In her running series, Tao Minister and mind-body strength expert Tammy Wise is exploring the various areas of the Psyche-Muscular Blueprint. With each column she teaches us to connect to a different area of our internal systems so that we may achieve our best selves. Here, she shows us that what we need for confidence and self-control isn’t just a little backbone – it’s all the back muscles too!
By Tammy Wise
It’s my first time making a super-sharp turn on my Harley Davidson. I’m trying to pull out of a tight NYC parking space with my nerves racing, and I wipe out. OMG, did anybody see that? I fret. Sure enough, they did, and for a moment I feel anything but badass standing by this badass bike. Then the fella walking by says, “OK, let’s see you try that again.” We pick up the motorcycle, I swallow my pride, and with a little more throttle this time, I get out of the spot and on the road again! I wave goodbye and take my victory ride. In that moment, I realize I feel even more triumphant than I would have had I not failed the first time.
Trying something new and getting out of your comfort zone, reaching for your dreams, opening your heart to love… These risks ask you to expose what is real in your inner world and defend its value to the outer world. Though terrifying, it’s a thrill to go for it!
And here’s the truth: Failing takes away the fear of failing. The worst has already happened. What’s more, even if you do “fail,” your effort gets you closer to success.
Yet, knowing that, we can still experience self-doubt. You know how it feels: You don’t want to stay in your comfortable bubble and live life on the defensive, but you worry that stepping outside of your box might be reckless. In those moments, you’re trapped in the grip of your personal bodyguard.
What triggers your bodyguard to spring into action?
- Negative self-talk
- Non-action (different from choosing non-doing)
- Giving up
To break free from your bodyguard’s grasp and the spastic-like defensive stance of fear-based thinking, you must first learn where overprotective posturing lives in the body. Eastern diagnostic methods tell us that fear lives in the kidneys, which reside near the low back muscles, while your upper back muscles are your ultimate protector, functioning as a muscular shield for your vital organs and bearing the thickest skin of the entire body to protect you from the aggressions of the outside world. In other words, both fear and protection live in your back’s musculature (I outline the Psyche-Muscular Blueprint, a map of where emotions are stored in your body, in this article).
Now, I’m not suggesting that you need to be (or pretend to be) fearless. In fact, I’m proposing that you allow fear to exist and deliberately reorganize its force. Managing fear’s energy guides you toward a balanced relationship with your life—not overly reckless or defensive—so that self-doubt isn’t first in command when you make a choice.
How doubt takes you out:
Observe your upper back posture to help you gauge your degree of recklessness versus defensiveness.
- Recklessness: Feeling threatened can cause a reactive contraction in the upper back, posturing a confident chest that is actually hiding insecurity—as in a scared soldier at attention, where order supersedes fear. Though this may look convincing, your upper body strength is compromised because it’s riddled with tension. This generates hyperactive energy.
- Defensiveness: Feeling defensive causes an exaggerated expansion in the upper back, showing off the back’s muscular size rather than utilizing its muscular strength—as an animal’s first line of defense is expanding its fur, gills, or quills. While this is initially useful for protection, when it’s maintained for a length of time, the back’s powerful command is exhausted and the heartfelt connection the chest evokes is depressed into the shadows of your back-cave, a safe harbor and hideout (not unlike Batman’s retreat). This generates hypoactive energy.
To break these habitual physical holding patterns that perpetuate doubt, and to give your back its full potential to protect you in proportion with what you’re up against, give the chest what it needs to feel empowered. The chest needs a stable yet supple back, a support system rather than a governing system. If there’s tension around the emotional vulnerability of the heart, this tension prevents the chest muscles from lifting naturally—unaffectedly—and genuinely.
How to neutralize your back’s protective guard to open your chest’s heart:
It’s imperative that the back and chest muscles operate as a team. This means the more vulnerable, yin chest muscles need to recognize that the strong, yang back muscles are right behind them—acting as a built-in bodyguard—so they can courageously extend yet remain supported by the safe back-cave. Only then can they connect to, and move with, a challenge in a purposeful and commanding way.
Your back’s posture leads you to the power found in your chest’s courage. Use this exercise as a reference for keeping the chest and back in proper placement.
- Lie supine on a three-foot foam tube or rolled up beach towel; the tube supports your pelvis, spinal column, and head. Your knees should be bent and your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. Surrender the shoulder blades on each side of the tube and relax your arms on the floor palms up.
- As you allow your arms and shoulders to fall beneath the level of your spine, your sternum will swell forward as if opening to the heavens. Feel how you’re giving the heart center space and permission to be seen. Become aware of your sternum’s position on the body’s anterior plane and your shoulder blades’ position on the posterior plane—together making an interior space for your heart center.
How to train your back’s outer strength to follow your chest’s inner strength:
The back muscles, it could be said, are working for the sake of the chest muscles’ lift and the heart center’s openness. Commit to keeping the downward influence of the back’s force, that drops through the shoulder blades, balanced with the chest’s natural propensity to lift and open. Without this balance, the protective nature of the back becomes aggressive and disconnected from the heart’s more subtle nature.
The gliding motion of the shoulder blades guides all back movements. When the back muscles lead in the dance with your chest, the shoulder blades glide together and apart. This causes the sternum to swell and depress within the chest. Shoulder blade mobility leads you to a relaxed strength in your back.
- Sit or stand with your arms extended out at your sides. Pinch your shoulder blades together keeping your arms relatively still. Descending energy through your back muscles creates a rise in your chest muscles.
- Return to the starting position, then expand your shoulder blades as wide as possible. There is no need for the arms to travel backward or forward. Ascending energy in your back muscles will cause your chest muscles to become concave.
- Repeat this until you feel clear about the shoulder blades’ range of motion, can balance the back’s contraction with the chest’s release, and are able to settle into a central posture with no rise or fall of the sternum.
There is a reason why the phrase “I’ve got your back” came into use. Back muscles offer protection—just as a tortoise shell protects the tortoise. As your body’s shield, back muscles give you a sense of safekeeping and courage, as well as support for gentler heartfelt expression.
But without freedom to fully contract and expand, the powerful yang nature of the back muscles is thwarted. The chest muscles then become cautious and hesitant to open, unable to stretch your heart energy freely beyond your comfort zone. They collapse inwardly, and you hide out in your back-cave.
When aligning your posture or approaching a back exercise, concentrate on the internal relationship between the back and chest as the yang power that gives rise to your more vulnerable heartfelt yin nature. Be resolved in employing the masculinity of the back without overshadowing your more feminine purpose of heart. Be mindful of the dreams in your heart that ask the chest muscles to stretch… and spur the back muscles to leap into purposeful action!
Curious about how your body aligns you on your first (date, job interview, meeting, etc)? Read this article by Tammy to learn more.
Tammy Wise is a Tao Minister, mind-body strength expert, and founder of the BodyLogos holistic fitness method. Her writing and methodology has been widely featured in media including New York, TimeOut New York, Fitness, Shape, and Natural Health magazines. She is currently writing and producing a BodyLogos book and 3-D video system for online. Learn more about her training, holistic treatments, and products at bodylogos.com, or follow her on Twitter at @BodyLogos.