wonderful, magical ways.

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All authors are graduates of Ananda Yoga Teacher Training.

Ananda Yoga Registered Yoga School for 200 and 300 hours


Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga® Worldwide and Co-Founder of Yoga Alliance


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