In The Spinal Analysis

Work the core. Get "six-pack" abs in 4-6 weeks. Create a washboard stomach. Daily core strengtheners...yada, yada, yada. So much focus is fixated on the frontal and most visible part of the body from a unisex perspective...the abs. In reality, the key component of overall fitness, strength and well-being hides behind the place where it literally the back. So much substance for the surface has been entrained in the collective mindset; most have unwittingly become oblivious to the most stalwart part of their body...the spine and muscles that keep it stable.

Stephen King wrote a sentence in his mesmerizing novel, 11-22-63,"the surface has always passed for substance." The rhetorical truism is applicable to all physical mirages we view with sophomoric perspectives. Health, strength and fitness delves beyond superficial muscles.

Engaging and fortifying back muscles nourishes the spine, the spinal cord, and ripples around to the anterior (front) of the body. The back is composed of extrinsic (exterior), intermediate (middle) and intrinsic (deep) muscles. We know the lovely view of a muscular back. The extrinsic portion consists of the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and rhomboid muscles. Their matrix of fibers can be engaged for all to admire. For long term strength, we have to go past the visible exterior portions of the body.

Second layer consists of the serratus posterior superior and serratus posterior inferior. The superior is in the upper part of the back and the inferior is near the middle portion. They attach to the ribs and are an integral part of the elevation and depression of the ribs as you breathe. Don't be deceived by the word inferior. The SPI also pulls the lower ribs downward and back to help you rotate and extend. It is much more than the lungs making it possible to breathe.

Go deeper and the core intrinsic muscles are found. The erector spinae is the largest group of intrinsic muscles. This triad of muscles extend vertically from the skull to the pelvis and lie on both sides near the spine. Notice people who schlump forward while sitting or standing? The back muscles are not being actively used. Use or lose it principle will kick in at some point. Father Time and gravity will transform a lackadaisical back into a concaved arch. Compression of nerves residing in the spine occurs and back pain, spinal stenosis, sciatic nerve related problems and more come to the forefront of awareness. Suddenly, the well defined abdomen one pursued to show off and admire doesn't seem so imperative. All you want is a pain-free back and the ability to move sans reservation.

Bring your focus on your back and the front will share the results for you to see. Take notice of how you're sitting right now. Is there a curve in your back and are shoulders rolled forward? Sit up straighter and see how the abdomen lifts up with an active use of back muscles. My mom taught me to stand up straight by walking around the house with a book balanced on my head. At age 13, I was rather annoyed; but, thankfully she challenged me and awareness of a straight, strong spine vs. a curved, passive one began. It got me over my embarrassment of being taller than most of the boys. Most eventually caught up. Try it...just to feel how tall you really stand.

In yoga, there are a plethora of poses to dynamically strengthen all the muscles...from the extrinsic to intrinsic. Practice poses long enough for your cells to get the message. Maintain poses for 5-10 breaths...actively. You do not move quickly from position to position. Get to know your body's internal layout by softly coming into a pose; making subtle adjustments while in it; remain in with a sense of vitality; breathing deeply and appreciate the sensation of the skin on the posterior (back) of your body gently inflating and deflating. Resist the instinct to succumb to a passive effort. (Only if the body delivers messages via pain...pain is information you listen to and respect.)

It is beneficial and imperative to do a few Sun Salutations to get muscles, joints, and internal heat warmed up prior to doing dynamic poses. Once warmed up, here's a few back focused poses to practice. Stay in poses for 5-10 breaths before transitioning to the next one.

Sphinx: :, dynamic, aware. Forearms with palms wide and pressing with a gentle firmness on the ground. Arch in back can be increased or decreased by bringing elbows closer to ribcage or further. Keep shoulders rolled back so you feel the pectoralis (front chest muscle) being expanded. Breathe and feel abdomen inflate and deflate.

Transition to a Locust variation: Still on abdomen, elevate and extend both legs upwardly without bending knees. Hands reach back with palms facing each other. Focus on feeling the intrinsic muscles contracting to hold the body in place. This pose's effects are contingent on the spine and its surrounding muscles.

Keep legs elevated while you bring hands to floor on either side of your chest. Press into hands to elevate body a few inches higher. Keep elbows pointing back...not out. If neck is feeling discomfort, you're probably arching head back too far. Bring it into a neutral position. No need to compress cervical vertebrae. Keep breathing.

Bring legs down, press into palms to lift body off mat into Up Dog . Gently engage core to diminish compression felt in lower back. (Remember, front and back work together) While in Up Dog, keep awareness on using the back muscles by opening chest and feeling the shoulder blades come a bit closer. Breathe.

Now you're ready to do Downward Dog . It will definitely feel like a resting pose after doing these few moves! Stay tuned into what is going on with the back. Shift focus from the extrinsic to the intrinsic muscles. Breathe into them. Pressing into the palms and feet...feel the spine extending upwardly and envision the inhales creating micro expansions of space between each vertebrae. Definitely a better approach to stop things from getting on your nerves. Literally.

Do this set of poses 3 to 4 times, throw in a Sun Salutation between sets and finish with a passive supine twist. And, of course, take a few minutes for the energies to sink deeper in Savasana. Experiment with other poses with the spine and back muscles as the chief recipient of engagement.

In the spinal analysis, you will love the strong backbone you always had. Just remember the other two bones along the yoga/life journey...the wish bone and funny bone. Each share the same roles of rock, paper and scissors. The motivation of one keeps the others in balance. You're destined to savor the novel sensations by taking your practice to another stratosphere.
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