Going to ground: Yin yoga for the kidney meridian
Rediscovering the earth beneath us can help cultivate feelings of safety and security during seismic shifts.
2020 has brought with it a host of experiences and events that have seemed to shake the very ground we walk on. Collectively, humankind has been sharing in a time of unbelievable uncertainty, fear and upheaval. Aspects of life that many of us held dear and that seemed stable — our jobs, our health, our relationships, our homes, our yoga studios — were suddenly under threat in a way that most of us never anticipated. Our relationship to material objects was redefined as our favourite foods disappeared from supermarket aisles, the luxury of travel evaporated, and we had to adjust our spending habits.
In geology, the very word “upheaval” literally means to lift the ground. If you’ve found yourself drawn to grounding practices during this time — cooking, walking, gardening or static yoga — you’re not alone. There are several reasons why slowing down and connecting with the earth restores feelings of ease and balance, and this knowledge has been contained in the wisdom traditions of the East for millennia. During times of turmoil, ancient systems such as Chakra Theory and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can provide us with both insights and remedies.
There is an obvious correlation between the experience of feeling destabilised and our root chakra, Muladhara. The word “Muladhara” comes from “mula”, meaning “basic”, and “dhara”, meaning “support”. As the first chakra, Muladhara is responsible for fulfilling our primal, basic needs, such as food, water, love and material security. Because Muladhara forms the foundation — or base — for all of the other chakras, an imbalance here can throw the remaining six chakras off kilter, which is why energy workers often begin by rebalancing this first chakra.
Issues with the Muladhara can present as anxiety disorders, feelings of distrust or disconnection, excessive fear or hyper-vigilance, nightmares, greed and materialism, or an inability to bring dreams and desires into fruition. Muladhara is said to be located at the base of the spine and comprise the coccyx and first three vertebrae, and physical manifestations of a problem with this chakra can include issues with the colon, bladder, prostate, lower back, kidneys, legs or feet. This chakra rules the adrenal glands and is responsible for our fight-flight-freeze (or sympathetic) response.
It’s easy to see how a global pandemic or natural disaster can mess with this chakra. Aside from widespread crises, there is a whole range of reasons for why our sense of safety and security might be compromised in life, including challenging material circumstances and traumatic childhood experiences.
Unsurprisingly, Muladhara’s element is Earth, and a balanced first chakra requires not only that we feel connected to the Earth, but also that we care for our planetary — as well as our bodily — home. The challenge associated with the base chakra is fear, and its lesson is self-preservation: the ability to recognise and satisfy our own fundamental human needs.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
The organs in TCM that are most closely related with the concept of the root chakra are the kidneys and urinary bladder, which form a yin-yang pair (the kidneys being the yin component and the bladder being the yang). Although the kidney-urinary bladder system is said to correspond with the first two chakras (base and sacral), grounding is a defining quality of both the base chakra and the kidneys.
In TCM, the kidneys are given huge importance. They’re described as the “root of life” and form the foundation on which all of the other organs depend. In the words of 15th century physician Zhang Jie-bing, “The kidneys are the mansion of Fire and Water, the residence of yin and yang … the channel of death and life.”
The kidneys have the super important job of housing one of TCM’s three treasures: Jing (the other two are Qi and Shen). Where Qi is our everyday energy and Shen our spirit, Jing translates to “essence” and refers to our deepest stores of vitality. Its job is to support and nourish all organic life.
“Jing is the substance most closely associated with life itself; it is the source of life and of individual development,” writes Ted J Kaptchuk in The Web That Has No Weaver.
We have two kinds of Jing: pre-natal (the Jing that we inherit from our parents at conception) and post-natal (which can be drained or topped up by our food and lifestyle choices).
The lower back is known as the “palace of the kidneys”, and physically the kidneys govern our reproductive system, bodily fluids, urinary system, intestinal tract, bones (including teeth), marrow, ears, head hair, adrenal glands (in Latin, “adrenal” translates to “extra kidney”), and sympathetic nervous system.
Similar to the root chakra, an out-of-balance kidney organ-meridian system shows up as fear — particularly primal fears such as fear of the dark, heights, death, new people — and lack of trust in the world. An out-of-balance urinary bladder system presents as fear of change. When healthy and harmonised in this area, we’re able to lean into our inherent wisdom.
While the kidneys “come alive” in the winter, when it’s particularly important to nourish our stores of vital energy, it’s imperative to nurture our kidneys year-round if we want to feel stable and energised — especially in a world where crises are becoming more common. To maintain kidney health and adequate stores of Jing, we need to practice self-care and rest when necessary.
As Qi Bo tells the Yellow Emperor in the ancient Neijing Suwen, “The sage knows that the Jing/essence is the most precious substance in the body. Like the root of a tree, it should be protected.”
Re-balancing with yin yoga
There are several ways to balance the Muladhara chakra (working with the mula bandha; reconnecting with nature; chanting the sound “lam”; wearing earthy colours and eating red foods, for example) and nourish the kidney-urinary bladder meridian system (such as keeping the lower back warm, consuming bone broth and kidney beans, and staying hydrated). Yin yoga, with its grounding poses and focus on stillness, is another means to harmonise both.
As you practise this sequence, you might like to choose a simple affirmation to help anchor you. It could be something along the lines of, “I am grounded,” “I am at home in my body,” or “I am safe and secure.”
Bear in mind that the idea, in yin yoga, is to feel a reasonable amount of sensation in the target area without surpassing your edge (this is known as “playing your edges”). Be mindful of any injuries. Stay as long as feels appropriate in the poses. At least 90 seconds is recommended to influence the yin tissues.
The kidney meridian starts in the little toes, runs along the arch of the foot and then up the inner seam of the legs, the front of the torso and throat to finish at the root of the tongue. The urinary bladder meridian begins at the inside of the eyes, runs up the forehead to the brain, then runs down the back body, and connects with the kidneys and bladder before making its way down the backs of the legs to finish at the little toes.
From a lazy downward dog, slowly walk your feet towards your hands until your arms are dangling in front of your legs. Soften your knees as much as you like and let gravity do the work of decompressing your spine. You can hold opposite elbows, let your knuckles relax on the floor in front of you or rest your forearms on your thighs. Stay here for two minutes.
Heel-toe your feet until they’re mat-width apart and slightly turned-out, then sink your hips down into a squat. You might have your hands in prayer and your elbows on the inside of your knees, or your arms open towards the ground. If you need, you can sit on a block or bolster. You can place a blanket underneath your heels if they don’t reach the floor. Stay two minutes if possible.
Return to dangling pose, then walk the feet back to downward dog, lower your knees and come to lie on your belly. Bring your elbows beneath your shoulders so they form right angles. If this is already too much for the lower back (bearing in mind that the point is to create some compression), shuffle the forearms further forward, take the feet wider apart or gently engage the glutes and inner thighs. Gaze down at the mat to keep the spine long. Rest here for three to five minutes. You might like to straighten your arms and come into Seal pose for the last minute or so. Rest on the belly for a minute or so to neutralise the spine.
As a rebound pose, while still on the belly, bend one knee and slide it out to the side towards the underarm. Allow space to return to your lower back and sacral area. Stay a minute or so before repeating on the other side, turning the head as you do so.
Press up to all fours and then come to a kneeling position and sit between your heels. If this creates too much flexion in your knees, sit on a block or straighten one leg and come into half-saddle. From here, begin to lean back. You might rest with your hands behind you, come down onto your elbows or come all the way down to lie flat. You will feel both an opening through the front body and an arching in the lower back (if there is pinching in the knees, ease off). Another option is to place a bolster or rolled-up towel lengthways underneath your spine for added support and to lessen the compression in your lower back, if necessary. Remain here for two to five minutes.
Gently engage your core as you help yourself back up to a kneeling position. Return to all fours and come through a few rounds of cat-cows. When ready, make your way into a tadpole (extended child’s pose) by taking your knees wide and bringing your big toes together. If needed, place padding underneath or at the backs of the knees. Reach your arms forward, bend at the elbows or bring your hands into prayer at the back of the head. Stay as long as you need.
Slowly push yourself back up to all fours and find your way over onto your back. Draw your knees into your chest, and then keep the knees bent as you take hold of the inner arches or outer edges of your feet and draw each knee down towards the underarm on that side. Allow your lower back to round if that feels appropriate. Remain for around two minutes.
With your knees bent and feet flat on the mat, cross your left leg over the right so that the inner thighs are hugging together. If there’s space, tuck the left foot behind the right calf. Shift your hips over to the left side of the mat and let the knees fall to the right. If this is too much for the knees or lower back, unravel the legs and allow your left knee to simply stack on top of the right instead. Rest here for three minutes before repeating on the other side.
Come to lie completely flat on the mat, perhaps with a rolled-up towel beneath your knees and a blanket underneath your head. Allow any remaining shreds of tension to begin to dissolve in the body. Feel your front body sinking into your back body, and the entire back side of your body sinking into the earth beneath you. Let yourself feel so heavy that you could sink through the mat into the floor, and through the floor into the earth. You might imagine that the earth is a giant palm supporting your entire body.