To round or not to round

There’s some discussion on ezBoard about rounding the back in forward bends, versus doing the straight-backed, swan-dive version. I am very curious about the whole deal, having noted in the past that the photos in Yoga Mala are distinctly rounded. Apparently Nancy Gilgoff is a proponent of the rounded back, as, according to a story on the ezBoard thread, is Guruji.

Now, when I went to Richard Freeman’s workshop, he did mention the “curling the tailbone” business. Obviously, a curled tailbone is going to result in a rounded back, at least until you practice enough to maybe open the upper back even as the lower back is somewhat rounded. Oh boy, as you can tell, I’m kinda confused by all of this.

Decided I’d try rounding my back a bit at led class this morning, just to see how it felt. Volleyball Guy is vacationing in Vegas this long weekend, so Muscle Man taught class. Immediately he started talking about flattening the back in forward bends. Curses! My plan to try out the curved back was foiled. One of the things I learned in zen practice is to listen to your teacher. No, not in a dumb lemmings-off-a-cliff way. In a gracious way.

The whole deal isn’t as black and white as it seems either, since whoever stands before you is your teacher. I love that idea — that any person you interact with stands before you as a teacher. It boils down to this: if I go to someone’s class and they want to do flat back, I do flat back. Why? ‘Cause I’ve chosen to partake of the community of the class.

Here are some of the other “rules of engagement” I’ve discussed with monks over the years: If you go to someone’s house and they offer you yak butter tea, you have some yak butter tea. The monk who was talking about this made a specific point of mentioning how hideous yak butter tea tastes. Then he laughed.

Here’s a tougher one: If you are a vegetarian and you go to someone’s house and they offer you food with meat, you eat what’s been offered.

In the end, I suppose we have so much, as Americans (or Europeans, as I know some of the bloggers in this community are), that these rules kind of go out the window. Chances are, if a host offers food to most of us, there will be a big enough spread with enough choices that one can select what they prefer. If you’re some place where someone is sharing all they have, though, it’s a different story. Less selection, less abundance — and the need for more gracious behavior.

Okay, so anyhow, I’ve been taught to eat creepy meat casseroles, drink yak butter tea and do all my forward bends flat-backed if the situation requires. But I’m still left wondering about this rounded back question. Someone said John Scott is a recent convert to this method, after years of practicing and teaching the flat back style forward bend. It all makes me very curious. If anyone has any insight into this issue, I’d be really interested to hear.


4 Responses

  1. I was taught to flatten out the back, and now I think that’s what blew up my hamstrings, and if I’d allowed myself to round the back a little, I could have avoided that. On the other hand, I feel that for people with weak lower backs (especially out of shape people who work in an office) it’s safer to do the pelvic tilt. So I guess that my answer is I don’t know. I will ask Hamish tomorrow!

  2. Well, to add to the confusion, my teacher Annie says you generally start with a round back and work towards flattening it out as you progress in your practice. Flat back isn’t an absolute goal, but something you can start working towards as your hamstrings, etc. release.

    I initially rounded my back because I’m a natural hunchback (due to my vertebral deformity) and it was easier for me. During the past year or so I’ve worked on flattening, because I wanted to try to create space between those vertebrae and counteract my kyphosis.

    Which is just a long way of saying: it depends.

    I agree 100% on doing what the teacher says in his/her particular class (as long as you don’t think it’s dangerous). It’s a matter of respect.

  3. I agree that it depends. Maybe it’s good to be aware of both options, because then you can work toward correcting your own errors. I don’t think tucking the tailbone completely implies rounding, because for someone who tends to arch the low back, tucking could actually mean straightening, in a way. But I agree that for many, such as office dwellers with tight/weak low back and psoas and weak abs, keeping some pelvic tilt and rounding is safer. So it makes sense what your teacher Annie says, as long as flat back isn’t an absolute goal. I would say improving extension and awareness, but maintaining control and a flexible mindset- able to respect different teachers etc. Hmm hadn’t read ez board but now I’ll pay more attention in practice. I think I was slightly unsure what I “should” do, and therefore just zoning out!

  4. I am with yogamum here, and actually, i am not sure i really ubderstand the question because a round back versus a flat back is more or less an anatomical issue. Some people have naturally flatter backs and some, like me, have a natural mushroom-cap shaped back in forward bends. I could try to have a flat back til the cows come home – but there would still be a curve. Those with flat backs would not benefit from “rounding”, as this would compress their spine. The only thing that seems to make sense to me is to keep trying to lenghen your spine without reference to “must flatten” or “must round”. Observre yourself lying on your back in the moment before rolling up in urdvha mukha paschima, and notice how flat your back is or isn’t – even with gravity’s assistance. This should give you some idea of what i am talking about…

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