Spine Tapped by Yoga



The backbone of anything is the core source of strength, vitality and fundamental practice of doing what's right. The "backbone" exists in many forms...ranging from physical, psychological to philosophical. How one nourishes it determines the results. Yoga is no different.

To keep it simple, let's focus on the physical facets first. Your spine is composed of 33 vertebrae. It starts at the neck with 7 cervical, going down to 12 thoracic, down to 5 lumbar and 9 fused vertebrae in the sacrum and coccyx region. The top 24 are the mobile ones. Between the vertebrae are discs, which act as cushions between the bones. They contain gel fluid for mobility and space. Gravity and time can compress the gel out of the discs...causing impingement on spinal nerves where the space has been removed.

We have 31 pairs of spinal nerves branching out of the spine. They are the messengers. Touch something hot, the nervous fiber (Ruffini's corpuscles) deep in the dermis, transmits the message to its spinal nerve extending from the spinal cord within the backbone. Before the message gets to the brain, the spinal cord ignites the reaction to remove hand from the heat. By the time the action has taken place, the brain simply confirms it was the correct response. You think your brain is busy with conscious thoughts relentlessly floating in and out. Well, your brain stem inside your backbone is much busier.

The brain stem is roughly 18 inches long. It is strongly protected by layers of membrane, spinal fluid, and the vertebrae (backbone). Just like your brain, the stem also has gray and white matter. We normally think our spine is on the edge of the skin of our back. Actually, your spine is nearly in the center of your body. The vertebrae that encase the stem is like a thick wall around a castle. The muscles are like the moat around the wall.

It is not just the back muscles that protect the spine; but, the core muscles in the front as well. Muscles on both sides range from horizontal layers to vertical layers. A very tight moat it is. Tight is good...inflexible is not. This is where yoga's mystical moves come into action. Flexibility creates malleability. Malleability adjusts to changes while retaining strength.

Every time you extend the arms upwardly, you lengthen the entire matrix of muscles from front to back. Every time you fold forward, you expand the space between the vertebrae's discs...defying gravity's compression process. The vertical muscles that reside(erector spinae) near your spine get a well deserved stretch. We mostly think about the superficial...the latissimus dorsi or trapezius when it comes to the back. But, the practice of yoga takes your movements to a deeper level.

The engagement and lengthening of the deep muscles assists in building a strong backbone. Focusing on the inner muscles foundation will simultaneously build stronger exterior muscles that we can visibly admire. Take time to feel each detectable nuance of your muscles stretch in each move. Consciously breathe into the deeper layers. Your body thrives on oxygen to create new cells. The exhale of carbon dioxide releases what no longer serves the body's needs. Become aware of the inhale extending beyond the lungs. That is simply where it starts and ends. All the parts in between make it possible for the lungs to do their job.

Take Mountain Pose (Tadasana) for example. You stand firmly on all four corners of the feet building a solid foundation of balance. The quadriceps are engaged. The activation of the quadriceps tightens the deeper muscles around the femur (thigh bone). Lifting the shoulders back and down activates the abdomen muscles. Most are familiar with the desired "six pack"; however, the internal oblique muscle of the abdomen also gets worked. The lumbar quadrate muscle that covers the posterior (back) of the abdominal wall is engaged. Only a couple of muscles are listed, but you get the idea. There's a lot to standing up straight.

With the shoulders rolled back, you expand the pectoralis muscles and spread the intercostal muscles between the ribs. Opening and engaging the front of the body strengthens the muscles around the spine. The truth of "what goes up, must come down" and be transposed to 'what works in front, works it way back'. Practice feeling the counter balance of activity in your muscles. Practice of awareness will deepen your practice's experience and results.

We have 206 bones and over 650 layers of muscles. Your spine is 33 of those bones. Kind of puts the purpose of muscles in a new perspective, doesn't it? When you remember that your brain actually extends down inside your spine for you to fully function, you can't help but sit up straight. Curvature from leaning over a desk all day has its consequences in the long term. Your backbone's line of communication gets interference...kind of like losing a connection via cell phone because the tower connection was lost.

Back problems are challenging for the best of doctors to repair. It can range from sciatic nerve pain, metabolism imbalance to psychological issues such as depression. It depends on where the spinal nerve is getting impinged. Of course problems can be and is a result of a combination of several factors. But, getting focused on building strength in your backbone just might make other components easier to resolve. Yoga done properly can prevent age related back problems. The accumulated flexibility, malleability and strength of the muscles that hold you together will keep you standing tall.

There's a lot to learn about this castle within you. It has numerous layers to it. A series of articles focusing on distinct aspects of the spine will follow this one. Use the time until the next article to hone in your awareness of how you sit, stand and walk. Use awareness while on the yoga mat. See how you can fine tune your poses to maximize your 'moat and wall' around your castle. Tending to the intricate foundation of your castle is the backbone of enjoyment you have while residing in it.

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