Yoga for a healthy spine
Many people practise yoga because of the stretching and strengthening benefits it brings to the spine. Equally, though, articles often crop up in the media linking yoga postures to neck issues and back pain, and it’s easy to get confused as to whether certain postures should be avoided or embraced.
Surely it makes sense to follow the teachings of those who founded this yoga practice we know and love? Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. For example, BKS Iyengar had some rather controversial instructions, such as “throw the head back” in the cobra pose and have the neck “rest well on the floor” in a shoulder stand.
Essentially, the contemporary understanding of anatomy tells us the key to a healthy cervical spine (neck) is maintaining the normal cervical curve. This curve supports us perfectly when we sit, stand, walk about, exercise or sleep. So, with that in mind, let’s look at how and why yoga can be practised to support your spine’s natural curvature while also building strength and flexibility.
If you want to stretch the back, you need to move your spine outside the range of its neutral curves. That, I think, is the point Iyengar was trying to make. However, he may not have been accurate with his instructions to flatten the back of the neck on the floor in shoulder stand; far from it, in fact.
At 100 per cent flexion, our anatomy books tell us, the ligaments in the neck will be most likely stretched to the point of strain. These cervical ligaments are lengthened when the head tilts forward. You can feel this yourself through the central portion of the cervical spine in strong cervical flexion. Standing or sitting upright with a straight spine, tilt your head forward and place your fingers against the back of your neck: the ligament should feel slightly taut. As you tilt your head further forward, this tautness will be more prominent as the ligament is stretched further. What you’re feeling is the nuchal ligament — the strongest and largest ligament in the cervical region.
Cobra pose allows you to strengthen and open your entire back. It’s invigorating.
Now that you have an awareness of the nuchal ligament, what can it tell you about the flexion of your neck in shoulder stand?
Normally, the cervical spine has a range of flexion of just 60–70 degrees. So this should be your maximum flexion for shoulder stand. When you practise the posture on the floor without support, the more you align your hips above your shoulders, the greater the degree of flexion you will have in your cervical spine. With your hips directly over your shoulders, there will be a right angle in your neck — 90 degrees — stretching your ligaments to the likelihood of strain.
A good way to reduce that angle on your neck and experience the benefits of the pose safely is by supporting the shoulders on a stack of three to four folded blankets. This gives a sense of freedom in the neck and you will feel less pressure on the back of your head. It allows you to draw the weight upward, away from your neck, keeping the ligaments relaxed and at ease. Without this support, and with the neck maximally flexed against the floor, the full weight of the body is carried by the neck. This can be potentially damaging.
Iyengar embraced the use of props, and most students I’ve practised this with really enjoy the sense of support these blankets provide.
Cobra pose allows you to strengthen and open your entire back. It’s invigorating. Similarly to shoulder stand, it stimulates the sex, thymus and thyroid glands, so activating the endocrine system. Have you ever noticed how people stand and walk when they arrive at a yoga session, then how differently they look on the way out — taller, leaner and with more of a spring in their step? (Presumably you can feel it in yourself but sometimes these things are more noticeable in others.)
So backbends — and here I’ll look specifically at cobra pose — bring a sense of lightness and vitality. But should you, as Iyengar counselled, throw your head back?
If you arch your head back, all you’re doing is tilting the head on the axis at the top of the spine. Think again of the neutral spine and, from a sitting position, flex your neck so you are looking down. Now, keeping your spine straight, arch the head back as far as possible by lifting the chin. Notice how, as you arch the neck, really only the upper cervical vertebra is acting in the extension, while the lower cervical vertebrae are still in flexion. Throwing the head back or looking up, therefore, is not a true backbend.
As the neutral positioning of the cervical spine is already extended, it has a concave curve — a lordosis — to provide a more central support for the head. Throwing your head as far back as possible in cobra pose will only cause your chin to stretch outward, not deepen the extension of your spine. Instead, you should focus on extending the part of your spine that is convex in its neutral position: the thoracic spine, which extends from the top to the bottom of your ribcage.
Most importantly, when it comes to a somatic understanding of anatomy, your body is your teacher.
Arching the neck is a common habit in yoga; not just because of Iyengar’s instructions but also because looking up carries the illusion of going further. Now, though, let’s look at how to practise cobra pose maintaining the normal cervical curve.
Begin lying on your belly. Bring your hands underneath your shoulders then press your hips down into the floor to activate the muscles of the lower back — that’s the key to muscular control and strengthening the back in this pose. Then, as you inhale, lift your chest off the floor.
Once in the pose, squeeze your thighs together, continuing to build the muscles of your lower back, strengthening the pelvic floor and protecting the lower back. Draw your shoulders back, keeping the elbows tucked in close to the body. You’ll need to concentrate to master the breath, pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, and this in turn will assist relaxation, even if you’re new to yoga. As you become more proficient at centring in the postures, your mind and body become fully engaged.
If you want to make sure it’s your back strength you’re using, rather than that of your arms, you may take the hands off the floor; this also further strengthens the back body. Keep the back of the head straight and in line with your spine, so the normal cervical curve is maintained. Keep drawing your shoulders back; your chest will get stretched, your inhalation will start to deepen. Feel the muscles of the back really strengthening as you hold the pose. And then, finally, exhale and release.
At first, move dynamically — inhaling to come up and exhaling to release with each breath — so you can warm up before holding the pose. As your back body becomes stronger and the muscles across the chest lengthen to support the lift of the spine, you back body curls like a cobra about to strike!
Asanas for the spine
Many of the yoga asanas work on developing a healthy spine. Yoga is a great way of experiencing flexion and extension, of reconnecting with the development of the spine, and of reconnecting with a healthy spine and a healthy nervous system (our central nervous systems are located in our spines).
Most importantly of all, however, as Patanjali stated in The Yoga Sutras, the practice of yoga is a way to restrain the turbulent mind; to abide in one’s true nature. Hence his definition of a yoga pose: “a steady and comfortable seat”. In terms of exploring the range of our neutral curves, this means flexing and extending without overarching or maximally flexing, and finding this balance both on and off the yoga mat.
A lot more research has been done into yoga, the spine and mindful movement patterns since Iyengar wrote his seminal book, Light on Yoga, and our anatomical understanding of the spine has changed. Without challenging Iyengar’s teachings, it’s interesting to explore how our understanding of movement patterns has changed over the years.
Next time you read Light on Yoga, think about it. However controversial I may find some of the instructions, particularly with regard to the cervical spine, I always laugh when I think of what my teacher told me about Iyengar’s response when anyone questioned him on it: “You think I haven’t learned anything in 50 years?”
Most importantly, when it comes to a somatic understanding of anatomy, your body is your teacher. Observe how you hold your neck in your yoga practice, keep your cervical spine neutral and see how you get on. Here’s a sequence to help you experience the benefits of yoga for your spine.
High–low push-up (chaturanga dandasana)
Start in a push-up position, arms perpendicular to the floor, belly pulled in, tailbone scooping toward heels, pelvis lifted upward, knees off floor if comfortable. Look straight down between your hands, being careful not to alter the neutral curvature of the neck. Draw in the front thighs. On a slow exhalation, lower your torso to about five inches from the floor, engaging your belly as you move. As in high push-up, keep your chin in a neutral alignment — away from your chest without compressing the back of the neck. Keep your head and neck in line with your back; don’t let the mid-torso sag. Lower yourself gently to the floor.
Cobra pose (bhujangasana)
Lie face down on your belly, hands under shoulders, palms facing down, elbows tucked in close to the body. Press down into your hip bones. Inhale and raise your torso, elbows bent, palms lightly resting on the floor. Lead from your chest, neutral head positioning, hips staying down. In the beginning, keep your hands on the mat, without pressing into them. Otherwise you can lift your hands off the floor, drawing the elbows in towards your lower ribs, elongating your back. Move your gaze as you lift up, so the back of your head stays in line with your spine. Stay for a few breaths. Take child’s pose or downward dog to release your back.
Bridge pose (setu bandhasana)
Lie on your back, knees bent directly over ankles with outer edges of feet in line with hips. On inhalation, gradually begin to peel the spine slowly up, pressing feet firmly down into the floor. For beginners, fingers can reach towards your heels. Otherwise, interlock your fingers beneath you and lift your hips as high as is comfortable. Press down firmly with your arms and lift up your chest. Take five deep breaths. Slowly roll down, vertebra by vertebra. Rest on the floor, feeling your hips and buttocks sinking down.
Shoulder stand (sarvangasana)
Place a neatly folded stack of three to four blankets on the floor. Recline on the blankets with your shoulders about three inches from the folded edge and your head on the mat. Lift your buttocks as in bridge pose and extend the arms. Placing your hands on your back, fingers pointing towards your buttocks, come onto your tippy toes and draw your elbows closer together. Extend one leg up in the air, keep lifting the pelvis with your hands supporting your back, and then extend the second leg. Look upward and keep the head still. Hold for 1–2 minutes then come straight into plough pose.
Plough pose (halasana)
Lower your legs down from shoulder stand with your feet coming behind and over your head. Keep the ankles touching, legs straight, kneecaps lifted, and look straight up. Interlock your fingers, extend your arms behind your back, lift your pelvis and spine upwards and keep straightening your legs. Breathe deeply into your back and after one minute slowly roll down.
Always finish your asana practice lying on your back in savasana, corpse pose, closing your eyes. Lengthen your spine into the floor but allow the curvatures to take their natural form.
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