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Keeping the "S" in Spine

The Spine, it supports us in all we do, but do we give it the respect it deserves? Running though our spine are nerves that help us to move our body, affect our organs & all our systems. We tend to abuse this most importing housing of the connection from our brain to our body. We sit more than we should & allow our spine to round forward more & more. This causes the muscles supporting our spine, to become tight & weak. Then we are told, to sit up straight, get better posture. In every yoga class, that is our focus. But it is hard to do, & can feel as if we are causing more pain instead of decreasing it. Why is this?

We have natural curves in our spine that naturally, make an S like flow. But over time, we can over round our upper back (thoracic spine) which in turn can flatten out the neck (cervical spine) & low back (lumbar spine). Some of us overarch the low back, perhaps hanging in our knee joints & that causes the other curves of the spine to overly flatten or arch. It is these extremes that cause disfunction throughout our body, which can lead to pain.

How do we get our natural curves back? By moving our spine through different ranges of motion (see the article below on the 6 directions of the spine). It is important to do this without forcing or we can do more harm than good. Think of the mindful moving of the spine as a way to lubricate & strengthen this most important supporting structure so it can do the job it was made for.

We can also use props to gently release the tight muscles around the spine so it’s easier to find our posture through ease instead of force. In my classes I use the Black Strip, developed by Gert van Leeuwen (Critical Alignment Therapy) to open up the thoracic spine, which in turn will allows the natural curves of the rest of the spine to fall into place. It can feel difficult at first to ask these chronically tight muscles to release their hold, so we can experience what it feels like to have our posture back. But it’s worth the effort to experience what it feels like to have a supple & strong spine. Continuing to use our yoga practice to strengthen the support system will help you to keep you posture without as much effort.

(See the article by Judith Lasater on A Healthy Spine: Strength Through Curves below).

Over time you will find it is more comfortable to sit up where the head is supported by all of the spine & not hanging forward. I challenge my students to sit up on their sit bones, every time they sit, instead of rounding forward into what “feels” more comfortable. Through gentle persistence, & practice, we can all find our way back to our natural curves that will keep a spring in our step.

If you would like to learn more about the Black Strip & how it can help with your posture, I will be teaching a workshop on October 30, 2016 1-4pm at Go to my website for more information.


Anne Cox E-RYT 500


A Healthy Spine: Strength Through Curves


One of the most interesting structures in nature is the human spinal column. When the spine is aligned, the unremitting force of gravity flows easily through it. If the spinal curves are habitually disturbed, gravity becomes the enemy. As a result, tension builds up around the spinal column as the body attempts to hold itself upright by overusing muscles and ligaments. Since these structures were not intended exclusively for this use, the soft tissues of the back tire. This can lead to muscle spasms or generalized fatigue. One of the best ways to reduce stress is to stand so that the natural curves of the spine are maintained. In this article we will practice ways to do just that.

One of the most interesting structures in nature is the human spinal column. When the spine is aligned, the unremitting force of gravity flows easily through it.

Commonly known as the backbone, the spinal column consists of thirty-two bones called vertebrae. They are arranged in a series of four gentle curves: cervical (neck), thoracic (middle back), lumbar (lower back), and sacrococcygeal (pelvis). In order to bear weight successfully, these curves should be neither increased nor decreased too much.

Most of the vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs (pads of fibrocartilage). All are connected by ligaments (bands of connective tissue) and muscles that enable us to twist and bend forward, backward, and sideways. In between the vertebrae are the exit points for the spinal nerves which branch from the spinal cord itself. The spinal cord passes through the middle of the spinal column, ending at the level of the first lumbar vertebra.

For some hands-on information about the spine, stand sideways near a full-length mirror. The spine begins at the base of the skull and ends at the tailbone. Begin by running your fingertips from the base of your skull gently down the back of your neck. Feel how your neck curves toward the front of your body. This is called the cervical spine and consists of seven vertebrae.

The next region of the spine is called the thoracic spine. Look in the mirror and notice how your upper back curves away from your body in exactly the opposite direction from your neck. There are twelve thoracic vertebrae, each with two ribs attached.

Below the thoracic region is the lumbar spine or lower back. It extends from the last rib in the back to the top of the sacrum. The lumbar spine has five vertebrae and, like the cervical vertebrae at the top of the spine, curves inward. Place your fingers at the back of your waist and feel this gentle curve.

Let your fingers continue down the back until you locate the sacrum, a triangular-shaped bone which curves outward like the thoracic spine. Unique in composition, the sacrum consists of five vertebrae that fused together during the normal course of development. Below the sacrum are three small bones which make up the coccyx or tailbone. They are inconsequential to most spinal movements.

Standing Well: Mountain Pose

In yoga, standing in the position of postural awareness is called mountain pose. When this pose is practiced well, the body is prepared for almost all daily movement: standing, sitting, walking, and running. Like the mountain poised between heaven and earth, this pose establishes a foundation through the legs and feet and encourages the lift of the spine.

Setting Up Stand sideways near a full-length mirror so you can check your alignment. Alternatively, practice with a friend who can tell you how you are doing. If you find yourself without these props, practice anyway. The more you practice, the more you will develop an internal sense of your own alignment.

We will begin with the foundation: your feet. Attention to the details of placing the feet is important. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. For most people this is about six to ten inches. The center line of the foot should point forward. If you are not sure what this means, look down and imagine that each foot is placed on a line drawn from a point between your second and third toes through the center of the front of your ankle and continuing to the center of your heel.

Attention to the details of placing the feet is important.

Standing with your feet parallel can help to maintain the normal spinal curves and a balanced position of the pelvis. Standing with the feet turned out causes the back of the pelvis to drop and flattens the lumbar curve. Standing with the feet turned in tilts the top of the pelvis forward, increases the lumbar curve, and stresses the inner knees.

After you have positioned your feet, place your hands on the rim of your pelvis. If you are not sure where this is, put your hands at the sides of your waist and slowly move them down until you feel a bony ridge. This is the rim of the pelvis.

With your hands on the pelvic rim, feel if the pelvis is in a balanced position. If you have pushed the pelvis backward, you flatten the lumbar curve, decrease the ability of the lumbar spine to bear weight successfully, and increase strain on the soft tissues in the area. To correct this misalignment, adjust the pelvis so that it sits exactly over the tops of the thighs.

Correct alignment may feel strange at first, so check yourself in the mirror again or ask your friend for feedback. Looking at you from the side, your friend should be able to draw an imaginary vertical line from your ear to your shoulder joint and down through the center of your hip, knee, and ankle. Once you have found a good position for the pelvis, let your arms drop to your sides.

Do not hyperextend your knees. Commonly called “locking the knees,” hyperextension is a condition in which one hangs backward on the internal knee ligaments. This habitual posture overstretches these ligaments and leads to instability in the knee joints. If you stand this way, bend your knees slightly to avoid pushing back. Check in the mirror to make sure that your lower legs are vertical.

Now bring your attention to your head and neck. If the body is aligned, usually the head follows. But take a moment to check it anyway. This is harder to do by yourself, so ask a friend for feedback. If you are practicing on your own, here are two ways you can check the position of your head and neck.

First, your eyes should be level with the horizon. If you are looking up or down, even slightly, your head is tipped and your neck will not be in a neutral position. Remember, in its neutral position the cervical spine has a slight inward curve.

Second, place your fingers at the base of your skull to help you feel the position of the back of your skull in relationship to your neck. Is the skull moving down toward the neck? If you are not sure, then exaggerate the movement. Notice how your chin juts forward and you feel increased tension in the muscles of the back of your neck. Bring your head back to the point where the skull lifts away from the neck and the chin is parallel to the floor. As you do this, feel the neck muscles soften.

Being There Once you are in alignment, notice your physical sensations. Is your weight balanced evenly between your feet? Between the front and back of your feet? Your legs should feel active, but not tight. Is there any tension in your shoulders? Drop them away from your ears and allow your arms to feel long and relaxed at your sides.

Once you are in alignment, notice your physical sensations. Is your weight balanced evenly between your feet?

Feel a lightness in your spinal column and the exhilaration from the upward movement of the spine. Allow your head to be balanced on your torso.

Feel minimum effort and maximum comfort in breathing. Breathe several long, smooth breaths and relax, still maintaining awareness of your alignment.


Practice mountain pose several times a day. Standing well reduces strain on the joints, ligaments, and muscles, especially on those of the spinal column and lower extremities. It also aids respiration, digestion, and elimination. It gives the practitioner confidence, and conveys a sense of poise and self-esteem.

  • Remove your socks for this pose.

  • If you have low blood pressure, do not practice mountain pose for more than two minutes.

JUDITH LASATER Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., Physical Therapist, has been teaching yoga since 1971. She trains students and teachers throughout the United States as well as abroad, is one of the founders of Yoga Journal magazine, and is president of the California Yoga Teachers Association. She has written eight books.

Yoga 101: The 6 Directions of the Spine

The Simplest Spinal Warmup Routines - Two Videos For Your Home Practice

December 16th, 2015 | Erika Mehiel

(see for the links to the videos)

“A healthy spine is a healthy body!” So has said a teacher of mine, and I doubt we’d find any medical expert or average Joe who would argue this simple logic.

In your very first yoga class you were likely introduced to the Cat/Cow spinal warm-up. And since then, it’s probably made an appearance in 99% of classes — so much so that you might have even found yourself getting bored (“not Cat/Cow again!”). It’s critical to warm up the spine as we go into a practice. In fact, it’s critical to the health of the spine (and thus the body) to warm it up every day, even a couple times a day, and especially at the start of the day. Cat Cow moves the spine in two primary directions, and there are four more directions that make up the complete spinal spectrum. These six movements elongate the spine, encourage elasticity of the spinal column, wake up the cranio-sacral “highway,” and provide a host of other benefits.

Beginning your day by easing your body into each of these six directions will ensure you’re loosened, lengthened and lubricated – ready to take on the world with a supple, strong spine.


Direction 1 – Spinal Extension

aka arching the spine as in Cow Pose

This shape lengthens the spine, expands the chest, strengthens the lungs and facilitates deeper breathing. From an emotional standpoint, this shape helps us “open our heart.” Best of all, this shape is the exact opposite of how most of us spend our days – hunched over a computer or slouched looking down at a phone.

The simplest version of Spinal Extension is just a seated arching stretch, and cow pose is also a gentle option for the morning. Poses such as cobra, upward-facing dog, bow pose, and wheel are more dynamic versions of this shape, typically called “backbends” but perhaps wisely reframed as “front extensions” going for length over bend.

Direction Two – Spinal Flexion

aka rounding the spine as in Cat Pose

This shape expands the backbody, stretching the back of the lungs increasing breath capacity, and tones the abdomen with an engaged core. On an emotional level, these shapes help us turn inward for reflection and calm. This shape can be done via the usual cat shape, or seated by rounding the spine forward. Deeper versions of this shape are seated forward bending like in pachimotanasana, standing forward bending in utanasana, or even balancing shapes like devotional warrior.

Directions 3 & 4 – Lateral Side bending

as seen in crescent arches

By bending up and over to the left and right, we lengthen our side bodies, improving rib cage mobility and again, create even more space for the lungs. These shapes lengthen the muscles between the ribs and pelvis, plus parts of the lower back. They also support the health of the lymph system. It’s easy for things to get “stuck” in life, and side body stretches clear out often-neglected nooks and crannies. These gentle C-shaped curves can be created from a seated position, or from table top by reaching “cheek to cheek” – reaching the cheek on your face towards the hips and the hips towards your face. Standing crescents poses are also a gentle lateral side bend, and more active variations include peaceful warrior and extended side angle pose.

Directions 5 & 6 – Twists

as experienced in seated or reclining twists to both sides

Twisting to the right and left completes the set of six directions, mitigating against fusing and limited-mobility of vertebrae. Twisting also hydrates the intervertebral disks and massages the organs within the abdomen supporting digestion. It also asks us to “look forward and look backward” which can help us find the middle ground of the present moment. You can be seated in a cross-legged position, or atop bend knees to twist side to side, thinking about lengthening on the inhale and gently twisting deeper on the exhale. Or opt for a reclining twist and let gravity do most of the work! From table top, threading the needle is a good option, and revolved triangle pose is a powerful standing variation.

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