The Spine Teaching Considerations

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we apply knowledge of spinal anatomy and movement patterns to teaching.

Objective

Apply knowledge of a healthy spine and compensatory movement patterns to support effective teaching of asana.

Description

Explain two primary objectives of asana that relate to the spine. Understand compensation as it relates to spinal curves and why it’s important. Be aware of three initial teachings related to the spine that may be effective with students and how to teach students to feel their natural spinal curves. Describe a simple exercise for students to learn more about their particular body and potential compensation patterns. Name two common compensation-related issues and teachings that can help students to address the them.

Introduction

ROM & Natural Curves

Key objectives of asana practice include these:

  • Move the spine through its full range of motion.
  • Restore and preserve the natural curves of the spine.

Compensation

  • The cervical and lumbar spinal curves are called “sympathetic,” indicating that when we move one, we tend to move the other as well. That is, when a student flexes her neck, she is likely to flex her low back as well, and when extending the low back, she will often also extend the neck.
  • To obtain the intended effects of practice, students need to develop an understanding of the relationship between the curves and this tendency to compensate.

Fundamental Teachings

Some initial teachings to consider include:

  1. Teaching students to feel the natural curves of the spine.
  2. Teaching students to see how compensation works during their own movement patterns.
  3. Inviting increased awareness of habitual movement patterns and learning new ones.

Teaching Natural Spinal Curves

You may wish to use Tadasana or Virasana (on props) to teach students how to feel their natural spinal curves.

If you adjust a student in Tadasana, she will be aligned for a moment, but if you teach her how to feel Tadasana, she will be aligned for a lifetime. Tadasana is the root of all yoga postures, so improving it can revitalize a student’s entire practice. – Roger Cole

  • Of course, Tadasana (Mountain Pose) is often used to help students gain awareness of their posture and habits as well as to teach actions that help bring alignment and balance.
  • Teaching Mountain Pose alignment can help a student to feel the natural curves of her spine.
  • For instance, aligning the pelvis in Tadasana endeavors to find equal hip height, neutral pelvic tilt, neutral front-to-back placement and the pelvis pointing straight ahead.
  • See Tadasana for verbal cues, alignment practice and hands-on options, particularly Tadasana: Alignment Practice.
  • Another option for helping students to feel their neutral spinal curves is through teaching Virasana (Hero Pose) or other meditation seats (using plenty of props).

Teaching Compensation

A simple exercise for students to learn more about their particular body and potential compensation patterns is explained by Olga Kabel in Axial Extension: How to Lengthen Your Spine without Strain. Instruct students to do the following:

  1. Lie down on the back, stretching arms overhead.
  2. Inhale, lengthen arms and feet away from each other.
  3. Exhale, relax.
  4. Repeat, noticing how the spinal curves change shape during lengthening: most likely the thoracic spine flattens and the lumbar curve deepens.

While the changing shape of the curves is natural, we may also encounter two potential issues, both a form of compensation:

  • Excessively arching the low back.
  • Straining shoulders and neck.

This important information can be used to help the student learn how to mitigate these issues, particularly important for practicing other more strenuous or risky poses. Kabel notes these keys:

  • To avoid excessive low back arching, teach awareness of the pelvis and core engagement.
  • To relieve neck and shoulder strain, teach awareness and of the thoracic spine and engage in warm-ups prior to poses that require holding the arms overhead, especially in weight-bearing poses such as Downward Facing Dog Pose.

Awareness of Habitual Movement Patterns

A fundamental concern when practicing asana is to become aware of what feels natural but that may not be supporting good health and movement patterns—such as a tendency to sink in the low back when reaching the arms overhead, for instance.

A related consideration is the approach and tone used to teach students to notice such habitual patterns. We don’t recommend language that implies a student is wrong, but instead using an approach that invites curiosity in learning about her patterns, the effect of those unconscious movements over time, and alternatives to try. See Art of Teaching: Your Voice & Manner of Speaking for more on this topic.

Uncovering Our Blind Spots

It is shocking that the majority of people are not in touch with their spines. When we practice Cat and Cow in a yoga class, most of us automatically go into the movement pattern we are used to—moving from what moves, like the lower back, while part of our thoracic may be completely locked. However, by moving habitually in this way, we won’t be able to figure out where our blind spots are. – Kyoko Jasper

From the Experts

Importance of Natural Spinal Curves

Your body is like a combination lock — when you find the numbers, it unlocks easily. And one of the numbers is moving toward the natural curves of your spine. – Rodney Yee

Restore & Preserve Natural Spinal Curves

The spinal curves are important to the structure of the body, acting as a kind of shock absorber and a balancing mechanism for the torso. Distorting the curves, either by increasing or decreasing them, can have negative effects for our overall health. Since the back’s proper alignment is paramount, one of the primary goals of yoga therapy is to restore and preserve the proper curvature of the spine. – Larry Payne, PhD

Improve Movement of Vertebrae

We want to improve movement of the vertebrae that tend to become stuck. As these vertebrae begin to move more easily, the more mobile areas of the spine no longer compensate for the tighter areas. – Susi Hately Aldous

Structure of the Spine Doesn’t Depend on Muscular Effort

If you were to remove all the muscles that attach to the spine, it still would not collapse… [That the spine is a self-supporting structure] reveals a deeper truth about how yoga practice appears to liberate potential energy from the body… This built-in support does not depend on muscular effort because it is derived from the relationships between the non-contractile tissues of cartilage, ligament and bone. It takes a lot of energy to fuel our constant, unconscious muscular exertions against gravity, and that is why the release of that effort is associated with a feeling of liberated energy. – Leslie Kaminoff

Systematically Move Spine Through ROM

To have a healthy spine, we must systematically move it through its full range of motion. This means sometimes we tuck the pelvis to flatten the spine, sometimes we tilt the pelvis to arch the spine, and sometimes we keep the spine neutral… When practicing backbends such as the Cobra, don’t try to tuck the pelvis, but let the spine arch. When practicing forward bends such as Paschimottanasana, don’t try to tilt the pelvis, but let the spine round. These are normal movements for the lumbar spine, and to fight against them is to nullify the effects of the poses. Of course, overstretching an already injured spine could make it worse. But sooner or later, the goal of all physical rehabilitation is to regain the natural range of motion. – Paul Grilley

Sympathetic Curves & Compensation

It is important to realize that conditions in the upper back and lower back are interconnected. If one spinal curve increases, the other usually increases to compensate. When, for example, a woman is in advanced stages of pregnancy, there is a tendency for the lumbar curve to increase and for the hips to push forward. This creates the dual condition of lumbar lordosis and sway back. As a natural compensatory mechanism, the thoracic curve may increase, displacing some weight backward to help the body restore equilibrium. – Gary Kraftsow