By Serena Morris
The spine is made up from 33 ring like bones also known as the vertebrae and they attach to the sternum and ribs to form the thorax. This boney cage protects the delicate organs within the chest and abdomen, and the vertebrae protects the delicate nerves and vessels. The spine itself has 4 gentle curves that ensure resilience and ensure a stable centre of gravity.
They consist of;
7 Cervical vertebrae C1-C7
12 Thoracic vertebrae T1-T12
5 Lumbar vertebrae L1-L5
5 fused vertebrae form the sacrum
4 fused bones form the coccyx
Each section of the spine differs to adjust to the different demands placed upon them.
C1 consists of a ring of bone and C2 a peg like shaped bone to permit the nodding of the head and side to side no like response.
C3-C6 are classed as typical cervical vertebrae and have two winged shaped processes, holes which allows arteries to pass carrying precious blood to the brain.
C7 is different and has a large spinal process which can be felt at the base of the neck and can be easily identified as the last moving bone felt in the nodding of the head.
The thoracic vertebrae are considered larger and stronger than the cervical vertebrae. In addition to this the spinal processes of T1 and T2 are long, laterally flattened and directed inferiorly. In contrast T11 and T12 are shorter, broader and directed to the posterior. In comparison to the cervical vertebrae the thoracic has longer and larger transverse processes. The main difference however is that they articulate with the ribs. The movement of the thoracic vertebrae are limited by thin inter vertebral discs and the attachments to the ribs. The lumbar vertebrae is the largest and strongest because of the amount of weight supported by the vertebrae increases towards the inferior end of the backbone. Their projections are short and thick and directed medially. The spinal processes of the lumbar are quadrilateral in shape, and are thick and broard and well adapted for the attachment of the large back muscles. The lumbar allows flexion, extension and lateral flexion of the spine.
The sacrum consists of 5 fused vertebrae. The inter vertebral discs are replaced by bone. The sacrum joins with the Ilium of the hip bone at the auricular surface forming the sacro- iliac joint. The coccyx consists of 4 tiny individual bones. The first being the most developed.
Between the C2 to the sacrum there is protection between the vertebrae in the form of inter vertebral discs that have a outer fibrous ring consisting of fibro cartilage called the annulus fibrous, and a inner, soft, pulpy, highly elastic substance. The discs form strong joints, permit movement and absorb shock. Under compression they flatten and bulge from the intervertebral spaces. These discs are prone to partial or full prolapsed also known as herniated disc. This most often occurs in the lumbar region due to weight and it being the region of most flexing and bending.
Ligaments between the spinal processes of the back stabilize and hold the vertebrae in alignment during movement. The posterior longitudinal ligament extends from the epistophues to the sacrum. All of the discs and edges of the vertebrae connect to this ligament.
The flexibility of the spine lessens around 30 and declines to 40 until 60 and over. This is greatly due to the tightening of ligaments.
There are also 8 pairs of cranial nerves C1-C8
12 pair of thoracic nerves T1-T12
5 pair of lumbar nerves L1-L5
5 pair of sacral nerves S1-S5
1 pair of coccygeal nerves
These nerves run throughout the spine through the vertebral canal which is the hole in the centre of each vertebrae surrounded by a sheath which makes up the spinal cord. The nerves emerge at regular interval along the spine. Along with the brain these nerves make up the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The nervous systems operate by sending signals to and from the brain, feeding all parts of the body with action or commands for the smooth function and maintaining homeostasis.
The muscles of the back and neck including those of the erector Spinae group, Splenius muscles, Scalene muscles, transversospinalis muscles, Rectus abdominis, external olbliques, quadrates lumborum, and internal oblique muscles all play a role in the movement of the spine and so their condition and amount of tension present affects the alignment of the spine.
Abnormalities of the spine include;
Kyphosis, this is an extreme curvature of the thoracic vertebrae creating a stoop or rounded back.
Lordosis is an extreme curvature of the lumbar vertebrae creating a concave in the lumbar region or sway back as it is often known. Typically the person seems more rounded at the stomach and buttocks protrude.
Scoliosis is where there is a lateral shaped curvature to the spine creating an S shape to the spine and thus creating uneven posture and various stress points along the spine. The shoulders often look uneven and also the hips.
In western medicine and today s modern world back pain is one of the largest problems causing a loss of attendance in the work place in addition to the cost of supplying pain killers or anti-inflammatory medication or anti-depressants as a remedy to ease the pain, and however also mask the real reason why the pain is present. We have already looked at the physical structure of the spine and so we can see the reason behind discomfort and pain due to abnormalities of the spine or in deed injuries caused to the spine, discs, surrounding ligaments and muscles.
However a high percentage of back pain is simply unexplainable by the western doctor and often put down to stress by at least those who do not connect the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual links and they prescribe the medications I mentioned previously often with undesirable side effects often occurring as a result.
From an eastern point of view the spine is seen much more than just the physical wonder that it is. Of course the ancient sages of thousands of years gone by knew from observation of the spines importance to health and longevity, and each and every posture or Asana takes into account the alignment of the spine. The spine being the main trunk of the body comes into play with all Asanas, and special attention is paid in keeping the spine, head and neck in an erect line. During a series of postures the spine is taken through flexion, extension, hyper-extension, twists and rotations creating strength and suppleness throughout.
The spine is encouraged to lift high from the hips during standing postures such as Warrior and Tree creating space between the vertebrae of the spine alleviating pressure upon the protective discs providing support against injury and pain. The rolling up of the thigh muscles or quadriceps allows the lower spine to naturally lift. It is of great importance in yoga to ground the feet and legs to provide a firm and stable foundation for a straight and erect spine. Regular practise of yoga often brings the spine into alignment curing disharmonies caused by pinched nerves with it.
In Downward dog the spine receives a wonderful stretch and extension.
During postures such as Cobra and Locust the lower back muscles are toned and strengthened again providing support against injury and pain. The abdominal muscles play also a very important role working antagonistic with the back muscles and in yoga the abdominal muscles are strengthened constantly especially with the practice of Recti isolation and lateral abdominal rolling, and Kapalabhati.
In Postures such as Cat and cow and spinal rocking the spine receives a massage. The nerves receive stimulation and tonifying benefits, whilst limbering all the muscles of the back
The practice of back bends help prevent kyphosis and valuable for those who spend much time in their work place forward bending. Supported back bends often provide relief from cold flu and fatigue, high blood pressure, menstrual cramps and lower back pain.
Twists such as reversed warriors, spinal twists in supine or seated activate the spine and surrounding muscles. They encourage circulation to the spine and nerve tissues.
Seated postures such as bound angle posture and lotus increase strength and flexibility, and lengthening of the lower spine and surrounding muscles as well as limbering the hips.
Inversions such as headstand and shoulder stand help reverse the effects of gravity and increase the circulation towards the upper spine and neck and head.
Persons with injury to their backs performing gentle and regular yoga no longer live in constant pain and learn to strengthen around injuries enjoying once again a level of healthy flexibility.
As I mentioned before from an eastern view not only is the spine seen as a physical importance but also they take the Astral energy of the spine into account.
There are 7 energy chakras or wheels that are located energetically along the line of the spine and head. These wheels of energy are fed with prana the life force needed for our every action and thought. The chakras are affected by physical, emotional and mental issues and thoughts so when out of balance affect the person on all levels. The spinal cord is represented energetically by the Sushumna Nadi. Either side of this channel lies the Ida and Pingala Nadis which all together are considered to be the three most important of over 72.000 of the Nadis within the energy of the body. The Ida and Pingala carry energy up and down entwining around the Sushumna Nadi and they correspond in the physical by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. They end and open into nostrils.
We can now see why the yoga breathing is considered beneficial to the spine and nervous system as insufficient prana would create a deficiency in the sushumna channel or the chakras. In turn this may create disharmony of the body or mind.
Through the regular practice of Asanas the chakras are activated, and through Pranayama breathing the body and energy of the body is richly nourished with Prana and along side through meditation and chanting the chakras are focused on and brought into perfect balance creating union of body an mind. As the yogi trains and brings the chakras in to balance it brings a rise from the Kundalini energy. This is represented by a coiled snake and lays dormant in the root chakra, through the disciplines I mentioned before this psychic energy raises piercing the centre of each chakra eventually reaching the crown where it is thought to bring Samadi, or pure consciousness, a connection with the supreme spirit, enlightenment or union with god. This brings a calmness and peace to the individual as they realize they are as one. Many ego issues disappear taking with it the stress involved in the mind and body.
In all we can see from both a western perspective the physical needs for the health of our spines and the western remedies of medications or physiotherapy applied, and from the eastern perspective for the need for physical and the emotional and spiritual care of our spines, and the remedies being a regular yoga practice with the use of meditation and relaxation and Pranayama breathing, everything being natural and preventative as well as healing leaving you to live a long and flexible and happy life.
Serena Morris is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Alicante, Spain.