Whole Body Anatomy Wednesday

Yoga Asana and the Spine

Yoga Asana, or the flow and movement of the body that most know as modern yoga, is centered around the use of the spine. In an earlier post, we explored the seven basic movements of the spine that the Krishnamacharya lineage uses to categorize and analyze a yoga pose. Yoga Asana often seems from the outside a complex and sometimes impractical aesthetic of the physical body, when in reality the simplicity of asana lies within these spinal movements and what is practical for the individual’s body. It is the movement of Asana that allows us to sit for longer periods of time and focus our intentions of deeper practices - or simply live life without so much pain.

Why is the spine important? Not only does it nestle, protect, and offer structure to our most valuable nervous system messenger in the body (the spinal cord), but it also enables the wide range of movements we use in our everyday lives. Without a healthy spine, everyday life can become more difficult and usually much more painful. Those who suffer from any one of the myriad of spinal conditions can probably agree on one major thing - it hurts. It makes sense that any injuries, stress, or dysfunctions in the spine will lead to increased difficulty in everyday life tasks.

One study suggests that over 80% of Americans will experience some form of low back pain throughout their lives. (source) Back pain is the most common disability injury that affects not just our physical bodies, but also our livelihood, making it harder to work and maintain productive and healthy lives. (source) It’s evidant in everyday life as you look at the amount of products, pills, and services which are provided for the health of the spine or relief of back pain. While these studies suggest correlations between back pain and living healthy and productive lives in America, I feel as though we can further extend a small assumption that other modern countries and people throughout the rest of the world experience the something similar.

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What is an Intervertebral Disc?

The intervertebral disc acts like a dense, yet softer than bone, cushion or shock support of the vertebra of the spine, allowing for the full range of flexibility and movement of the spine. Sometimes these discs are described as “donut-shaped, jelly filled” discs between the vertebra. While the discs are indeed filled with fluid, the idea that these discs are soft like a jelly donut often leads to people viewing their spine as something fragile and easily injured (a jelly donut doesn’t seem very strong, does it?). This isn’t true. The discs allow a structure of support and they themselves have thick outer walls which also have added support, so the spine is not nearly as fragile as most perceive. There is a system of facia, or connective tissue, that also supports the spine, and allows for even more support to the bones in addition to the muscles of the core and back.

It is easy to see, however, how a small bulge to the sidewall could cause so much pain within this system. Or a small fracture to a bone, or a joint between bones is often correlated to such intense or chronic pain. The spine is closely linked and even a small disturbance can be detected. Maintaining a healthy spine can be easily done though, and through both prevention of injury and maintenance of the spine and supporting systems, and yoga can help to assist in many ways.



How can Yoga Assist?

  1. Asana or movement helps to strengthen, stabilize, and stretch the muscles of the back, core, and the connective tissues which support the spine.

  2. Pranayama or breathing practices build strength in the lungs, and the movement of the rib cage and diaphragm, all of which are linked directly to the spine.

  3. Meditation helps to relax the mind and nervous system, which in return helps to ease the pain signals being sent from the spine to the brain.

  4. Mindfulness practices help to create better insight about what causes pain and injury in our own bodies, and this can lead to better decision making and lifestyle practices that help to relieve pain and maintain health of the spine.

  5. Try this the next time you begin a practice —

    Lie on your back or sit upright in a comfortable seat.

    Close your eyes and take a few breathes to take your attention to the spine. Ask yourself the following questions:

    • How the back, spine, and surrounding areas feel?

    • Are there any areas where you feel stuck or any areas where you feel tension?

    • What areas do you not notice?

    • Are there any spaces you haven’t yet explored?

      When you finish your practice, repeat these questions and notice what is both similar in your answers and what is different.