Experiential Anatomy, Day 2: The Spine
“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60 you are young.” —Joseph H. Pilates, Return to Life, pg. 27
A “spineless” person is someone who folds under pressure or fails to withstand a challenge. Conversely, someone with a “strong backbone” is a person you can rely on; someone with integrity, courage and resilience in the face of adversity.
The spine, with all of its versatility and utility, is a marvel in its design. It allows for a wide range of movements, whether exuberant or docile. It supports our bodies, provides an anchor for our limbs and protects the all-important spinal cord that sends messages from our brain to our body and back again. When we communicate with the world the spine tells the story of how we feel. Our posture can demonstrate confidence or reveal anxiety, fear, joy or sadness. It can also bear the markings of our lifestyle and repetitive work stresses. Helen Mirren, the award-winning actress, once quoted her favorite piece of acting advice, from Sir John Gielgud: “It all comes from the spine.” She then added, “And he was absolutely right. The spine is one of the secrets to health and longevity.” We need to care for our spines by paying attention to simple, healthy alignment in static moments and understanding which ranges of motion and loads are welcome in dynamic moments. As many people have experienced, back pain can leave a person out of commission for a day, a week, months or years. If you have ever injured your back, you probably felt how everyday movements you take for granted can become excruciating. Simple motions like walking, reaching for something however light or turning over in bed become highly problematic and painful. With the right combination of good posture and healthy movement, the spine can be the centerpiece of wellness and vitality for our entire lives.
What is “good” posture? What are the ranges of motion that help to keep the spine as healthy and resilient as possible? We will seek to explore these questions by first considering the bones that make up the spine.
Form Follows Function
Let’s begin at the very base. The spine originates from the strong foundation of the pelvis. The coccyx is the last bone or set of little bones at the very bottom. It represents a vestigial tail, hence the common term tailbone. Just above is the sacrum, a triangular-shaped bone that is met on either side by the illium, the two big bones that you can feel when you put your hands on your hips. Arising from the sacrum, we have 24 bones, or vertebrae (plural),that make up the spinal column. Within each vertebra (singular) is an opening that our spinal cord runs through, called the foramen. Each vertebra has a main boney part or body, and protrusions that stick out of that body. These protrusions are known as spinous processes and depending on their size, shape, angle and location, can allow or restrict range of motion. The vertebrae are joined together by ligaments which attach bone to bone, and intervertebral discs, which perform the crucial duty of separating the vertebrae. These discs are filled with a cushiony, gelatinous, substance to absorb shock while also acting as cartilaginous joint to allow for mobility. Together the ligaments and cartilage create connections and space so the spine is flexible, but also sturdy. It can handle the impact of walking, jumping, cartwheeling, moshing on the dance floor, riding on the subway, falling down, lifting an object or any of the other fun, mundane or dangerous movements that we perform throughout our lives. In this writing, we will seek to explore the spine from a kinesthetic or movement-oriented point of view. The innervation of the body via the spine, and the neural pathways via the spinal cord, are for another learning area. But it is important here to give the spine credit for housing the spinal cord and sending messages throughout the body to MOVE.
Above the sacrum and coccyx, the spinal column is divided into three segments with corresponding curves: lumbar (low back), thoracic (rib cage) and cervical (neck). Each segment of the spine is specially suited for an appropriate amount of load bearing and range of motion, dictated by the size and shape of the body of the vertebrae, plus the size, shape and arrangement of the spinous processes.
Our low back or lumbar spine arises from the sacrum. The five vertebrae here have the thickest vertebral bodies for carrying the load of our entire torso. The spinous processes of the lumbar vertebrae allow for forward bending (flexion), back bending (extension) and side bending (lateral flexion). Important to note, though, is that our lumber vertebrae have a set of spinous processes that act like a door stopper to prevent rotation.
Try this: Sit upright with your right hand on your low back. Rotate your spine as if to look over your right shoulder. What do you feel? Now place your hand higher up on your spine, in the region of your rib cage and rotate. What do you feel there? Go back and forth between feeling the two segments of your spine, lumber and thoracic, and notice the movement, or lack of, occurring with the twist. Try this to the left as well. You may have more rotation available in one direction than the other. When we teach, are we using cues that encourage the movement where it actually happens, or are we using words to ask for movement where it does not belong?!
The next segment, the thoracic spine is absent of these particular “door stopper” protrusions and so the 12 vertebrae here are free to rotate one on top of the other. Our thoracic spine works along with our rib cage so each vertebra is completing a rib circle. The thoracic spine is limited in flexion and extension, likely due to protecting our heart and lungs and diaphragm, although it has a tremendous capacity for side bending. I think it is interesting to consider how the ribs and thoracic spine meet the needs of our arms—the limbs of making, giving and getting. Most of the time, when we do something with our arms there is an element of twist, whether it is opening a door or throwing a ball, shaking hands, gardening or making a cup of tea. Just imagine what making the bed would be like if you couldn’t twist! Ideally, we are able to combine twisting and bending to enjoy a diversity of movement throughout our daily lives.
Try this: Sit upright and place your left hand on your sternum, in the front and center of your rib cage, and take the back of your right hand and place it on the back of your rib cage. Flex or curl your thoracic spine forward and notice the change in your front body and back body. Which part of you got longer? Which part of you got more compact? Then arch your back lifting your chest up toward the ceiling and feel what is lengthened/shortened. Now place your hands on the sides of your ribs and bend side to side, asking the same question. And finally, now that you know what those movements are, can you see the many ways in your daily life that you combine them?!
Our cervical spine is highly mobile, most likely because we rely on our sight and hearing for survival. The spinous processes in this region allow us to flex, extend, rotate and side bend as well as glide our heads side-to-side, like a genie might, or front-to-back like a chicken. Due to the unique shapes and interplay of the two highest bones in the spine, the axis and the atlas, we have a lot of mobility. These bones are shaped like a point and a donut, respectively, and allow us to duck our heads out of danger or reach our heads to breathe, hear or see even if our bodies are restricted. Thankfully, we also have a ton of muscle up there to literally keep our head on our shoulders! The spine ends in between our ears—that’s how high up it goes. So when we teach our students, the placement of their heads is tremendously important in terms of their spinal alignment. If the head is “off” then the spine is off and/or some muscles lower on the spine are working overtime. The way we look at hand-held devices is a perfect example of poor alignment of the head that will overwork, overstretch and weaken our support system of neck muscles. Observing people on the subway with their necks bent over their tiny screens is a Pilates teacher’s nightmare.
Try this: Sitting or standing, balance your shoulders over your hips and your ears over your shoulders, or as close to this posture as you can. Look to the right without moving your shoulders, then left, then up at the ceiling, then down to the floor, then look straight ahead while imagining your nose at the center of a clock. Move your nose up to twelve o’clock and then slowly draw, with your nose a clockwise circle. When you get back to 12, go counter-clockwise. Then center your head again. Now send your chin forward and glide it back and to the center. Now slide your skull to the left and to the right. Then try circling your head through these four points of forward, right, back, and left. Try it in both directions. It’s as if your head is tall crayon and you could draw circles on the ceiling.
When considering “good posture” we seek to find a plum line in our clients. Imagine a line dropping down from the ceiling through the person’s standing body that would divide their body evenly from side-to-side and front-to-back. Ideally, the spine would not curve side-to-side but would have natural hollows at the lumbar and cervical spines, which are known as lordotic curves, and a slight rounding through the thoracic spine, which is referred to as a kyphotic curve. These curves are crucial not only for the motion segments to function properly but also for shock absorption as we move.
So far, all we have really been exploring is the movement that is possible because of the sizes, shapes and interactions of the bones of the spine. Muscles move the spine and support the spine. The miracle of the spine is not complete without the muscles. Working the muscles that attach to the spine in a balanced way is part of what keeps it healthy. The push/pull of the contracting and lengthening muscle fibers exert a force on the bones that help to build their mass and therefore, strength. These actions also help keep the cartilage spongy and resilient. Muscles connecting the head, shoulder blades, arms and legs, as well as muscles intrinsic to the torso, attach to the spine. Pretty much every movement we make is absorbed somewhere in our spine, especially any locomotor movement. When you move your arms or your legs, your spine has an attachment to those body parts via muscles, ligaments and nerve endings. This is why, along with practicing good posture, we need to move to keep our spines healthy.
To continue this exploration on your own go back to the Try this: sections and try them with your spine in a different relationship to gravity. For instance, lying on your back, on hands and knees, or lying on your side. You can also nerd out on your everyday movements!