Yoga Blog: Spinal Mobility
Meet Chloe, our new Yoga blogger!
Chloe is a yoga teacher and Midwifery Student in Adelaide, South Australia. Commencing studies at Flinders University in 2021, Chloe hopes to use her experience as a movement instructor and teacher of yoga to inform her practice as a midwife.
Lover of all things anatomy and philosophy, Chloe has a deep appreciation for ancient teachings and the universal lessons they hold, as well as the immense understanding and knowledge modern anatomical science can provide for us today.
Through her yoga classes, Chloe hopes to assist her students in cultivating an awareness of their own bodies through movement and breath techniques, that can serve them when they step off the mat into their everyday lives.
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“The human spine isn’t just a bad arrangement of bones; it is the very axis of the universe.”
Sadhguru (Inner Engineering – A Yogi’s Guide to Joy)
The spine has always been a central part of my yoga journey.
I came to the practice seeking relief from lower back pain. At the time I was an eyelash extension technician and spent the majority of my days hunched over. Now I work in retail and find that I spend most of my time standing up, again resulting in some lower back discomfort.
I try to tailor the movements in my yoga asana practice to tend to the compensatory patterns I am accumulating in my everyday life. The flowing movements of cat/cow and heart openers like sphinx and cobra pose have become a staple in my asana repertoire.
The awareness I have cultivated through my yoga practice has held me in good stead as I developed functional strength in my core and tended to my lower back.
It has only been since I began studying anatomy and physiology that I developed a more holistic appreciation of our spine and all it does for us.
1. Why is Our Spine Important?
Our spine is the centre of our skeleton and has many obvious (and not so obvious) functions:
- The curves stack just so to keep us upright.
- The intervertebral discs act as shock absorbs, transferring the shock that our bodies take when we move.
- Balances the weight of the head on top of the body.
- Joins our upper and lower limbs to the torso.
- Allows movement in the thorax be creating a joint with the ribs, allow us to breathe.
- Encases our spinal cord, the highway that connects our brain to the rest of the Central Nervous System, which in turn enables us to control movements, have thoughts, talk, perform various bodily functions and have awareness of sensations.
- Protects our vital organs.
The spine is divided into five sections:
- Cerivical Spine (neck)
- Thoracic spine (upper back)
- Lumbar spine (lower back)
- Sacrum (flat par of our lower back)
- Coccyx (tail bone)
Cool, I hear you say, but how does this apply to me?... Watch this 5 minute video for a visual and audio delivery of spinal anatomy overview.
2. It’s All Made By Design
While it may look like a “bad arrangement of bones”, the spine, like every part of the miracle that is the human Mindbody, has an amazing and intentional design component to it.
Let’s take the spinous processors for example (the bony bits of your spine that you can feel when you touch your back).
In each of the three moving sections of the spine, the spinous processors are shaped and angled in a different way.
This allows movement, yes, but it also indicates how each section was designed to move:
- The processors of the cervical spine angle out and slightly down, meaning they do not get in each other’s way in rotational and lateral movements, as well as extension and flexion. This enables us to move our head in a vast array of ways.
- The processors of the thoracic spine angle sharply downwards (particularly in the upper thoracic spine) resulting it a preference for rotational movement. Limited movement in other directions due to attachment of thorax (see section below).
- The processors of the lumbar spine angle straight out and the spinal discs are sturdy and large, lending them to more of a stabilising role, protecting all the important organs we have in the lower part of the torso. While it is possible to flex and extend the lumbar spine, rotation is limited.
By applying this knowledge to how we move, we can uncover the full movement potential of the spine and avoid developing compensatory patterns by moving the spine in ways that it’s simply not designed for.
If you’re a visual learner, watch this 3 minute video for a visual on how our vertebrae our shaped and what that means for movement.
3. The Thoracic Spine: It’s a Matter of Life and Breath
I like to call the thoracic spine the forgotten part of the spine. From my personal experience, my upper back was just kind of…there.
Modern life leaves little room for the thoracic spine to demonstrate its full range of motion.
Until recently, I didn’t even consider that my thoracic spine had the capacity to have a purposeful range of motion. Even in my yoga practice, I had been relying on the lumbar spine to twist, or hinge my back into “back bends.” Even in my daily life, I would bend and hang from my lumbar spine to pick up the washing, or push my hips into the sink while I did the dishes resulting in a hinge in my lower back at the thoracic and lumbar junction (T12).
Our thoracic spine supports the thorax. The thorax is made up of the ribs, shoulder blades, sternum, clavicle and the thoracic spine.
Costovertebral joints connect our ribs to the thoracic spine. And where there are joints there is movement.
The function of these joints is to allow the ribs to move to assist the lungs in breathing in and out by altering the volume of the thoracic cavity.
So, yes our upper back holds us upright but it also helps us to breathe, which is vital for, well, life. Pretty incredible, right?
4. How We Move Matters
The shape of the spine is created through movement.
Babies are born with only two curves in the spine, a C-shaped spine – curves in the thoracic and sacral spine.
The other two are formed through movement of the body under the pressure of gravity. The secondary curves of the cervicle and lumbar spine develop within the first year of life as a baby begins to lifts its head, crawl and stand.
As with all joints, the health of the spine is dependent on movement because movement increases circulation, which carries fresh oxygen and nutrients to joints and removes cellular waste. The sedentary modern lifestyle robs our spines of their ability to move, especially the thoracic spine, which is often rounded and slouched (Netflix binge anyone?).
The human body is so intelligent. If one part of the body isn’t functioning properly, it will find another way to perform the tasks that we want to perform. In the short term, it could be fine. But in the long run, this results in compensatory patterns.
In the case of the thoracic spine, and I’ve notice this in my own body, the lumbar spine, neck and shoulder blades will pick up the slack – hello low back and neck pain.
Moving our spine regularly, in different ways can help keep it stable and healthy, resulting in the end game of any movement practice – longevity of functional mobility.
Enjoy this 12-minute Movement Moment where I guide you through some movements that allow you to explore your opportunity in your upper back here.
- “Spine Problems,” Boston Children’s Hospital, https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/s/spine-problems#:~:text=As%20babies%2C%20children%20have%20a,into%20a%20normal%2C%20mature%20spine.
- “Costovertebral Joints,”Physiopedia, https://www.physio-pedia.com/Costovertebral_Joints
- “How Exercise Helps Your Joints”, Arthritis Foundation, http://blog.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/exercise-benefits-for-joints/