“If you would seek health, look first to the spine” – a comment that Socrates is known to have made more than 2,000 years ago still rings true. Even today, every major fitness expert has something to say about spinal health and one of the most powerful statements is by Joseph Pilates, who invented the Pilates method of physical fitness, “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old, if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
Ever wondered why? Why should a series of 33 bones known as vertebrae be so pivotal to our body and mind’s functioning? So much so that every ancient and traditional healing modality first looked to the spine, not just the bones, but the whole mass of nerves, muscles, tissues, organs and glands that lay along the spinal pathway.
Take a few seconds and visualize the spinal column. You will notice that all the major systems – be it the respiratory, digestive, endocrine or the circulatory system – lie along the spine. Is this just a coincidence? A mere chance that placed all these super intelligent units within us in a specific order and location? Clearly not. Just as our overall system is an extremely intelligent and efficient self-operating unit, so are all the sub-units within us.
The spinal column houses the spinal cord which along with our brain makes up the Central Nervous System (CNS). This CNS runs all the way from the brain to the tail bone, containing motor and sensory nerves that relay information back and forth between the brain and different sub-units within the body. Every information we receive from our sense organs and every action we perform through our motor organs are governed by the CNS.
Apart from housing the most complex communications network within the body, the spine also plays the critical role of keeping us stable and steady. Think of our body like a climber plant that needs internal support in order to grow. With a steady support from within, the body can grow efficiently around it to its optimum capacity. Without the spine we will be a heap of mass on the floor.
Yogic science refers to the spine as “Merudanda” or axis of the body. Ancient yogis paid full and complete attention to the spine, whether it was with eyes open or with eyes closed. And you will see this reflected in all of the 84 basic asanas that were meticulously designed bearing the spine in mind. Whether it was the physical practice of asana, the energetic practice of pranayama or the spiritual practice of meditation, it was always the spine that was the centre of focus. Everything else simply aligned to this area of focus.
The yogic seers also understood that the best way to keep the spine healthy and supple was to provide it with its optimum range of movement. All of the postures designed involve moving the spine in all possible directions so that necessary muscles, tissues, nerves and organs get their share of energy, blood and oxygen.
Spinal Health Constitutes 5 Major Movements
On that note, it is important to share that there are 5 major movements that our spine can make:
1. Axial – vertical elongation
2. Flexion – folding the spine forward (forward folds)
3. Extension – arching the spine back (back-bends)
4. Rotation – twisting spine left & right
5. Lateral – side-bending movement left & right
As part of this spinal health improvement segment, I will now outline five different postures that will provide all of the above movements for the spine. Practice these postures after you have warmed up through a few rounds of sun salutations. Hold each posture for either 30 seconds or 5 breaths to bring in the benefits.
Axial – Vertical elongation (Tadasana/ Mountain Pose)
Lengthens the spine through an upward movement of the spinal column. In this pose, the spine is in a neutral and stable state. It requires us to engage our core as well as back muscles, particularly the erector spinae in order to create this vertical lift in the spine.
Points to note:
Engage abdominal/core muscles. Relax shoulders even as you raise arms up.
Visualise your body lengthening upwards while staying grounded with feet firmly planted on the mat.
Other postures with similar spinal movement – Downward Dog & Tree Pose.
Flexion – Forward movement (Janu Shirsana variation/ Head to knee pose)
This is the forward folding movement of the spine, which allows us to create more room between the spinal vertebrae. It lengthens and decompresses the spine, while at the same time stretching hamstrings, lower back and engaging abdominal muscles.
Points to note:
In seated or standing forward folds, always move forward from the lumbar (lower back) region to create maximum length in the spine.
Keep torso parallel to floor and with every exhalation, squeeze belly in and move chest towards thigh.
Other postures with similar spinal movement – any standing or seated forward folds.
Extension – Backbend (Chakrasana/ Wheel Pose)
This is the back-bending movement of the spine, which stretches the front or anterior part of the body enabling us to expand and open up the chest, ribcage and hip-joints. This crucial movement helps strengthen the spinal muscles as well as releases tightness, congestion and hunching in the upper body.
Points to note:
As it opens up the thoracic (chest) region, take deep breaths to keep muscles energized.
Squeeze glutes to open hip joints, allowing more stability in the lumbar (lower back) area.
To come down safely, first lift head and chest slightly up and then release the spine back on mat.
Other postures with similar spinal movement – Camel Pose or Bridge Pose
Lateral – Sideways movement on both sides (Trikonasana/ Triangle Pose)
This is a sideways bending movement of the spine, which stretches the waistline on the right and left sides of the body. It tones the spinal nerves, abdominal organs as well as strengthens the pelvic area, legs and arms promoting hip flexibility. Due to the increased lateral movement to the spine, it helps bring body balance and stability.
Points to note:
Ensure hips are always facing the front and avoid tilting hips or upper shoulder forward. Upper and lower arm should be aligned.
Deep breaths as the respective chest cavity opens and various muscles are engaged.
Other postures with similar spinal movement – Gate pose or standing crescent pose.
Rotation – Spinal twist on both sides (Parivritta Trikonasana/ Twisted Triangle pose)
This is a twisting movement where the spinal column is turned right and left, stretching muscles at the back and front. Movement happens more actively through the thoraric region, helping lengthen the spine and creating more space between the vertebrae. The twisting action also aids digestion as it stimulates digestive organs in the abdomen.
Points to note:
Always transition into and out of twists slowly and mindfully. It is safer for the body.
Use each exhalation to squeeze belly in, creating more space to twist a tiny bit further with each breath.
Align upper and lower arm, if required use a block under lower arm to offer more length and stability.
Other postures with similar spinal movement – Half spinal twist or Revolved chair pose.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on spinal health awareness. More on the improvement of spinal health is here. Stay tuned for the next segment, where we will discuss the science of inversions and its impact on our nervous system.