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How does yoga benefit the spine?

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

The health benefits and longevity effects of yoga are widely known. But, specifically, why is yoga good for our bodies? I began to practice yoga about 3 years ago, my progress was slow, but eventually after implementing a daily practice (just 5-20 minutes a day) I started to notice incredible differences in the way my body felt and moved. One of the first major differences was the complete loss of any back pain. Given my background in biology, I had to figure out why yoga makes such a difference to the strength and health of the back and spine.

Here is what I found on why yoga feels so good for the spine.


The spine in itself is a beautiful miracle of nature, it can move in many different ways and provides us with a central support structure.

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

The spine consists of 24 vertebrae (excluding the sacrum and coccyx) which can then be categorized three sections of the spine, as follows: the cervical spine (found in the neck region made up of 7 vertebrae), the thoracic spine (12 vertebrae connected to the rib cage) and the lumbar spine (lower back region of the back made up of 5 vertebrae). Between the vertebrae we have the intervertebral discs or the spinal discs which act as shock absorbers, allow for slight movement of the vertebrae, and also act as a ligament for the spine, holding it together.


Each of these sections of the spine is in either lordosis or kyphosis. Lordosis is the normal inward curvature of the spine and can be found in the cervical and lumbar spine. Kyphosis is the outward curvature of the spine found specifically in the thoracic spine region. These three vertebral categories make up the natural curvature of the spine. [1]


The spine can move in many different ways thanks to its incredible structure, here are the terms we use to describe the different movements.


Flexion - action of rounding the spine forward.

Extension - the act of a backwards bend, or rounding backwards.

Lateral Flexion - also known as side bending the spine while the torso is still facing forward.

Rotation - the twisting of the spine so the torso is upright and facing a side.

Axial Extension - elongates the spine vertically and decompresses it. [2]


However, due to daily life in modern society our spine may not go through all of these movements enough and, therefore, lose its fluidity. If we extend or flex the spine for long periods of time (for example, sitting for hours) it can cause pain due to a weakness in the stabilizing muscles.


Anterior pelvic tilt is a condition where the pelvis tilts forward and causes a stronger inward curve in the lumbar spine, often causing the cervical spine to drift forward slightly, this can cause neck and lower back pain. This condition can occur as a consequence of excessive sitting and the muscles causing the issue are the following: tight hip flexors and quadriceps (these muscles need to be stretched) and weak glutes and hamstrings (which need strengthening). Working on these problem areas will help fix the anterior tilt of the pelvis, improve your posture throughout the day and prevent back pain. [3]


Through yoga we strengthen our mind to body connection and practice bringing awareness to our posture and alignment. We look for the optimal way to perform the yoga pose to protect and stabilize joints (take pose modifications), while still finding room for movement or improvement, this includes supporting the spine. Constantly keeping the spine in a neutral position isn’t optimal either (everything in moderation), we want to move the spine in all possible directions and build fluidity. It’s fantastic to mix flexion and extension of the spine by practicing and transitioning through many different yoga poses. Moreover, it’s important to warm-up the spine at the start of every yoga practice, that’s why the cat-cow warm up is so popular, as it involves both flexion and extension of the spine in fluid succession.


General good posture to promote the natural curvature of the spine can be found by practicing these principles.

  • Sit up straight, find a position where you can lengthen the spine (this often means keeping the knees below the hips, in a chair or meditation seat like Savasana or Sukhasana).

  • Check your lower back to see if it’s rounding and then let the lower back find it’s natural lordosis.

  • Check your neck to see if it’s shifting forwards.

  • Roll the shoulder blades down your back.

*Reverses the commonly found locked long rhomboids (elongated back muscles from slouching) when we roll our shoulder blades back and down.

  • Lift up from your sternum and reach the top of your head to the ceiling while slightly tucking your chin.

  • Gently engage core muscles.


Find a Neutral Spine in Siddhasana

Here are some poses which promote a neutral spine.

  • Easy Pose

  • Hero Pose

  • Siddhasana

  • Sukhasana


Poses to lengthen and decompress the spine:

  • Down Dog


Side bends for the spine:

  • Banana

  • Upward Salute with a Side Bend

  • Gate Pose

  • Easy Pose + Side Bend

*Example: Right forearm on the mat, left arm reaches up and over the head towards the right.


Poses containing backbends or extension of the spine:

  • Bridge

  • Fish

  • Cactus Arms Plus Backbend

  • Cobra

  • Sphinx


Poses for flexing the spine (aka forward folds):

  • Child’s Pose

  • Forward Fold


Poses for general back pain caused by tight or tense muscles:

  • Low Lunge

*Great for correcting anterior pelvic tilt (stretches the quads and psoas!).

  • Eye of the Needle

  • Psoas Stretches


Spinal twists for releasing tight back muscles:

  • Puppy Spinal Twist

*Also stretches the upper back.

  • Seated Spinal Twists

  • Reclined Spinal Twists


Spinal flow movements, and mobility/dynamic exercises.

  • Cat Cows

  • Plank to Down Dog Flows

  • Forward Fold to Mountain Flows

  • Active Twists to the Side (Keeping Pelvis Neutral)

  • Neck Flexor Exercises

  • Thoracic Spine Movements

  • Palm Tree Sways


Back sporting core building exercises:

  • Low Plank

  • High Plank

  • Locust

  • Active drop back.


Poses will be updated with links directing you to a page on how to perform each pose and their modifications!


However, again, everything should be done in moderation! Practicing yoga too much, or without proper alignment and engagement can negatively impact the spine. Too much pressure in the lumbar spine in backbends like Cobra can cause pain -- I have personally experienced this. When performing cobra pose we have to make sure we engage the back muscles and press the chest forward to take some of the bend out of the lumbar spine and lengthen it. In deeper backbends like the wheel pose we have to engage the glutes and press the hips up as well to distribute the bend further. Extending the spine for a long period of time, pose after pose like in a backbend class and then flexing the spine or forward folding to counter the backbend can pinch the spinal discs, it is best to rest in a neutral spine to prevent issues in the long term.


Last but not least, your body and spine is your own. Everybody’s body is different, one person’s spine will move in a different way than someone else’s. The end goal should be about maintaining a healthy pain-free spine while not comparing to another’s shape in a pose, or movement in a flow flow. Be creative and free, find your own beautiful shapes and movements. Yoga can sometimes look like dancing when you find that special natural movement for you.


Thanks for reading! Keep that spine healthy and moving. Oh and get on the mat!


P.S. Here are some short yoga flows which contain these poses and exercises! These videos are fantastic to save and come back to regularly.








#yoga #backbends #backpain #spinehealth


References

  1. Pinnacle Orthopaedic Group. "Spine Structure and Function". https://p-ortho.com/chronic-back-pain/structure-and-function-of-the-spine/

  2. EkhartYoga. "5 yoga poses for a strong and flexible spine". https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/wellbeing/5-yoga-poses-for-a-strong-and-flexible-spine

  3. Yoo W. G. (2013). Effect of Individual Strengthening Exercises for Anterior Pelvic Tilt Muscles on Back Pain, Pelvic Angle, and Lumbar ROMs of a LBP Patient with Flat Back. Journal of physical therapy science, 25(10), 1357–1358. https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.25.1357

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