“A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in terms of results.”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox
As humans we have a highly evolved spinal column that allows us to stand upright and move in all different directions. Think about all the different ways you move your spine in an asana class. We can round our spines in forward bends, extend our spines in backward bends, and rotate our spines in twisting postures. We can do combinations of these movements simultaneously. Imagine coming into upward facing dog and then looking back towards your feet. Our spines move in three dimensions, extending back to come into a lordotic arch at the same time as we twist drawing one shoulder forward and the other back. The vertebral column is a common place for yoga injuries so it is vital that we develop a strong understanding of our spines.
The Four Sections of the Spine
The vertebral column is split up into four main parts:
- Cervical spine: The uppermost seven vertebrae of the spine, and also the smallest. The cervical vertebrae support the weight of the head (typically between 10-12 pounds). The first vertebrae is referred to as the atlas and second vertebrae as the axis. These vertebrae are highly specialized to allow for our heads to move in all different directions. The atlanto-occiptal joint between the atlas, axis, and skull allow for us to nod our heads up and down. The specialized odontoid peg in the atlas allows our heads to rotate from side to side. We have the highest range of motion in our cervical vertebrae.
- Thoracic spine: The next twelve vertebrae of the spine, larger than the cervical and smaller than the lumbar. Due to their location near the chest cavity, these vertebrae have a lower range of motion and are designed for support. All of the ribs except for the floating ribs attach onto the thoracic vertebrae, once again providing protection for our most precious organs. This connection creates the thoracic cage, which restricts movement. The thoracic spine has a smaller range of motion than the cervical and lumbar spine.
- Lumbar spine: The next 5 vertebrae of the lower back and the largest vertebrae. These are the largest vertebrae in the spine and also the strongest. Our large back muscles attach onto these vertebrae. They have more mobility than the thoracic vertebrae but less than the cervical vertebrae.
- Sacral spine: The lowest vertebrae are often fused together. They can be separated into five sacral and four coxcygeal vertebrae but the number varies by individual due to fusing. There is very little mobility and the bottom most vertebrae, our coccyx, represent our evolutionary tails.
Vertebrae Labeling and Size
Within each section of the spine the vertebrae increase in size as they move down the spine. More superior vertebrae are smaller than the inferior vertebrae withing their respective region. They are labeled by the first letter of their corresponding section and move sequentially downward within that section.
For example the last cervical vertebrae is called C7. This means that C7 is larger than C6, which is larger than C5 and so on. The same is true for T12 being the largest vertebrae in the thoracic spine and L5 being the largest vertebrae in the lumbar spine.
Here are some reference points for locating the vertebrae:
- C7 is the vertebrae that sticks out the most at the back of your neck. Thus, the thoracic spine begins below this protrusion.
- T5 through T9 typically correspond to the length of the sternum (breastbone).
- L3 corresponds with your navel. Below are the last two lumbar vertebrae and then the sacrum.
The Arches of the Spine
Each portion of the spine has its own unique arch, forming a sort of ‘S’ curve. The cervical and lumbar spine have a convex arch, called lordosis. The thoracic and sacral spine have a concave arch, called kyphosis. These arches increase the strength and shock absorption abilities of our spines. Imagine the ancient Roman Coliseum. The Romans used arches because of their weight distributing properties. An arch is a stronger shape than a straight line. The Romans were just emulating the intelligent design of our human bodies!
There are a number of medical conditions relating to the curvature of our spines.
Hyperlordosis is commonly referred to as ‘swayback’. This is common in the lumbar spine, involving a larger than normal (typically between 30°–35°) inner curve of the spinal column. This appears like someone is sticking their butt out. Tight hip flexors and weak core and butt muscles can contribute to hyperlordosis. Yoga can help us to loosen the hip flexors and develop our core muscles for better posture. For more information about hyperlordosis and exercises to help counter it click here.
Hyperkyphosis is commonly referred to as ’roundback’ or ‘hunchback’. It deals with a larger than average (typically 20°– 45°) backward curve of the spine. In general, most cases are very mild and just involve having an increased awareness of the thoracic spine. Hyperkyphosis is more common in men than women and can result from osteoporosis. It can also be related to poor posture while seated as the muscles of the front body become short and tight while the muscles of the back body become weak and overstretched. Yoga can help to strengthen the muscles along the back body and lengthen the muscles along the front body (especially back bends). For more information on hyperkyphosis and yoga exercises to help click here.
Slipped discs are also known as herniated or bulging discs. Slipped discs occur when the softer inner portion of the vertebrae protrudes through the hard outer ring. This bulging can pinch the nerves running within the spine, causing discomfort and pain. Slipped discs occur most often in the lower back. For more detail on slipped discs watch this video. For information on modifying your asana practice to accommodate slipped discs click here.
Scoliosis indicates an abnormal (more than 10°) sideways curvature of the spinal column. The majority of scoliosis cases are minor and relatively harmless. Strengthening the muscles along the back and the spine is essential to maintaining support of the spine. Yoga exercises that focus on the strengthening the back body, and the core so the back doesn’t have to overwork, help with scoliosis. For more information on scoliosis and yoga click here.
Some Advice From A Friend
I’ve heard my friend Ari explain his philosophy on teaching yoga as follows: “I want to spread compassion and love and move the spine in all different directions.” Maybe the next time we’re on our mats, moving our spines in all different directions, we can cultivate and spread a feeling of compassion and love.