A well balanced yoga practice provides fantastic opportunity to move the spine in all the ways it is designed to move. Let’s take a look at five different movements of the spine and how we apply them effectively in yoga poses.
Please note: if you have any problems or discomfort with your spine, it is best to work one-on-one with an experienced yoga teacher. If in doubt, please consult your physician before taking on any of these movements.
1. Axial Extension
Axial extension is lengthening the spine along its axis. It decompresses the spine, creating space for the discs and more breathing space in the trunk. The movement along the spine is slight, but attempting to create axial extension creates lots of stretch throughout the trunk muscles, and stability, or muscular firming, throughout the body as well. All good stuff.
Axial extension is perhaps the most subtle movement of the spine, so to get a feel for it, try this: stand with awareness of your feet grounding into the floor. As you inhale fully, feel your ribcage broaden, as you exhale feel your shoulders drawing down and imagine the crown of your head, spine and sternum lengthening upwards. Take a few rounds of breath visualizing yourself breathing space between each vertebra. Then, root through your feet and inhaling, extend your arms upwards, lengthening along the spine and sides of the trunk. As you exhale your arms down again, maintain this sense of the spine lengthening up through the crown of your head. You can also explore axial extension while exhaling your arms up and then exhaling them down.
This movement of rooting down through your base (pelvis to feet) and extending through the length of the spine can also be felt in Downward Dog, Plank pose, Standing Lunge, Boat Pose, any posture where the spine is lengthening along its axis, relatively neutral in its S-shaped curves.
Flexion is the movement of rounding the spine down and forward towards the chest and legs, which concurrently stretches the back. In yoga practice, spinal flexion is another way to refer to the group of poses we call forward bends. You can flex the spine in a more passive position, like in Child’s pose or a standing forward bend, or more actively flex such as rounding up in Cat pose or Crow pose, when you might firm the front body muscles to curve the spine up towards the ceiling.
Some of the most challenging positions to forward bend / flex the spine are seated poses. This is because they also require pelvic control, mobility in the hips and length in the hamstrings muscles (backs of thighs).
It‘s good to find some degree of anterior pelvic tilt as well as length in the lumbar spine before flexing more through the mid and upper spine (thoracic and cervical), to create a more balanced sharing of spinal flexion with less compressive pressure on the lumbar spine and discs. If this is a challenge, bending the knees a bit or sitting up on folded blankets or yoga blocks can help to create the forward pelvic tilt for the spine to follow the direction of the pelvis forwards.
Spinal extension is a movement that lengthens the spine upwards (axial extension) and backwards, known in yoga as backbends. Spinal extension strengthens the whole back body musculature, and creates a sense of space, stretch and broadening across the chest and front of the body. It develops more movement in the often less mobile thoracic spine.
One of the challenges of backbending is to make the spinal extension as even as possible so that every part is extending to capacity, even though different segments of the spine have different extension capacity. In particular, the lumbar spine or lower back can end up acting like a hinge point causing compression and discomfort. So it’s important to create length and stability or support the lumbar before initiating the movement of spinal extension. This requires a rooting down through the pelvis with the feeling of trying to maintain a posterior pelvic tilt (pressing the pubic bone down into the mat).
4. Lateral Flexion
Lateral flexion is a movement that bends the trunk to the right or left side. It helps to create more length along the side-body, strengthens the obliques and other trunk muscles, and adds to the overall flexibility of the spine. Lateral flexion also stretches and strengthens all the muscles of the ribcage, stretching into the intercostal muscles between the ribs, facilitating more expansion space for the lungs supporting deeper breathing.
As with spinal flexion and extension, there is potential to compress the lower back when moving into lateral flexion, as it’s easy to sway the hips forward, slightly lean back and collapse weight into the lumbar spine. So, when bending to the side it is helpful to centre the hips over the heels, feel muscular engagement along the front as well as side body and almost feel like a slight forward lean might happen. This can create more length and lift out of the lumbar.
5. Axial Rotation
Axial rotation is a movement that revolves or twists the spine. Spinal twists in yoga keep the chains of small muscles along the spine supple, and maintain or even increases range of motion along the vertebrae and through the ribcage. Spinal twists in yoga can involve rotating while bending forward into spinal flexion, or you can rotate and side bend, but one useful way to practice is to create axial extension, length along the spine before turning, to enable as much rotation through the vertebral joints as possible.
When in twisting postures, making use of your segmenting practice, notice how the different parts of your spine are rotating. Does your neck (which has loads of rotation) lead the way and turn to the max first? Are you in the habit of pulling in your belly and tensing the muscles to try and rotate in the lumbar? (the unhelpful cue of ‘pull your navel to spine’ can be a culprit here)
A sense of even length and then rotation, emphasising an upward spiral with rotation focused on the rib cage and thoracic spine, even through the front and back body, can reduce compression potential in the lower back.
To sum up….
Of course movement of the spine isn’t delineated into only one of these five ways at a time when we move in yoga or in everyday life. We constantly shift into different shapes, moving in a variety of ways all the time.
Yet it is still true I would suggest, that some awareness of what your spine is doing in yoga poses/movements, with an understanding of axial extension, flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation, can enrich your movement skills.
Also, hopefully this awareness, coupled with awareness of how the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine can move independently, will help you find more balance and evenness in movement. Especially in positions where hinging in the spine and overwork/underwork in partsmight be happening, so that you can skilfully refine your movement for greater ease and evenness.