Earth element relates to stability, security, structures, boundaries, materiality and form.
In the body Earth element relates to the most stable, supportive and slow changing parts, the skeleton, connective tissues, muscles and skin. These provide the structure within and through which the physiological actions of the body take place, and the forces of gravity and locomotion are transmitted.
In our classes we have been focussing our practise on the core muscular and skeletal structures, which give the basis for balance and safe, grounded movement. By bringing our attention to, and learning to trust in the support of these central musculoskeletal structures, we can rely less on the outer muscle body to support us, discovering the powerful support structures arising from our centre.
The core is formed first by the spine itself, which has what yoga educator Leslie Kaminoff terms ‘structural prana’, that is, the architecture of the spine itself has an inherent tendency towards equilibrium and alignment.
The spine can be helpfully viewed as two columns, inner and outer. The spinous processes of the outer spine, are, spiny! They jut outwards in three directions, and through the action of the ligaments that bind to them seek to maintain the spine in upright equilibrium at all times.
The discs of the inner spine are round, strong, and evolved for load bearing. Between the discs are gel-filled pockets surrounded by concentric sheets of fibre, called intervertebral discs. These too act to maintain the spine in equilibrium. As the spine moves from side to side, or forward to back, the nature of the intervertebral discs is such that they will automatically seek to return themselves to a neutral centred position.
In this way the inner and outer parts of the spine work together to transmit the forces of gravity and of locomotion, and continuously maintain a state of dynamic equilibrium. Our work as yogis is to support this inherent equilibrium seeking nature of the spine by simultaneously releasing tension and building balanced strength throughout the musculature. An aspect of how we do this is by connecting with the deeper layers of muscular support in the body, in particular the muscles of the core.
The core muscles of the body form an egg shape, at the top of which is the diaphragm, an upside down bowl shaped web of muscles that is situated in the base of the rib cage, and is the engine of breath in the body, in continuous movement as the breath moves in and out 24 hours a day. At the base of the core is the pelvic floor, another web of muscle, or diaphragm, a diamond of muscle across the base of the pelvis. The sides of the egg are formed by a group of muscles among them, the Transverse Abdominus which wrap like a band around the abdominal area, the Multifidus which travel from the sacrum upwards along the spine, the Rectus Abdominus and Obliques which wrap around the front and sides of the lower body and the Quadratus Lumborum which rises from the upper back of the pelvis to attach to the upper lumbar spine.
In the centre of this egg of criss-crossing muscle is the Psoas, which connects from the lumbar spine downwards to connect with the Iliac muscle and then join at the top of the Femur. The Psoas and Iliac muscle together are known as the Iliopsoas muscle, and weakness or tightness in this muscle can lead to all sorts of problems, including back pain, breathing issues, leg pain and more. The Psoas is sometimes called a ‘hidden treasure’, as all of its functions can be taken on by outer muscles, and so it can be hard to connect with at first, but connecting with this important core muscle leads to a sense of grounded-ness, safety and stability in the body, as well as contributing to healthy alignment and movement.
In our asana practise we first connect with our ground of support, we feel into our base, whichever part of the body is supporting, be it hands, feet, sit-bones or head. Having connected with our base of support we connect with our core, feeling into the meridian lines of support running from our base in towards our centre. Then from this grounded, centred place, we can move with our breath into the full expression of the pose. In this way we always know that we are moving safely, and engaging the deep structures of support within.
There is much more to this subject, and in future blogs we’ll look in more depth at the core structures of the body and how our yoga practise can bring us into a more meaningful functional relationship with them.