Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Whether you are practicing yoga asana or simply walking down the street, it’s easy to take your spine for granted—until you injure or irritate it. The structures that make up the spine, however, are your body’s central scaffolding. They’re responsible for keeping you upright and allowing you to stand, stretch, bend, and move in general.
Considering all the good your spine does for you, it’s important to treat it with care. The first step toward good spinal health is to be aware of your spinal structure, function, and mobility.
The structure and shape of your spine
The spine is made up of 24 individual, stacked bones—your vertebrae—that are separated and padded by intervertebral discs. “That stack supports your skull, protects your spinal cord, gives your ribs and muscles an anchoring place, and is your central support,” explains Arturo Peal, who teaches yoga, anatomy, kinesiology, and palpation skills in New Orleans.
The vertebrae are grouped into sections:
- cervical, the bones in your neck that support your head
- thoracic, the mid-back, which connects with the ribs to protect your heart and lungs
- the lumbar, or low back
- the sacrum, which connects your hip bones
- the coccyx, where pelvic-floor muscles attach
The bones of the spine are separated and cushioned by discs that serve as padding between them. Long muscles attach to the spine to help you stand, bend forward, arch back, or twist. Ligaments keep the whole structure stable.
Maintain spinal mobility
While we often hear the cue to “stand up straight,” it’s important to note your spine’s natural curves, explains Peal. The curves work like a spring to keep you balanced, absorb shocks, and allow you to move freely.
“A lot of times, we get the ‘tuck your tailbone’ instruction, and that flattens the lumbar curve. For many people, structurally, that’s not really great,” he says. You want to maintain a lordotic curve—a bit of an arch in the low back. This allows for more structural stability. Peal explains that while the sacrum and pelvis are extremely stable—in fact, the bones of the sacrum are fused—as you go higher, the lumbar spine is slightly more mobile, and the thoracic spine has even more mobility. “The cervical spine is pretty freely moveable,” he says. “That’s why we can draw figure eights or circles with our nose.”
But more mobility typically means less stability—which isn’t helpful when you need to stay anchored.
In daily life, we need to treat our spines carefully. Tom Myers, a Maine-based integrative manual therapist and author of Anatomy Trains, says the key is to “lengthen the body before you go into any strong movement.” Allowing the spine to stay compressed may cause damage, such as a pinched nerve.
Spinal health shouldn’t focus on one isolated area of the spine. “I recommend a more general awareness of the entire spine, rather than finding a place that isn’t working and forcing it to work,” Myers says.
Consider twists: There’s a limited amount of rotation in the lumbar spine, explains Peal. Think of rotating the heart instead of twisting at the waist or hips.
Pay attention to workplace ergonomics
As important as it is to move your spine carefully, it’s equally important to move it frequently, says Peal, noting that many of us spend hours sitting at a computer, slouched in a chair, or hunched over our phone.
“We’re not designed to sit like that,” says Peal. And while sitting for too long isn’t great for the spine, some of the positions we adopt while sitting compound the issue.
Too much bending forward in what Peal calls “Laptop Asana” leads to a rounded-forward posture: shoulders and upper back curved, chest caved in, chin tipped up. If your body stays in any position for hours, Peal explains, the connective tissue starts to hold your body in that shape. “You’re basically pouring your body into a mold,” he says. “It’s going to stay in that shape if you stay in that position for long.”
Pay attention to workplace ergonomics. Put your laptop up on yoga blocks so that the top of your screen is at your eye height when you’re sitting tall. Then set up an external keyboard so that your forearms are parallel to the floor and your shoulders slope away from your ears. (Personally, Peal is excited about working at an adjustable desk that allows him to stand or sit while he works.)
Case Study: Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand)
Sarvangasana is an advanced inversion where your body weight rests on the top outer edges of your shoulders and your hips and legs extend upward.
“The upper thoracic and lower cervicals are being strongly flexed in this pose,” Myers says. This is why you must take extra care of your neck. While the pose is called “Shoulderstand,” in many cases, people will put too much pressure on the cervical spine.
“For many people, depending on their anatomy, it’s almost like they’re doing ‘Neck Stand’,” Peal says. “Most of your body weight is on the least stable, most mobile part of the spine.” This is not only uncomfortable but can be dangerous. Forcing your neck to flex beyond its normal range of motion, and having your full body weight on your neck, can cause injury.
In this pose, the weight of your body should be supported by your arms and shoulders, not your neck. In her book Yoga Myths, Judith Hanson Lasater suggests practicing the pose with your upper back on a stack of firm blankets and your head falling back over the edge of the stack. Bringing your shoulder blades toward each other as you tuck your upper arms underneath you puts you in a better position to “stand” on your shoulders instead of on your neck.
“Shoulderstand is a very advanced pose—and it’s not for everybody,” Peal says. Even experienced yoga practitioners should proceed with caution. He implores students never to turn their head side to side while in Shoulderstand.
If you are craving an inversion, try Legs Up the Wall. This posture supports your back and gives you the feeling of extending the legs.
When you come out of Shoulderstand, Myers advises practicing poses to counterbalance the forward-flexed posture. Bring the spine into a neutral position, then arch into Cobra Pose, which moves the same vertebrae in the opposite direction, offering extension to counter the flexion of the pose.
From Summer 2022