Sunday, December 10, 2006

Our Friend, The Spine

I always like to see diagrams of the spine, because it reminds me of what an amazing feat of engineering it is. A straight back really isn't straight at all, but a series of gentle curves that creates a "spring" that acts as a shock absorber for us bipeds. Imagine how jarring each step, stumble or jump would be if the back was as straight as a pole. We would have to walk around with our legs continually bent so that we wouldn't topple over every crack in the sidewalk.

Of course, remember that these curves are gentle. Any time you exaggerate these curves for too long, you are guaranteed a backache because the disks in between each vertebrae get squished unevenly, aggravating the nerves in the spinal column. When you slouch in a chair or hunch over a computer, the various sections of the spine get compressed and that's what leads to a sore back at the end of the day (exaggerating these curves continually will eventually cause your back muscles to stretch in a way that holds the spine in that position permanently, and that will really hurt). One good solution is to find a chair that supports the spine evenly; another is to keep the back aligned and work the muscles to encourage that alignment (ahem, regular yoga practice).

Twists are a great way to work on this alignment and get the blood flowing into the muscles that support the spine. They are a really nice end a long day of standing on your feet or sitting at a desk. Try this sequence while visualizing your spine in each pose and notice how much more open and loose the back feels at the end. (I'm away from my camera this weekend, so I'll post accompanying photos on Wednesday).

Twisting Sequence
Sukhasana (Easy Pose) Sit tall, lining up the ears, shoulders and hips and balance the upper body over the lower. Relax the shoulders and try to lengthen the spine without arching the lower back or jutting the chest out.

Dandasana with Hastasana (Staff Pose with Overhead Arm Stretch) Maintain the alignment of the torso, while pressing the backs of the legs down and pressing the soles of the feet away. Keep the knees from locking by engaging the thigh muscles. Stretch the palms away from the chest and then overhead, keeping the neck long and the shoulders away from the ears. When you lower the arms, try to keep the lift in the side ribs.

Seated Twist Come back to Easy Pose and realign the spine. On the first exhale start turning at the lower back; on the next exhale move the twist into the chest; on the third breath twist across the shoulders and, if you want, the head. By moving into the twist slowly, you originate the movement in the lumbar spine (the least flexible part of the twist) and move it throught the thoracic into the cervical spine (the most flexible). Change the cross of the legs and repeat the twist to the other side.

Tadasana with Hastasana (Mountain Pose with Overhead Arm Stretch) Come to standing and realign the torso. Again, lengthen without exaggerating any of the curves in the spine. Stretch the arms overhead (fingers crossed with the other index finger on top) and find length in the side ribs without lifting the shoulders or arching the lower back. Keep the lift as you lower the arms.

Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) Begin with the feet apart and the arms overhead to lift the side ribs, then lower the arms to shoulder height. Turn the feet to your Triangle stance and stretch over the right leg, keeping the side ribs long. As you breathe into the back, try to deepen the twist with each exhale by starting in the lumber spine and moving up to the neck as you did in the seated twist. Come up and repeat to the other side.

Prasarita Padottanasana (with a twist) (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) Step the feet apart another foor or so from your Triangle stance and make sure you are grounding evenly through the soles of the feet and keeping the inside ankles long (don't let the feet collapse to the outside edge). Lift the arms overhead to lengthen the side ribs and then lower them to your hips. Folding from the hip crease, bring the torso parallel to the floor and support the body with the hands on a block or the floor. Move one arm so that hand is beneath the breastbone. Start twisting towards the other hand and stretch that arms toward the ceiling so you are looking to one side and the shoulders are lined up over the hand to the floor. Then return to center and switch sides.

Supine Twist-Lie on your back on the floor and bring the knees to the chest and then roll both knees to one side as you ground the back of the shoulders to the floor and stretch the arms to the side. Look towards the opposite shoulder from the knees, if you want a deeper twist in the upper back. Repeat to the other side.

Savasana (Corpse Pose)-Release the knees and stretch your legs out. Take a minute to realign your whole torso, so the neck is long and the head is lined up with the tailbone. Sink into the support of the floor and concentrate on letting all muscles relax. Thank you, Spine! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

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