“If you would seek health, look first to the spine.” -Socrates
The spine is one of the most important parts of the body. It provides structure and support, and without it, you would not be able to stand up, let alone keep yourself upright.
Yoga is a practice that, when done consciously, decompresses the spine, providing a feeling of space. In some cases, yoga can even help alleviate pain from different spine conditions like herniated discs, scoliosis, and also general low-back pain.
Let’s take a look at the five different movements of the spine in yoga asana practice, and how to practice and navigate them safely and effectively.
Please note: if you have a spine condition, it is best to work one-on-one with an experienced yoga teacher. If in doubt, please consult your physician before taking on any of these movements.
1. Axial Extension
Axial extension is a movement that lengthens and straightens the spine along its axis. It decompresses the spine, and allows a greater expansion to breathing. In other words, it brings space into the spine without moving it in any particular direction, save for upwards.
To understand axial extension, stand in Tadasana. Standing up straight, on an inhalation, draw upward through the crown of your head and the sternum, and visualize yourself breathing space between each vertebra. This movement can also be felt in Downward Dog, High Plank pose, Crescent Lunge, and in essence, any posture wherein the spine is long and neutral.
Axial extension is important to understand and apply in active movements of the spine, as it helps to alleviate any kind of unhealthy compression that is likely to be had.
Flexion is a movement that brings the spine down and forward towards the legs, and typically stretches the posterior chain. In yoga practice, spinal flexion is another way to refer to forward bends. Cat pose and Child’s pose are postures where the spine is in flexion, and mostly rounded. It is fair to say that while in passive flexion, the spine might be slightly rounded depending on the flexibility of the back body.
When practicing active forward bends such as Uttanasana or Paschimottanasana, it is important to create length (think axial extension) before folding deeper.
Let’s examine Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) to help understand spinal flexion. Take a seat in Staff pose/Dandasana, and with an inhale, lift the arms overhead, lengthening the spine upwards. Draw back through the sitting bones, and with the navel pulling in towards the spinal column, begin to hinge forward from the hips. Think of reaching forward to the tops of the feet with the sternum. Engaging the leg muscles can also help to increase the length of the spine as it folds forward.
One note of caution is when the back body is tight, actively folding forward can create compression in the lower back. To maintain optimal length, bend the knees and anteriorly tilt the pelvis as though you want to exaggerate the lumbar curve.
Examples of spinal flexion in yoga: Balasana (Child's pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Prasarita Padottanasana.
Spinal extension is a movement that lengthens the spine upwards (axial extension) and backwards. Otherwise known as backward bends (or simply backbends) in yoga, spinal extension stretches and strengthens the spine, particularly opening up the thoracic spine and the muscles of the chest and shoulders.
One of the most common misalignments in backbends is to bend backwards from the lower spine, causing compression that can lead to lower back pain in healthy individuals, or exacerbate an existing lower back condition. It is therefore important to create length before initiating the movement of spinal extension.
Imagine a simple standing backward bend. Start in Tadasana and as you inhale, reach the arms overhead whilst lengthening the spine upwards. Pull the navel in, maintaining length in the lower back, and start to draw the inner shoulder blades towards the centre of the spine as you bend from the upper back, opening the chest to the sky.
If you are accustomed to bending from the lower back, it might feel like you aren’t as "deep" in the backbend, but with muscular integrity, you execute the movement in a supported and safe manner.To maintain length of the lumbar spine while in alternate backbends, think of drawing the belly button in, lengthening the tailbone down.
Examples of spinal extension in yoga: Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), Ustrasana (Camel pose), Setu Bandhasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow/Wheel pose).
4. Lateral Flexion
Lateral flexion is a movement that bends the body to the right or left side. It helps to open up the side-body, strengthens the obliques, and is helpful in increasing flexibility of the spine. Lateral flexion also opens up the ribcage, helping to expand the lungs and aid in deeper breathing.
As with spinal flexion and extension, there is potential to compress the lower back when moving into lateral flexion. It is therefore important to create length (axial extension) before bending the body to the side.
Let’s consider standing crescent pose. Standing tall in tadasana with arms overhead, fingers interlaced save for the first fingers. Inhale reach up through the tip of the index fingers and on an exhale, bend to the right. Use each subsequent inhalation to create more space, and the exhalation to fold deeper to the side. Pull in through the navel to keep the lower back long and protected.
5. Axial Rotation
Axial rotation is a movement that revolves or twists the spine. It is an action in yoga that helps to lubricate the spine and increase its range of motion. Spinal twists are a great way to prepare the spine for spinal flexion or extension, and furthermore, can help neutralize the spine following flexion or extension.
As with the previous movements, it is important to create length in the spine before twisting. Let’s take Ardha Matsyendrasana as an example. Keeping both sitting bones and the left hand firmly rooted on the floor, reach the right arm overhead and as you inhale, lengthen the spine. On your exhale, twist the spine to the left, placing the right elbow against the outer left thigh. Pause, and inhale again for more length, pull in through the navel, and exhale-twist. Before each additional twist, take an inhalation to create space and length.
When in twisting postures, be conscious that you are rotating the full length of the spine, rather than just the neck, which can usually take on the majority of the rotation.
As we learned, the lower back is a sensitive area that is prone to taking on stress in the movements of the spine. When any of the spinal movements are initiated with axial extension (length), it helps to reduce compression, particularly in the lower back.
Understanding the different movements of the spine as it applies to yoga practice is important in ensuring you have a safe and effective practice. Hopefully this quick guide helps you navigate spinal movement in your yoga practice.