Your Spine, Your Yoga - Developing stability and mobility for your spine is the second book from Bernie Clarke's trilogy, Your Body, Your Yoga. In this latest book, Bernie looks at the spine from a unique perspective and shows us how a functional yoga practice can better serve our body and maximise the health and longevity of our spines. As with all Bernie's work, I think it's a brilliant resource for yoga teachers and curious students.
The following is an excerpt from Your Spine, Your Yoga reproduced with kind permission:
Stability over mobility
The axis of our body runs from the head to the tailbone. The job of the axis is primarily to safely transmit loads between the upper body (the arms and shoulders) and the lower body (the pelvis and legs), and secondarily to freely allow movement along the spine. The first priority is stability, followed by mobility. The spine is most stable when in its neutral position; it is least stable when furthest away from its neutral position. These few facts can and should inform our yoga practice and how we maximize the health and safety of our spines.
In a world that admires aesthetics, large, sweeping backbends and other extreme movements of the spine strike us as desirable and admirable. However, if we change our focus to regaining and maintaining optimal health, rather than seeking maximum performance and flexibility, then a functional view of our yoga practice is required. More is not better; we do not need huge ranges of motion or lots of spinal flexibility to be healthy. Indeed, in many cases, more spinal flexibility can definitely be unhealthy.
4 key considerations
There are four key themes to keep in mind when we consider how to use our yoga practice to regain and maintain optimal spinal health:
- The reality of human variation
- The antifragility curve
- The safe way to stress and exercise joints
- The kinds of stress that the spine experiences.
The fact that you are unique, that no one else has your biography or your biology, means that not all spine exercises or cautions will apply to you. Sweeping generalizations, such as “everyone must bend their knees when they do a forward fold to protect their lower back,” do not apply to everyone—some people are okay with straight legs while folding forward, while many people are not! Given the wide range of human variation, the challenge is to learn which movements and exercises work best for your body; what works for another body can serve only as guidance, not as direction or dogma.
Given the wide range of human variation, the challenge is to learn which movements and exercises work best for your body; what works for another body can serve only as guidance, not as direction or dogma.
Stress and the spine
All of our tissues need stress to stay healthy. We are not machines that wear out over time and cannot heal themselves. Living organisms are antifragile, which means that stress, to a limit, makes us stronger. Sure, too much stress can cause damage, but so too can no stress at all. This reality also governs the health of our spines. We need to stress our bones, joints, ligaments, fascia, muscles and all the other tissues found in the axial body. But we need to do so mindfully, with both attention and intention.
How to stress the spine, and how much stress to apply, are important questions. There are a few points to remember when we stress joints:
- When a joint is bearing a load, stiffen the joint (which may reduce its range of motion, but that is a trade-off worth making)
- When enhancing a joint’s range of motion, do so when it is not bearing a load
- When moving a joint under load, it is essential to learn proper neuromuscular coordination and movement patterns (this is called “proper technique”).
We can apply these ideas to the axis of our body: if we want to strengthen the spine, we should do so when the spine is as close to its neutral position as possible. If we want to enhance the spine’s range of motion, we should do so when the spine is bearing as little load as possible, which means that the back muscles should not be fully engaged. When the back muscles are fully engaged, they create a lot of stress in the spine.
There are two kinds of stress that affect our spine: axial compression, where the discs, and sometimes the vertebral arches and spinous processes, are pressed into each other; and shear, where one vertebra tends to slide over its neighbor. The spine is able to withstand more of the compression stresses than the shearing stresses. A moderate amount of compression or shear is not a problem (in fact, it is healthy and necessary!), but if these forces become too great, injury can occur. Even if the stresses are not so great that they immediately create damage, if the stresses are repeated over and over again with insufficient recovery time in between occasions, damage can still occur due to the accumulation of stress over time.
Learning the techniques
Technique - which includes learning to contract to an appropriate level the muscles that stiffen our core, coordinating movement and breath, and finding our appropriate, unique individual alignment - is essential for anybody who experiences stress along the spine. Whether this stress comes from movements during work, sports or our yoga practice, learning the proper techniques for moving and stabilizing the spine will pay dividends: a healthy, happy back that will last a lifetime.
It’s your spine - it deserves your yoga.
Bernie Clark has a degree in science and spent 30 years as a senior executive in the high-tech/space industry. He embarked upon meditation in the 1970s and began teaching yoga in the 1990s. He conducts yoga teacher trainings several times a year in Vancouver, Canada. To learn more about his latest book, visit www.YourSpineYourYoga.com