Your body is meant to move. The spine offers a lot of information between the body and brain, and putting it through a wide variety of movements keeps it healthy. However, knowing how to move your spine will ensure you move it safely.
There are lots of postures that we take during the day the are not great for the spine: slouching and leaning for example. It is fine if you take these postures once for a short period, but repeating them over and over builds muscle memory, making it difficult to get out of them. Plus, one part of the body is straining while the other is staying contracted, which isn’t great for the health of your spine.
In this post I will describe different spinal movements and the benefits of each of them to support your posture. Mom was right when she told you to stand up straight (read more about that here).
Spinal flexion is curving the spine forward, or rounding the spine. We see this position in Cat pose. Spinal flexion strengthens the abdominals (specifically the Rectus abdominis), and stretches the back (specifically the Erector spinae group).
Flexion is an important movement to strengthen the front of the body while stretching the back, but like all movements, you don’t want to stay in this position for long periods of time. When we slouch, we are in spinal flexion. When the back is in a constant state of stretching, after awhile you feel strain in those muscles. Stretching is good, over-stretching is not. Stretching for too long can become strain and pain, and no longer useful.
Alternating Flexion with Extension (see below) can balance out the flexion by contracting the back muscles and giving them some relief.
Spinal extension is the opposite position where you are arching the spine, or backward bending. We see this in Cow pose, as well as Cobra, Bridge, Wheel, and Dancer’s Pose. Spinal extension stretches the abdominals (specifically the Rectus abdominis) and strengthens the back (specifically the Erector Spinae group). This is exactly what you need when you’ve been hunched over a computer all day.
Poses that create spinal extension undo the problems of poor posture: tight chest and hip flexors and weak lower back. The spinal extensors (like the Erector Spinae group) help you stand upright. Gravity pulls you downward, the erectors hold you up. When you are holding a straight spine (flat back) it is the spinal extensors that allow you to do that.
Lateral Flexion is side bending. We see this movement in Standing Half Moon, and is a wonderful pose to stretch the lower back and strengthen the Obliques. The Quadratus lumborum and Erector Spinae group allow us to bend to the side, and when one side stretches, the other side contracts to strengthen. The Obliques also assist in this movement. While they are mostly known for their role in rotational movement, they also create lateral flexion.
No one’s body is perfectly symmetrical, and when you find yourself leaning to one side over the other, over time this can create tightness in one side of your lower back. Without lengthening it back out, this leads to pain and dysfunction. Laterally flexing poses like the ones below can help you open up your lower back and even out your posture. Even when one side is tighter than the other, it’s important to stretch both sides. You might just stay with the tighter side a bit longer.
Rotation is twisting movements, like in Half Seated Spinal Twist. Ideally the spine and the pelvis are perpendicular to each other. This creates an equal distribution of rotation through the whole spine, rather than stressing one part over the other. There are certain poses, that involve both rotation and flexion, like Janu Sirsasana, but most twisting poses keep that perpendicular alignment.
Rotational movement strengthens the Obliques on one diagonal and stretches them on the other diagonal. The opposite internal and external Obliques work together, so when one opposite pair is working, the other pair is stretching.
A healthy spine moves in all of these directions to stay healthy. An unhealthy spine needs to be careful with some of these movements. For example, with osteoporosis, you should stay away from forward flexion and rotation, while extension is going to strengthen the back muscles to support the spine. If you have spent many years in Spinal Flexion, you might find it difficult to stand up straight. You might need to avoid flexion for awhile as you work to strengthen your back muscles to create better support.
Disc degeneration is common as we age. Almost everyone over 40 has some level of degeneration in their Intervertebral discs. However, this does not always cause problems. Keeping the spinal muscles and abdominal muscles strong can alleviate pain or problems caused by degeneration (if any). Doing regular core strengthening work will keep you body moving the way you need it to for years to come.
Move Your Body with Purple Room Yoga!
Understanding how your body moves is integral to it moving well. Join me for Diving Deeper into Your Yoga Practice, starting October 21st! This 8 month course explores the 8 Limbs of Yoga and how to live a kinder and more compassionate life. This course is for anyone looking to create a personal yoga practice and integrate yogic principles into your daily life. Click here for more information!
Work your whole core every Friday, online at Purple Room Yoga! Mindful Core meets online every Friday at 9:15am ET. Strengthen all 4 abdominal muscles, your pelvic floor, inner thighs, spinal muscles, hip flexors, and glutes for a complete and mindful core workout! Click here to see the full schedule of classes! All Mindful Core classes are also available On Demand!