Are You Moving your Spine and Rib Cage Enough?

No matter how often you practice, and how deeply you twist, the answer is probably no. Here is the anatomy lesson and exercises every yogi needs to experience more ease both on and off the mat.
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Learn how to decompress your spine and increase mobility, from anatomy expert Karin Gurtner.

Yoga is a wonderful way to decompress your spine and sustain freedom of movement in multiple directions, at various speeds, and under different loads—something we all need daily. To fully utilize your movement potential, though, it’s important to add other types of multidimensional movements to your repertoire, including spiraling of your spine and a combination of side bending (lateral flexion) and rotating your spine and rib cage.

Unlike standard twisting, a two-dimensional movement that happens in one plane (the transverse), spiraling is a three-dimensional motion that’s repeated in a rhythmic manner. You circle your spine around and actively lengthen it upward, and then you let it recoil to its initial length. As you repeat these actions, you’ll promote healthy fascia (connective tissue) in your back and shoulders, between your abdominal muscles, and all around your ribs.

Three-dimensional movements can also de-stress your shoulders and neck. Your rib cage is the base of support for your shoulder girdle and your head, and by enhancing the three-dimensional expansiveness of your thorax, you expand that base. This means your shoulder blades and collarbones can rest more easily on your ribs, which decreases the workload of the associated muscles and fascia. Less work for these myofascial structures means more freedom of movement in your shoulders and neck.

See also Yoga Anatomy: What You Need to Know About the Shoulder Girdle

Yoga for Spine Mobility: How to Improve Your Range of Motion

One of the best exercise combinations to support ease of movement in your upper body is practicing side bends along with shifting your pelvis and spiraling your thorax in a slow rhythm. This lengthens and strengthens all of your abdominal muscles, as well as your spinal extensors and rotators.

The prime movers include your internal and external obliques (abdominal muscles that run diagonally and fan around your torso); your erector spinae (the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis muscles that run along your spine like long, resilient cables); and the quadratus lumborum (a deep, square muscle between your lowest rib and the rim of your pelvis that is often tight).

The dynamic stabilization of your pelvis and spine is supported by your pelvic floor and transversus abdominis (the deep abdominal muscle, along with its fascia, that wraps around your waistline like a corset); your multifidi (deep core muscles that run along each side of your spine and are prominent in your lumbar spine, or lower back); and your rotatores (even deeper muscles that run along your spine and are most prominent in your thoracic spine, or midback). In this sequence, the quadratus lumborum is actively lengthened, strengthened, softened, and mobilized—exactly what it needs to allow adaptability and freedom of movement in the lower back, adaptability in the rib cage, depth of breathing, and connectedness of the legs and spine.

Because the exercise combination includes hip extension and hip flexion as well as side bending of the spine in both directions, you’ll actively lengthen and soften your hip-flexor muscles and their fascia. The hip flexors range from the inside of your thighs all the way to the outside of your hips (including the gracilis, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, psoas major, iliacus, rectus femoris, sartorius, tensor fasciae latae, and gluteus medius anterior). Of particular importance is the psoas major, a hip flexor with a close relationship to your diaphragm and kidneys. The psoas and diaphragm are linked through fascia. In this way, your psoas connects hip-joint movement and breath, which is essential for optimal movement functionality on and off your yoga mat.

See also What You Need to Know About Your Thoracic Spine

Moving up your body, the muscles all around your shoulders are lengthened and strengthened when you side bend and spiral. These movements strengthen your deltoid muscles, which move your shoulder superficially; your rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, subscapularis), which dynamically stabilize the head of your humerus (upper arm bone); and your scapular stabilizers (trapezius and serratus anterior).

And they lengthen your chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor), your broadest back muscle (latissimus dorsi), and his little brother (teres major). When you reach forward and down during a side stretch and spiraling exercise, you promote healthy fascial glide between your subscapularis (the rotator cuff muscle that is on the underside of the shoulder blade) and serratus anterior (a broad scapular stabilizer that fans from the underside of the shoulder blade out to the ribs) and among your external and internal intercostals (muscles between your ribs). 

Fascial Health in Spiraling Movements

Several fascial qualities are enhanced in this sequence: tensile strength, adaptability, glide, kinesthesia (your movement sense), fluidity, and prerequisites for elasticity. When you actively lengthen a muscle, you also tension the associated fascia like an elastic band. When you stretch the elastic band, you increase its tensile strength and make the tissue more resistant and stable. View the active lengthening in a side bend, then, as a way to strengthen your fascia while improving your muscular flexibility. Think of it as myofascial strength in length.

Fascial layers also glide against one another, or they can adhere because of lack of movement or injury. In spiraling or other multidimensional movements, fascial glide is promoted to gradually free the tissue and potentially improve your overall ease of movement.

Keep in mind that functional anatomy is complex, and the more multidimensional the exercises, the more intricate and variable the interplay of muscles and fascia. Also, some of the benefits are due to the combination of movements, not an individual exercise. This sequence as a whole mobilizes more than 100 joints in your upper body, which is not only important for your flexibility but also enables you to take deeper breaths and adapt more readily when reaching, twisting, and bending.

Whatever style of yoga you practice or teach, make sure that the spine and ribs are moved multidimensionally. I encourage you to try the exercises on page 76 on their own or incorporate them into your asana practice (they make a great addition to Sun Salutations) to become a more skilled and adaptable mover. 

See also A Healing Yoga Sequence to Ease Neck + Shoulder Pain

Torso and Shoulder Anatomy

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About the Author

Karin Gurtner is the founder and principal educator of art of motion and the developer of Anatomy Trains in Motion. To learn more about muscles in motion, myofascial connections, and how to move with more awareness, join Karin Gurtner for her new online course, Anatomy 201: Applied Principles of Movement. Sign up today!