Can yoga improve the health of your spine?
By Jennilee Toner, international yoga teacher, educational influencer and author of The Perfect Chaturanga
Ancient Yogi Saying “We are only as young and healthy as our spine is strong and supple”
When I practice and teach yoga I love to begin with warming up the axis before moving on to explore the periphery. I love to teach the anatomy of the human body, introducing and becoming intimate with the spine and central nervous system before moving on to learn about the girdles and extremities.
While most organs are finished forming after 8 weeks in the womb, the spinal column continues to grow and specialize. The spinal cord and the 31 pairs of spinal nerves play an important role in how we interact with the world around us. Motor nerves carry sensory input from the brain and spinal cord to other parts of our body. Sensory nerves are the ones that relay information from external stimuli to the brain. A strong and supple spine ensures not only the efficiency of this important relay system, but also the health and longevity of it.
Natural Curves of the Spine
An appreciation for, and an embodied wisdom of, the natural curves of the spine is important for our health and longevity as we move and posture both on the mat and off. Take a moment to feel the cervical lordotic curve at the back of your neck. Now, place one hand on the small of your back and feel your lumbar lordotic curve. These two curves mirror each other. If we tend to dump/compress the back of our neck in our back bending postures we most likely are dumping/compressing the lower back as well, and vice versa. Notice this next time you inhale into your
Upward Facing Dog or breathe deeply into your Camel.
The other two curves of the spine also mirror each other: the kyphotic curves of your thoracic spine (where the back of the 12 pairs of ribs attach) and your sacrum/coccyx (tailbone area). Unfortunately, many of us spend much of our daily lives in pronounced kyphotic curves of thoracic spine while working at a computer, driving, cycling, hiking, texting, and eating. This leads to both tight (muscle fibers that are either locked long or short) and weak muscles that support the spinal column. This can negatively compromise our organs and their functions (our ability to breathe deeply, to rid ourselves of toxins, to digest and assimilate nutrients, to eliminate waste, etc).
It is a daily necessity, especially for those developing chronic kyphotic patterning, to come to the mat and work with the natural curves of the spine through extension and flexion poses like Cow and Cat, Rabbit, Camel, and Bow. Every thorough yoga practice includes a deep, satisfying exploration of these four curves, both the stretching and strengthening of the muscles on the front and the back (top to bottom) of your axial skeleton.
How Our Spinal Curves Developed
It is in the womb that the first curve of the spine was created. This first curve of the spine owes itself to the many months spent in this symbolic shape of nourishment and safety, especially in the last month when space in the womb began to decrease. This natural convex curve is a kyphotic curve (visualize the entire length of your spine in a forward, rounded, flexed c-curve shape).
The second curve of the spine, the natural lordotic curves (concave curvature) of the Cervical Spine (7 vertebrae of the neck) and Lumbar Spine (5 vertebrae of the lower back) are created after our entry into the world. The lifting of first the head, and later both head and legs, in Baby Locust Pose begins the process of reversing our natural born kyphotic curve. It is with the further developmental processes of crawling and standing that we see that the lordotic curves of the spine become more pronounced.
Our longer/thinner Thoracic vertebrae (12 spinal bones with a rib joint on either side), our Sacrum (5 fused bones at the base of the spine) and our tiny Coccyx vertebrae (2-4 fused “tail” bones) all remain in a natural kyphotic curve. So we end up with four natural curves of the spine, starting from the top: Cervical lordotic, Thoracic kyphotic, Lumbar lordotic and Sacrum/Coccyx kyphotic.
Health and Happiness Both On the Mat and Off
A strong and supple spine not only protects your nervous system but allows for its utmost efficiency and longevity. One of the best things we can do for our nervous system is to manipulate the spinal column in three planes of movement. These being the 6 movements of flexion and extension (Sagittal Plane), lateral extension right and left (Coronal Plane) and twisting/revolving right and left (Transverse Plane). Working with our spine in these three planes both on and off the mat can affect positive change on all of these levels. On a physical level we will feel agile
and radiantly healthy because our axial skeleton (our core, our mainframe) will be strong and supple. This, in turn, creates strength and suppleness in the shoulder and hip girdles and their extremities. On a physical, emotional and psychological level our nervous system will function at optimum efficiency and we will feel calm and capable. Energetically, the Sushumna, Ida and Pingala Nadis (and the 7 major chakras that directly correlate to the spinal column) will have the space (and opportunity) to become more centered and balanced.
After writing and self-publishing The Perfect Chaturanga: A Comprehensive Guide to the Human Body Through the Practice of Vinyasa Yoga (illustrated by the talented and focused, Suzanne Martin) and travelling for two years on an around-the-world Perfect Chaturanga Book and Workshop tour, Jennilee's enthusiasm and passion for teaching safe and intelligent yoga continues to grow. Much of her time is now split between the loves of her life (Dan and their two “fur-babies” Papousa and Beagle Baby) and travelling both in the US and Europe, spreading the good news that SAFE YOGA ROCKS!
Jennilee's exclusive Irish workshops
Jennilee will visit Ireland during July 2018 where she will guest teach exclusively on Durga Yoga's 200hr Yoga teacher training. She will also teach a 3 part workshop, open to everyone, where you will get to explore what constitutes a strong, supple, healthy spine with a more in depth look at the connective tissue that supports the vertebral column including how habits, age, gravity and degenerative diseases affect the spine and CNS (as well as the stability and mobility of the shoulders, pelvis and hips)