Understanding your spinal curves goes a long way toward helping you comprehend the needs of your yoga practice. In yoga, we try to diminish the curves of the upper and lower back by moving the spine closer to a neutral position. An example of this ( when done correctly) and the blueprint for just about every pose to follow is Tadasana, Mountain pose.
When you understand your spinal curves, you can look at every pose with a new level of awareness—to see if your approach is correct. You want to support and protect the body so you can have longevity in the practice. For this to occur, some basic knowledge of the spine is essential.
Your neck and lower back have the greatest range of motion in the spine and share the same curve —called Lordotic. The neck has seven vertebrae (C1-C7), and the low back has five vertebrae (L1-L5). These are the parts of the body that give the most. In yoga, we often overuse these areas to compensate for lack of mobility in places such as our thoracic spine. An example of this (as shown in the video) is Cow pose. You can feel and see how much your low back drops toward the floor and how much your neck can lift toward the ceiling. Injuries will occur in the low back if you don’t protect it properly engaging your glutes and core.
The mid- upper back, known as the thoracic part of the spine, shares a curve with the sacrum/coccyx area. The thoracic has 12 vertebrae, (T1-T12), and as we all know simply from everyday life, our range of motion is limited here. I often encourage students to look down in poses so they can eliminate the flexibility of the neck curve. That gives them the opportunity to see the illusion of thinking the opening is coming from the thoracic; in reality, it’s made possible by the flexibility of the neck.
The sacrum connects the spine to the hips and has five fused vertebrae. The key word here is “fused”— which is why pulling your navel to the spine and engaging your glutes to gain support and stability for the bigger body parts is so important. When this support doesn’t occur, we start to create too much movement in a joint that should stay fixed— resulting in SI instability. In short, most poses should resemble CAT pose in the low back and the glutes should be engaged to help take the load off of the low back.
Unfortunately, I often see people overusing their neck and low back because those are the parts of the body with the most range of motion making them easy to access incorrectly.
I suggest that you spend time with Cat and Cow. Don’t just simply rush through them. Take time in each one, and apply this knowledge. Can you feel how the neck and low back share a curve? Can you notice in Cow pose how far your low back can drop toward the ground, and how much your neck can lift? Have you noticed what happens when you push the floor away to transition from Cow to Cat? As the upper body rounds, the gaze drops. As the gaze drops, the navel pulls to the spine. What you do to the neck curve, the low back curve will duplicate. I encourage you to try your practice with these curves in mind. Are you bringing the spine into neutral in your practice? Are you overusing the neck and low back? Explore your patterns yogis!