Benefits of Practising Yoga for the Spine

“You may die, but you will never grow old if your spine stays flexible.” Yogi Bhajan (Kundalini Yoga Master)

 

People come to yoga and decide to stay with it for various reasons. As Mark Stephens states, Yoga is an unending process of self-discovery and self-transformation. Often towards becoming a “better yourself”. Even if it is only about a physical state.

Recognising that individual path in yoga is so very different, there are some common benefits that yoga can bring to the everybody’s health. In this abstract I would like to cover the benefits of practising yoga for the spine.

The spine is involved in every yoga asana, more than any other part of the skeleton. Many people are attracted to yoga initially to improve stability, mobility and overall functioning of spine [1].

Problems with spine are sometimes referred to as one of the “deseases” of the century. With the development of technology, people spend more and more time sitting in front of the computer screen, and this is the root of the problem with spine, which many now experience. Practicing yoga has multiple Benefits for the spine [3]:

  • Improved posture, balance, and body alignment: Practicing yoga results in improved posture, and an increased sense of balance, with head, shoulders and pelvis in proper alignment. This helps maintain the natural curvature of the spine, which is an important part of reducing or avoiding lower back pain.
  • Strengthening: multiple yoga asanas help to strengthen the muscles in the back, as well as the abdominal muscles. Back and abdominal muscles are essential components of the muscular network of the spine, which help the body maintain proper upright posture and movement.
  • Stretching and relaxation achieved through practicing yoga, can reduce tension in stress-carrying muscles. In addition, stretching & breathing in yoga increases blood flow, allowing nutrients to flow in, toxins to flow out, and overall nourishment of the muscles and soft tissues in the lower back.
  • Awareness of the body through yoga increases with practice: yoga trains people to understand the limitations of their body. An increased awareness acts as a preventative measure, in that the individual will know what types of motions should and should not be avoided. Recent studies have shown positive outcome of yoga in general on reducing pain and functional disability of the spine.
  • Mental benefits: It is believed that mental state of mind can affect those suffering from back pain or even cause back pain. Negative psychological and emotional factors may not necessarily change the physiology of the back, but may tend to magnify a problem that already exists. Thus, reducing the perception of the pain and relieving stress through practicing yoga & meditation can reduce back pain which is linked to the psychological and emotional factors.

Some Yoga asanas for the spine.

The movements between the individual bones of the vertebral column are very limited. There is more movement in the cervical and lumbar regions than elsewhere [2].

5 major movements that spine can make include [4]:

  • Flexion, rounds the spine forward
  • Extention, rounds the spine back
  • Rotation, twists the spine
  • Side bending (Lateral flexion)
  • Axial bending, decompresses and vertically elongates the spine.

Practicing yoga allows to make all of these five movements.

Here are a few examples of the yoga asanas that help improve and maintain healthy movement, flexibility and strength of the spine [4]:

  • Flexion: Child pose or Cat pose
  • Extension: Sphinx/ Cobra or Cow pose
  • Rotation: Simple Seated Twist or Marichyasana
  • Side bend: Standing Side Bend or Triangle Pose
  • Axial extension: Upward Salute Pose or Downward Facing Dog Pose.

In my classes I often ask the clients to visualise each vertebrae of the spine while practising certain asanas. Here is a quick recap about the structure and functions of the spine.

The structure & functions of the spine.

The spine is a column of 33 vertebrae, that curves up from the coccyx to the base of the skull.  Its structure allows to fulfull the functions of support and motion. The column has a shape of “S”, which gives the spine firmness and flexibility.

The vertebral column consists of five different regions:

  • Cervical spine: the first 7 vertebrae, in the neck. (C1-C7)
  • Thoracic spine: the next 12 vertebrae. (T1-T12)
  • Lumbar spine: the next 5 vertebrae, the lowest of each articulates with the sacrum. (L1-L5). Each vertebrae is identified by the first letter of its region in the spine, followed by a number indicating its position.
  • Sacrum, formed from 5 fused vertebrae.
  • Coccyx, or tail, which is formed from between 3 to 5 small fused vertebrae.

Figure 1: The vertebral column. Lateral view [2].

This is how the vertebrae looks like:

 

The bodies of the vertebrae increase greatly in size towards the base of the spine, as the lower spine has to support much more weight than the upper regions.

Curves of the vertebral column.

When viewed from the side, the vertebral column presents 4 curves: 2 primary and 2 secondary.

The fetus in the uterus lies curled up so that the head and the knees are more or less touching. This position shows the primary curve. The secondary cervical curve develops when the child can hold up his head (after 3 months) and the secondary lumbar curve develops when he stands upright (after 12 to 15 months). The thoracic and sacral primary curves are retained.

Figure 3. Development of the spinal curves [2].

The Functions of the vertebral column include:

  • strong bony protection for the delicate spinal cord lying within it.
  • The pedicles of adjacent vertebrae forming intervertebral foramina providing access to the spinal cord for spinal nerves, blood vessels and lymph vessels.
  • The intervertebral discs acting as shock absorbers, protecting the brain.
  • Supporting the skull.
  • forming the axis of the trunk, giving attachment to the ribs, shoulder girdle and upper limbs, and the pelvic girdle and lower limbs.

The health of the spine is very important, since it has an effect on the health of other organs due to nerve endings or fascia that connect everything together.  The spine is at the centre of yoga, and practicing yoga has tremendous positive effects on the spine as well as the whole body.

Sources of information:

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