Spinal Movements

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore the movements of the spine and how they inform teaching.

Objective

Become proficient in using accurate terminology related to spinal movements and how to apply knowledge of the movements to inform teaching of the various categories of asana.

Description

Name the six directions of spinal movement and the two additional types of movement relevant to asana practice. Give a pose example for each. Understand the objective of spinal / axial extension poses. Describe “compression” and when it’s desirable. Describe some teaching considerations related to spinal alignment in forward bends, backbends, lateral bends, twists, spinal extension and inversions.

Introduction

It’s generally accepted that a balanced yoga practice will move the spine in each of its six directions:

  1. Forward bend
  2. Backbend
  3. Side bend to the left
  4. Side bend to the right
  5. Twist to the left
  6. Twist to the right

In addition, the categories of extension and inversion are often included.

See below for a sample pose and link to the related Asana Category where you’ll find in-depth coverage of characteristics, cautions, and sequencing considerations for each of the different pose categories.

Forward Bending

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

  • In seated forward bends, a fundamental starting point is sitting upright as opposed to sitting back on the sit bones.
  • Assess student in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Is she able to attain pelvic neutrality with the sacrum tilted slightly forward?
  • Consciously lengthen the spine to maintain natural curves of the spine.
  • Experts typically advise that forward bends begin with an anterior tilt of the pelvis but to then allow the pelvis to move into posterior tilt.

Go Deeper

Backbending

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

  • When there is tightness in the upper back, the more flexible parts of the spine (the neck and low back) may compensate. Watch out for straining in the neck or overarching in the low back.
  • Expert Doug Keller explains that in Tadasana, the pelvis is unmoving and to keep it stable, we may “slightly scoop the tailbone down and forward,” resulting in the sacrum being in counternutation. He explains counternutation doesn’t apply during backbending and forward bending.
  • In backbending, the tailbone lifts (called “nutation”) as a result of the top of the sacrum moving into the body. “Tucking” the tailbone is the opposite of this action and therefore makes backbending more difficult. Instead, if nutation is allowed to happen naturally, backbends feel better. For much more on the topic of “tucking” or “scooping” the tailbone, see Alignment Cueing: The Spine.

Go Deeper

Lateral / Side Bending

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

Go Deeper

Twisting

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

  • Twisting can be one of the major culprits of sacroiliac (SI) joint pain. Many experts now advise that students always move the pelvis and sacrum together. In twisting, this means allowing the pelvis to move with the sacrum to accommodate spinal rotation rather than anchoring it while moving the spine independently.
  • Keeping the spine long distributes the forces in the disks evenly.
  • Depth in twisting is achieved by length.
  • There is a tendency to avoid twisting where flexibility is limited (such as in the thoracic spine) and to overwork areas that twist more easily (such as the neck).
  • Avoid initiating a twist from the head and neck and instead twist from the core, using abdominal and back muscles to turn the entire rib cage. Let the head and neck follow.

Go Deeper

Spinal or Axial Extension / Elongation

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

  • “Spinal or Axial Extension” in yoga typically refers to reducing the spinal curves or lengthening the entire spine.
  • The objective is to create space between the vertebrae, thus lengthening the spine.
  • Spinal extension refers to the relationship of the spinal curves to each other while the phrases “forward bending” and “backbending” refer to particular movements through space.
  • From the “root” comes the “rise” which refers to pressing into the earth and noticing how this activation causes a rebounding or lifting effect.
  • Once the foundation is set, potential teaching cues might include, “Lengthen (or elongate) the spine” or “Extend the spine” or “Feel a lifting through the top of the head.”

Go Deeper

Lengthen, Not Flatten

When we say “axial extension poses,” we mean that the main goal of those poses is to lengthen the spine along its axis… It is NOT our intention to flatten the spine, but rather to create some space between the vertebrae to counteract the effect of gravity… The most important aspect of all axial extension postures is to bring the spine into maximum vertical alignment while integrating all the spinal curves without strain. This type of action builds strength and elasticity in the postural muscles, helps to strengthen the core and promote overall structural integration. – Olga Kabel

Inversion

Sample Pose

Teaching Considerations

  • Of particular risk in Headstand and Shoulderstand is, of course, the neck.
  • Headstand and Shoulderstand may be accessible to some students before they are physically ready to practice them. That is, a student may be able to force herself into Headstand, for example, holding the pose longer than she is physically ready for.
  • Teaching inversions requires determining readiness, providing appropriate preparation and teaching alternatives.

Go Deeper

Compression

As noted in the article Open Arms, Andrey Lappa adds compression (drawing the bones closer together) to the list of types of movement although he notes that “compression is only desirable therapeutically; extension is the normal aim in all asanas.”

Going Deeper

Flexion & Extension as Defined by Spinal Curves

A simple way to identify all the primary [kyphotic] curves is to notice all the parts of the body that contact the floor in Savasana, or corpse pose: the curve of the back of the head, the upper back, the sacrum, the backs of the thighs, the calves, and the heels. Consequently, the secondary [lordotic] curves are present in all the body parts that are off the floor in this position: the cervical and lumbar spine, the backs of the knees and the space posterior to the achilles tendons. From this perspective, spinal flexion can be defined as an increase in the primary spinal curves and a decrease in the secondary spinal curves. A reversal of this definition would define spinal extension as an increase in the secondary curves and a decrease in the primary curves. – Leslie Kaminoff

Olga Kabel On Extension of the Spine

Technically, the term “spinal extension” refers to the spine returning into the neutral position from flexion (1) and bending backwards (2). But the term “extension” also means lengthening. So when we say “axial extension poses”, we mean that the main goal of those poses is to lengthen the spine along its axis… It is NOT our intention to flatten the spine, but rather to create some space between the vertebrae to counteract the effect of gravity… The most important aspect of all axial extension postures is to bring the spine into maximum vertical alignment while integrating all the spinal curves without strain. This type of action builds strength and elasticity in the postural muscles, helps to strengthen the core and promote overall structural integration. – Olga Kabel