A strong and mobile spine is integral to a healthy and long life, as the spine is absolutely essential to healthy functioning of the human body. Without it you could not keep yourself upright or even stand up – and that is just the very least of the spine’s role. A healthy spine allows us to play sport, go dancing, garden, swim, run, and of course do yoga. It is why spinal health is at the forefront of all my classes, whether explicitly or otherwise. I might not always say – ‘this week’s theme is spinal health’ – but I can assure you, it is.
Some very simple anatomy
The spine is made up of a series of bones called vertebra – collectively known as the vertebral column, which runs from the base of the skull, all the way down to the coccyx. The 24 vertebrae of the spinal column is divided into three sections – the 7 vertebrae of the cervical spine, which is the neck; the 12 vertebrae of the thoracic spine, which is the upper and middle back, connected to the ribs; and the 5 vertebrae of the lumbar spine, which is the lower back. Below the lumbar spine is the sacrum which connects the spine to the pelvis. It is actually formed of specialised vertebrae which fuse together in utero. Finally comes the coccyx which again is made up of three fused vertebrae. The spine’s job is to support your body and allow it to move freely. Each vertebrae has a hole in the middle so that when they are all stacked on top of one another, it forms a long tube. This tube houses the spinal cord – a column of nerves that connects from your brain to the rest of your body. The protection of the spinal cord is essential as without it you could not move your body and your organs would fail to function. This is why keeping your spine health is vital if you want to live an active life.
The normal spine has an ‘s’ shaped curve to it when looked at from the side. The development of the curves of the spine from conception is fascinating and mirrors the phylogenic development of the spine ie from the time creatures began to walk on the earth and therefore needed a structure to hold them up. In both cases, the primary curve is the thoracic spine, followed by the cervical spine and finally the lumbar spine, which in humans doesn’t develop until between six and ten years. The upper curve of the back is known as lordotic, ie concave, the middle curve of the back is known as kyphotic, or convex, and the lower curve of the back is again lordotic.
Unfortunately we see many ailments and mis-alignments of the spine that are either congenital or lifestyle induced. For example, eight hour working days spent entirely sitting in front of a computer can induce kyphosis. You can read about how to counter the effects of sitting all day here.
Dr. Deborah Kado at UCLA followed over thirteen hundred older patients who had excessive kyphosis, a C-shaped slump of the upper back, for more than four years. She discovered that the slumpers were 44 percent more likely to die during the period of the study. Even more surprising, perhaps, was that those with poor posture were 2.4 times more likely to die of atherosclerosis-related conditions like heart attacks, which would put poor posture up there as a risk factor with smoking and elevated cholesterol. (Atherosclerosis is when plaque builds up inside the arteries). The precise mechanism of how bad posture could increase the death rate from heart disease isn’t known, but yogis believe that slouching compresses the heart and potentially compromises its blood supply. The lungs also have less room to expand if your chest is hunched over, which means you can’t bring as much oxygen into your body. This notion is backed by an experiment done in Italy which found that people with excessive kyphosis were 2.5 times more likely to have shortness of breath, with the degree of compromise being proportional to the severity of curvature of the upper back. Both studies were published in 2004 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. New research suggests that excessive kyphosis is not only a result of spinal fractures, but may cause them as well. A pilot study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that a twelve-week program of yoga poses, modified to meet the patients’ needs, improves posture, postural awareness, height, head position, functional skills, and well-being in women age sixty and older with excessive kyphosis. (McCall)
The symptoms of kyphosis would be a sunken chest, depressed respiration and rounded shoulders, which would manifest during practising yoga as difficulty during pranayama in taking very deep breaths, and also difficulty in maintaining chest expansion in poses like Virabhadrasana (Warrior) II or Crescent Moon. It may also become clear during a standing backbend – the curve of the shoulders would not change as the hips are pushed forewards and the arms reached overhead. So the spine would remain in flextion even while the whole body moved backwards in space.
To help prevent kyphosis you need a balanced practice. In many movement practices we see an overemphasis on strengthening the anterior chain of muscles – pecs, abs, quads. But an overtightening of these muscles leads to imbalance and therefore a weakness in the posterior chain – thorasic eretor spinae and your middle and lower trapezius. Ideally you would stretch and balance both front and back of the the body but if you are already seeing a curvature of the upper back, you need to work on stretching the anterior chain, and strengthening the posterior chain. To help, the following poses would be perfect:
Cobra – this would help both stretch the rectus abdominus and pectorals and to strengthen the the thoracis erector spinae. For those with restricted breathing patterns the inhalation here would also restrict the thoracic extension.
Camel – this would help to both stretch the pectorals and to strengthen the middle and lower trapezius. Use the strength on the deep neck muscles to stabilise the weight of the head in order to find a healthy and safe extension of the spine.
Bridge – this would help to both stretch the upper trapezius and to strengthen the middle and lower trapezius. There must not be too much extension in the lumbar spine here as this may limit hip extension.
Bow – this would help to stretch the rectus abdominus. The common practice of using the breath here to rock backward and forward would be an added benefit here.
Downward facing dog – this would stretch the pectorals. This is fundamentally a great pose for observing the effects of the arms and the legs on the spine.