Three key ways to keep your spine strong and supple
“If you would seek health, look first to the spine.” -Socrates
A strong supple spine helps to keep the neck, upper back and lower back out of discomfort and pain, it supports good posture, optimal breathing and easeful movement in everyday life. Practising moving the spine in all the variety of ways also helps us to feel into various parts of the body connecting, it’s part of the yoga practice of developing awareness of ourselves as we move through life.
For easeful posture and movement, we need to move the spine regularly through its full range of motion. This means carefully and consistently undoing some of the habits of ‘hunching and hinging’. Pat on the back for your commitment to your weekly yoga class – the yoga we do is brilliant for this! Let’s look at three key ways we can improve our spinal movements.
Micro movements– articulating along the whole spine
Ideally, a spine should be able to move to full capacity at each joint along its entire length, but that is often not the case. Where a few vertebrae in a row might be a bit ‘rusty’ and stiffer, sometimes moving in a chunk, the solution is regular, targeted movement. My well-used analogy is adding oil to a rusty bicycle chain. You then have to move each link back and forth repeatedly to loosen it up.
This is why Cat-Cow for the purpose of spinal articulation requires SLOW movement and muscular effort – engaging the front body muscles to articulate up vertebrae by vertebrae to the ceiling, and squeezing the muscles along the spine to sequentially move the vertebrae downward and forward into extension. Yes, Cat-Cow can be more a flowing breath-focused movement too, but slow, spinal articulation is a super useful version.
You can find similar articulating movement by rolling up and down a wall, or lying down and rolling up and down the spine in various ways. The more regularly you do this in varied positions, the more intricately you can get to know how each part of your spine is moving, and you remind your spine how to coordinate along its length.
Here is a video of some articulation progressions. Once the spine can move evenly along its length it is better able to share the load of a movement more easily as well.
Macro movements – Moving particular segments of the spine
The second key way we can improve our spinal movement and control is moving it in segments. Being able to consciously isolate and move just the neck, just the upper spine, or the lower, means we have more control and therefore more capacity for movement in different positions. (see my previous blog with the segmented spinal movements video at the end).
Another benefit is that if we can control and isolate parts of the spine, with ‘intentional movement’, then these parts of the spine are better able to coordinate and evenly share the load of a movement, rather than overwork in one area and be underused in another area.
For example, when we practice mobilising the lumbar spine with control in flexion and extension (good ole’ pelvic tilts!) then all the motor control parts of the brain can ‘map’ , or in other words, record this sensory information about this area moving, so that this practiced movement gets built in, and we have more availability and choice in how the lumbar can move in our daily life and in all the movement we do.
3. Spinal Stability AKA ‘Neutral Spine’
Spinal stability here refers to holding the spine still and firm, more or less in its S-shaped curve in a variety of different positions.
The third way we need to regularly exercise the spine is holding the spine and the whole trunk as a firm column. We can build up progressively to be able to hold ourselves with the spine in ‘neutral’ , longer holds of so-called ‘time under tension’ to build strength. This is one way to provide support for the lower back area.
People still tell me they need to strengthen their core to help lower back pain. Well, yes, but the core includes how the entire trunk creates stability and firmness.
Focusing on consistently holding your spine in neutral, especially under load, is one part of developing core stability.
As the chiropractor and sports scientist Dr Andreo Spina says, “load is the language of the cells”. Practising holding progressive (and manageable) load to the muscles that work when in articulating the lumbar spine will improve our ability to use and access them.
This is a video of holding the spine stable and then adding some load, one of my favourite, “it looks so easy, but….” moves ; )
As I say in the video, you can then apply this neutral spine practice to planks, side planks, standing yoga poses, and inversions for example, to bring more awareness and balanced effort to a movement.
We come back to, good movement is your whole body sharing the load (ie work or effort) required as evenly as possible, minimising some parts overworking and some underworking.
I’m interested to know if any of this was new info for you….what was interesting to think about? Any revelations with the dowel exercise, did the assisted cat-cow make a difference? Will you approach twists any differently?
I hope you share my excitement about how we can always keep learning about how our bodies are designed to move, expand our movement capacity and feel more connected to ourselves, really, at any age and whatever our starting point. Just start where you are : ) Look out for Part 3 on spinal movements in yoga poses!
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