• Gordon Kanzer

Yoga and the Anatomy of the Spine

Updated: Sep 23, 2019


Photo from the Open Biomedical Initiative

As the site of many of the chakras and the crisscrossing sun and moon energy pathways, the spine has much spiritual importance. But the spine is also significant from an anatomical and physical perspective. The human spine is comprised of thirty-three vertebrae: seven cervical, twelve thoracic, five lumbar, five sacral and four coccygeal. The coccyx is a vestigial remnant of a tail that disappeared during our evolution, hence the word tailbone. It has little or no function and deserves no further discussion. Seen from the side, the spine forms an “S” shape created by three curves or lordoses. The cervical and lumbar lordoses are convex anteriorly or towards the front of the body and the thoracic lordosis is convex posteriorly or towards the back of the body. The physics of a curved structure is that it can offer more resistance to applied forces than a straight one. The orientation of the curves of the spine allows it to withstand greater axial loading, that is head to toe forces, than if it were straight. As one progresses distally down the spine, more and more weight from more proximal segments needs to be supported. Thus, the lumbar spine experiences the greatest amount of axial loading as it is required to support the more proximal vertebrae of the cervical and thoracic spines. Malalignments and poor posture compromise the lumbar spine’s ability to withstand axial loading, thereby predisposing it to lower back pathology and, more simply put, chronic back pain, a condition from which a large proportion of the population suffers. The cervical spine functions to support the head, which weighs on the order of ten to eleven pounds. Similarly, malalignments in the cervical spine lead to chronic neck pain and other neck maladies. The thoracic spine is more protected through the attachment of the twelve pairs of ribs to each vertebra. Except for the last two ribs, the ribs attach anteriorly to the sternum, thus forming the rib cage. The rib cage stabilizes the thoracic spine and decreases susceptability to injury and pathology. In yoga, we honor the physical spine by striving for proper alignment in order to maximize axial loading and minimize both acute and chronic injury. In yoga, there is always an emphasis on the elongation of the spine, a primary goal of tadasana or the mountain pose, and of all of the standing postures. Yoga also strengthens and tones the deep muscles that line the back of the spine, preventing age-related muscular atrophy and loss of tone. Those muscles function to pull the spine upright from behind. One benefit of yoga is keeping those muscles strong so that we don't start to round forward as we age. So as you practice, honor your spine. It is a true gift of nature to be cherished!

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