How to keep your spine strong and healthy with yoga
Two of the most common complaints I hear from new people coming along to class are,
1) Upper back and shoulder tension, along with feeling increasingly rounded or hunched over.
2) lower back pain, either chronic, or on and off discomfort.
These common issues are related to how well the spine moves – in other words, how well you move it! Movements we do in yoga can be super helpful for both.
First, let’s look at how the spine is designed to move and some common issues that come up.
What do we need to know about the spine
The spinal column consists of 24 connected bony vertebral joints. Although each individual joint doesn’t have a lot of range of movement, moving as an integrated whole the spine has a great deal of movement potential.
The spine is naturally curved in an S shape, curving inwards at the lower back – (called lumbar lordosis), curving out at the upper back, (thoracic kyphosis) and it curves in again at the neck (cervical lordosis).
This S-curve design functions like a spring for shock absorption, so the body can absorb the forces of movement, like walking, running and jumping.
It’s essential for a healthy spine to move in all directions – to elongate, rotate, side bend, flex, to extend along its length, as well as to compress and sustain force.
It can be helpful to think of the spine as having four main sections:
Cervical Spine – the neck, 7 vertebrae (counted from 1 at the top down to 7. See diagram) Thoracic Spine – the upper back, 12 vertebrae connecting to the ribcage Lumbar Spine – the lower back, 5 vertebrae Sacrum and Coccyx – the back of the pelvis, 5 fused vertebrae and 4 fused vertebrae usually)
Image source: @TeachMeAnatomy
We are looking for the spine to have good capacity for both STABILITY and MOBILITY.
We need to spine to be fluid and wavelike for freedom of movement, and because it houses the nervous system which thrives off movement for its signalling highway to work well.
We also need it to be stable, to be able to hold firm and support the movement of the limbs. We will get into this useful idea of ‘proximal stability creates distal mobility’ later.
A first step to better control and movement through the whole spine is to practice feeling it, developing our felt awareness of this column of movement and support.
Here is a lovely relaxing exercise for Spinal Awareness (6 mins).
Here is a seated version for starting to feel the segments of the spine with movement. (10 mins)
Some issues with modern spines
Instead of full range of movement at each joint, most of us have some stiffer areas that move less than they could, and other parts that end up taking on the work and moving more than they should. In particular, the thoracolumbar juncture in the mid-back (T12-L1) and the lumbar spine, (often at L4, 5-S1) can end up acting as ‘hinge’ points, doing more of the daily movement, leading to more wear and tear, sometimes even pain.
Also, instead of a natural upper back (thoracic) curve, modern lifestyle habits can lead to more upper back rounding than ideal (called hyperkyphosis), which can cause uncomfortable stiffness. This can lead to other problems, like the neck muscles overworking, limited shoulder girdle movement, and it can result in the lower back taking on more of the movement all the time, a cause of lower back pain. Lack of mobility in the upper back is often avoidable and not just natural ageing!
Part 2 of this Spine blog series looks at what specific kind of movements we need to support a strong and supple spine. To start with though, it can be really helpful to develop your overall awareness of your spinal column and each of the sections.
Here is a video to practise isolating and feeling movement in the sections of the spine – cervical, thoracic and lumbar (10 mins). These are small, precise movements, but the benefits in the long term are huge.
I’m interested to hear – was there much new information here for you? Anything to make you think afresh about how you move? Did you find the spinal enquiries in the video helpful? How did trying to isolate your thoracic feel??
Look out for Part 2 of this Spine Blog Series!
We cover all the movements of the spine regularly in class. Could this a factor in why people often tell me that their lower back or neck niggles disappear after regular classes, and they feel they are standing taller?? Smart movement works 🙂 You can book a class here.
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