Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: Can You Straighten Your Spine?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Friday Q&A: Can You Straighten Your Spine?Q: I have a question regarding the spine. In my yoga class, the teacher often tells us to "keep a tall spine" or "Keep your spine straight". I can understand the former but the latter phrase is confusing. Last week I asked her what she meant by keeping the spine straight? I added that keeping a spine “straight” is a misnomer, since the spine is curved naturally. Maybe she meant raising ourselves from the hips instead of slumping. 

A: Not a class goes by where I don’t encourage my students to create what I call the “inner lift,” which I’ll clarify shortly, especially when doing sitting and standing asana. To me, this inner action of upward lengthening of the spine is of prime importance, for both sitting and standing postures to be healthy and as preparation to move the spine into the other movements it is capable of doing in the myriad of yoga poses we practice. To unpack this, we’ll look at the following: 

  • the anatomy of the spine 
  • my prime directive 
  • axial extension of the spine 
  • the way yoga teachers give cues about the spine 

Anatomy of the Spine In a nutshell, when you look at a skeleton from the front, the spine indeed appears quite straight, unless there is some side-to-side curvature as in those individuals with scoliosis. However, when you view the spinal bones from the side, it is readily apparent that there are natural forward and backward curves to the spine, with the sacrum curving backward, the lower back area (lumbar vertebrae) curving forward, the rib cage portion (thoracic spine) ideally curving just a bit backward, and the neck (cervical vertebrae) curving forward. Rrom person to person these curves can be exaggerated or more subtle, depending on a lot of factors we won’t get into here. For further information about the anatomy of the spine and its movements, I strongly recommend reading Shari’s post All About the SpineMy Prime Directive My students are used to hearing me talk about the prime directive in regards to the spine. Yes, I borrowed this from Star Trek, but in this setting, it doesn’t not refer to space, the final frontier. Instead, it refers to the inner action of creating an even lift from the base of the body—either the tailbone or the sitting bones—up through the whole length of the spine to the crown of the head. This is technically known as axial extension” but I call it the “inner lift” to better communicate the concept. And it’s my prime directive because from my perspective it is the essential underlying action of the spine for both sitting and standing, as well as preparation for all other movements of the spine. What Happens When We Encourage the Spine into Inner Lift/Axial Extension? When you create an inner lift/axial extension, your body engages the muscles around your spine and, in doing so, creates more space between the bones of the spine. This, in turn, allows the cushiony disks between the spinal bones to plump up and creates more space for the nerves leaving the spinal column. When my students create their inner lift, I observe in many of them that the lower back (lumbar curve) seems to become more prominent, along with a forward tip of pelvis. The two other curves (thoracic and cervical curves) become less prominent. As I noted in a previous post, Leslie Kaminoff (a well-known teacher of anatomy in the yoga world), says that this action does create a longer spine, even as it slightly diminishes the amount of natural arch in each region of the spine. That is, it straightens the spine a bit, but not entirely. So, although I don’t use the words “straighten your spine,” it is not entirely off base to suggest this. How Yoga Teachers Give Cues About the Spine Because the cue “Keep your spine straight” confused our reader confused, I thought it might be good to take a look at some alternative ways of giving the instruction to create the axial extension. Although I always say, “create an inner lift,” I was curious how other colleagues cue their students. So I asked two. My wife, Melina Meza, a long-time yoga teacher, has several different ways she encourages inner lift/axial extension: 
  1. Feel yourself sitting between the earth and sky, with a long and spacious spine. Make micro-adjustments in your pelvis to support the lengthening of your lumbar spine, thoracic spine, and cervical spine without uprooting your sitting bones. 
  2. Tune into your spine. Allow the tailbone area to descend down into the earth while encouraging more length in all the natural curves of your spine. 
  3. Imagine your spine is like an antenna. Gradually stretch the antenna like you do when searching for better reception above. 
  4. As you sit between the earth and the sky, imagine a little string at the top of your head gently pulling your crown towards the sky.
  5. Walk your attention up the length of your spine, enlivening the muscles along the way that may be helpful in keeping you vertical.

I also asked one of the teachers who trained me, Richard Rosen. Here is Richard’s quite detailed description, which would involve a longer time in Mountain pose to convey: “Start from the base of the big toes, draw back along the medial arch then turn round the inner ankle, thereby activating the inner arches (or more properly vaults, which when joined together create a dome, the lift of which Dona Holleman calls pada bandha). The line of imaginary energy then rises along the inner thighs to the inner groins, creating a lift of the perineum, a kind of precursor to mula bandha. These two lines then feed into the imaginary front spine, not along the vertebral bodies, but a line that passes through the core of the torso visualized as a cylinder, in other words from the middle of the perineum to the fontanelle (of the skull), which in yoga is called the Brahma randhra, the aperture of Brahma. Here the line passes out and rises to the “end of 12” (dvadashanta), that is, 12 finger widths above the crown. Here the imaginary energy “blooms” and cascades down around the body and back into the earth, from where it is drawn back up again from the big toe bases. This energetic core of the body then is at the center of a torus. Another way of looking at the downward flow is to send it just down the back spine, through the coccyx, which lengthens earthward and burrows into the center of the planet 3900 miles away.” For the yoga teachers out there, how do you describe creating the inner lift? 

Want to learn more about the spine and spinal movement? Read Shari’s post All About the Spine: Anatomy and Movements

For more about inner lift/axial extension, see Arthritis of the Spine.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook and Twitter ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to AmazonShambhalaIndie Boundor your local bookstore.

Follow Baxter Bell, MD on YouTubeFacebook, and Instagram. For upcoming workshops and retreats see Baxter's Workshops and for info on Baxter see baxterbell.com.  

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