As Yoga teachers, practitioners, and students we must all understand the structure of the spine. We must learn to stretch and bend it correctly as well as strengthen the muscles that support it so that we can have a very strong and flexible spine, which gives us a large range of fluid movements and helps keep us fit and active.
The spine is a long and fundamental structural support of our body and the foundation for most yoga asanas. Knowledge of spinal movements can help us understand why practicing movements with correct alignment feels good while some other movements just do not bring any change.
Cautions For The Spine in Yoga
When practicing yoga, keep the below mentioned points in mind to avoid any injuries. Keeping these points in mind will also improve our forward bends and twists and strengthen our back while also avoiding back pain.
- Do not move the sacrum. Keep it steady while doing spinal movements, as it is the main link stabilizing the upper and lower body. In upright seated and standing postures, lifting the tailbone, would cause the lower back to over arch so it would be an incorrect move causing instability in the sacroiliac joint, which can cause chronic back pain. Instead we need to pull and stretch the tailbone downwards and keep it strongly tucked under as we do various postures from a standing or seated position.
However, please note that when we perform forward bends we can allow the lower back to temporarily arch, so that we can give ourselves an extension in the spine. But, even as we do this, we train the tailbone to lengthen downwards and remain tucked under to keep stabilizing the body. This is a strong and a key move that requires practice to comprehend. Remember, as soon as we release the forward bend, we flatten out the lower back again and get rid of the over arched position.
- All the joints in our bodies have a limited range of motion and when we exceed the limit, then it results in hitting bone against bone, the warning for which is a sharp pain in the affected joint. Though cartilage has the ability to lubricate, when we start grinding bone into bone, it breaks down the cartilage. As a practitioner, you can avoid this by moving slowly with the breath. Increase your range of movement slowly with time and practice and never push yourself to a point where you are in pain.
- Prevent facet joint syndrome, which is pain at the joint between two spinal vertebrae, by emphasizing on extending the spine upwards as much as possible before twisting the body in any one direction. Lengthening the spine upwards before the twist prevents the vertebrae from compacting. It keeps a healthy space between the individual spinal discs and in this way stimulates the spine thoroughly while strengthening the supporting muscles. A word of caution, prevent the lower back from over arching when lengthening the spine upwards. Again, by keeping the tailbone pulled downwards we are able to maintain a flat lower back position, which means a very gentle natural lower back arch, which looks almost flat.
Structure of The Spine
The spine functions as a long structural supporting column in our body, which houses the spinal cord, and stabilizes the torso, and the pelvis. The spinal vertebrae, are listed as five sections as shown in the image below.
The cervical spine, in the neck area, is also known as ‘Atlas’ because it supports the head and keeps it in place. There are seven cervical vertebrae, delicate and small in size.
The next is the thoracic spine. This region starts from the level of the collarbones or the clavicle and stretches all the way down to the waist. There are 12 vertebrae in the thoracic region which are connected to the 12 ribs. Thoracic vertebrae are larger in size than the cervical vertebrae and are also a much longer and more angled spinous process. .
The third division, the lumbar region starts right at the bottom of the rib cage and extends into the pelvis. This division consists of five vertebrae, of which the last one sits on top of the sacrum. The lumbar vertebrae are more massive and substantial than the first two sections.
So it’s interesting to note that as we proceed downwards, each vertebra increases in size from the one above, descending from the neck to the buttocks, so that they can bear the progressively increasing weight of the column above.
The fourth region, the sacrum, , also consists of five vertebrae that are all fused into one single bone, called the sacrum,which is connected to each side of the pelvis and sits deep into the pelvic basin.
The fifth region of the spine, found at the bottom of the sacrum, is known as the coccyx, which comprises of three inert vertebrae. This area is also commonly known as the tail bone.
Our spine protects the spinal cord inside it. The spine is designed in such a manner that it can perform movements like bending forward, backwards, turning sideways, and doing twists as well.
Shape of the Spine
The spine has four basic curves- the cervical region, which curves gently inwards, the thoracic spine that curves gently outwards, the lumbar spine that curves gently inwards, and the sacral region that again curves outwards. We can clearly see that in the lateral image of the spine above.
We have jelly like discs between each of the individual vertebrae to prevent friction. The shape of the spinal curves assists our bodies in transferring the load/weight and in the process also keeping the spine supple and healthy and causing minimal disintegration of joint surfaces. Our goal, as yoga practitioners, is to maintain these gentle curves as we take the body through different movements The problem occurs when, through bad posture, we exaggerate these spinal curves and cause imbalance and pain in different areas of the body.
The spine does curve additionally in small degrees when we go from the sitting to standing positions, and when we go into a deep forward bend or backbend the curves are more dramatic. However, the muscles that are attached to the spine are forever working to keep the spine stable in whichever position we are in. And as soon as we are upright the spine returns to it’s natural curves.
An incorrect posture would be when, in an upright position, our lower back is over arching inwards ( lordosis ) which will cause us lower backache. Or an exaggerated upper back curve ie hunching the back (kyphosis), which leads to upper back ache and other postural defects.
There are four specific movements that the spine undergoes during Yoga Classes. They are as follows-
- Flexion: This happens when we bend forward. Here we can allow ourselves to temporarily exaggerate the lumbar arch to give ourselves extension and length in the spine. Some very common forward bends that require different intensities of flexion could be the Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) and Plow pose (Halasana).
- Extension: In extension, the curves of the cervical region and again lumbar region are intensified and the curve in the thoracic region is lessened and changed into an opposite curve ( inwards instead of gently outwards) We extend our spines in classic backbends like the Upward Bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) Upward-Facing Dog pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), and Camel pose (Ustrasana).
- Twists: We twist our spines while in seated postures like Vajrasana (Diamond pose), or Marichyasana (1-Legged Seated Spinal Twist), and in standing poses, such as Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and Revolved Triangle pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana). And in certain poses we combine both flexion and twisting as in Revolved One-Legged Forward Bend (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana). Poses with both extensions and twisting are less common. Side bends: An example of this is when we reach down to pick up something like a handbag or grocery bag that is next to our foot. We cause our spine to side-bend during yoga poses, such as Gate pose (Parighasana). Furthermore, in many poses we combine both side bends and twists, such as in Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and and Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose (Parivrtta Janu Shirsasana).
The key to protecting our spine in all our poses is understanding where we need to support the movement before entering the posture and how to distribute the body weight so as not to cause excessive motion at one vertebral level. Another key concept to protect the spine is to avoid using momentum to push through “resistance”. When we are overly aggressive in our attempt to gain motion then this is where injury can occur.
Exercising with awareness and knowledge will help us grow from strength to strength.