Understanding the Role of Spinal Curves in Yoga practices

Straighten your spine”, this is one of the common instruction we often hear in yoga classes. But if we really look at the spine, is our spine really straight? I spend a lot of time studying the spinal column, its bone, its curves and its kinesiological functions when it comes to yoga practices, and I come to the conclusion that following the natural curve of your spine is the key to a happy and healthy spine.

In our Yoga Teachers training courses, we place great emphasis on understanding the spine from two different perspectives, namely its developmental and functional perspectives. As yoga teachers, we may not need to understand the spine at the level of expertise, but knowing as much as we can about the spinal column and its functions will be great help in your teaching, and understanding how our movements.

According to Gracovetsky’s theory on Spinal Engine, the human spine is entirely designed for mobility not stability, he suggested that locomotion was first achieved by the motion of the spine. Based on this theory, we can understand the human spine from its developmental perspective, when we look at the spine; there are two curves that we need to understand, there are the primary and the secondary curves. These curves are named because the primary curves are formed before we are born (in utero) and the secondary curves developed over time, later through movement patterns as the child learns to move in all planes. 

The difference in how we divide and define the spinal column

The spinal column is divided into two main curves, the primary and secondary, the primary curves are found in the thorax and coccygeal region, whereas the secondary curves are the cervical and lumbar region. As we define the part, they are static; understanding the functions of each part will help to understand how they move as a whole when it comes to movement patterns. This way of defining and dividing works well when it comes to explaining phenomena that is purely mechanistic in their nature.  The spinal column plays a major part in all of our movements, especially in the movements of asana. Hence it is important to allow your spine to move freely, not having a rigid idea on how to keep your spine straight! Remember… the spine is arranged in a series of curves, these curves allows for freer movements between segments and improves ability of the spinal column to bear weigh more efficiently and absorb shock.

Most asana are concerned with maintaining the health and movement of the spinal column, perhaps the next time when we teach or practice, we could take a moment to observe these curves, and observe how distinct each section is. Rather than manipulating the movements, why not try to allow them to move freely. When somebody says that something is “Strong” or “Weak”, or a muscle is “short” or “long”, why not try to understand how and where should I move in order to optimise your movement abilities, so that the body or the muscle are “better adapted”? 

To Sum up, in whatever circumstances the body as a whole might be situated, it has more “possible possibilities” to choose from, for solving the equation of being a human being in constant with the relation to gravity. All you need is let the intelligence of the body takes over, and all you need is to listen to the voice within. 

Observe the natural curves of your spine

Besides, improving your long term health, learning these curves will help you avoid or eradicate back pain or correcting the bad posture too. The spine itself isn’t really a straight line; instead it is S-shape that made up with curves. Perhaps, this is where the “straight line” comes in: when you look at the side view of someone standing with proper posture, a “straight line” should run from their ear to their ankle. If this line is uneven, the person is not standing following the natural curves. What should I do? 

  • Stretch your thoracic curve towards the head; this is the most obvious “good alignment” as this part of your spine is responsible for hunching and slouching.
  • Then observe your lumbar or lower back, it curled slightly inwards, we usually lose this curve from leaning on our chairs or sliding the bottoms forward or better known as “tuck tail bone”. 
  • To help measure the natural curve of your lumbar region, lean your back against a wall, the thoracic curve and the tailbone should rest on the wall, but your lumbar curve should not be touching the wall, as though you can move your hand through that gap behind your lower back. 
  • The same curve should also be for your cervical region, the neck; it should be curved inward to complete the curve, not having a forward headed position.

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