Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Healthy Spine, Healthy You

Do you know an older person who is active and spry, full of good humor and living life fully – more like someone 20 years their junior? Or perhaps you know a younger person with hunched shoulders and bad posture, who complains of back, neck or hip pain and moves like an “old” person? It would seem that age is not the main precursor for dysfunction, dis-ease or disconnect in our bodies any more. Working for many hours with a forward head, rounded back, static spinal position and idle body is a much bigger concern. Please watch Dr. Gil Hedley’s “Fuzz Speech” to see the real effects of an idle lifestyle to tissues which should move.


As Joseph Pilates would say “You are as old as your spine feels.” This blog post will provide you with a series of gentle, yet transformative exercises to help you move, lengthen, strengthen and stretch your spine to increase its health and vitality and help to improve your overall alignment and pain free function.

The spine moves in 4 distinct patterns: flexion, extension, rotation, and side bending, plus combinations of all of these. When you move your spine through a variety of movement patterns daily you help maintain strength and flexibility along the entire column, from the sacrum to the skull, and along all the joints it articulates with. This creates a supple yet stable spinal column able to transfer energy out to the limbs, absorb impact safely and move the body with ease and balance. If any joints along that chain are immobile or out of alignment then gravitational and energy forces will not be transferred smoothly, but instead will cause compression, stress and strain. This leads to chronic pain and injury.

The internal organs, digestive tract and cardiovascular system can also be helped to function more optimally by having a strong, supple spine. Adequate muscular strength and endurance to hold the trunk upright, so that the rib cage is not resting on the hips, gives the inner body more space to allow for efficient oxygen uptake and for the body’s vital internal functions to perform.

Practice the below spine mobilizing exercises 3-5 x per week, slowly and mindfully, with a calm, smooth breathing pattern. Encourage full range of motion without pushing into strain or pain. Enjoy the freedom and rejuvenation that will come to your whole body by paying attention to this amazing beautiful structure.

Movements with the Spine in Mind

Hip Rolls – lying on back, spinal flexion and extension

With knees bent, feet flat on the floor and hip width apart, begin with the spine in a neutral position. Inhale first then exhale and curl your hips and low back up away from the floor, sequentially lifting the spine from the pelvis to the shoulders. Inhale here then exhale and slowly roll the spine back to the floor bone by bone: from the upper back, through the rib cage, through the low spine and back to neutral. Repeat 4 x *note – hold a rolled towel or foam block between the upper legs to keep the thighs parallel and the inner thigh, pelvic floor and deep abdominals actively engaged.

Cat Stretch – 4 point kneeling, spinal flexion and extension

Begin in a neutral spine position with hands under shoulders, palms flat, and knees under hips. Inhale first, then exhale and curl your spine from the tail to the head, creating a rounded shape with the spine flexing up towards the ceiling. Inhale here and feel the expansion of the rib cage and back body. Exhale and slowly extend the spine, lengthening back to neutral with a long neck and eyes looking down. Repeat 4 x *note - keep the shoulders sliding away from the ears and initiate the curl from the deep abdominals.

Sphinx – front lying, spinal extension

Legs extended behind, pelvis down, elbows under shoulders and rib cage and upper body pulling up away from mat supported on forearms. Roll the shoulders back and pull the chest forward making a gentle curve in the upper back. Draw the low abdominals inward to support the low spine and continue breathing into this gentle extension. Hold position for 5 breaths then lower down and rest with one cheek to the mat. Repeat 3x. * note – keep eye-line straight forward, keep buttocks relaxed.

Swimming - front lying, spinal extension

Lie on your front with legs extended and hip width apart, head down and arms reaching overhead. Inhale to prepare. Exhale and lift the head and chest, arms and legs up away from the floor. Inhale to hold, then exhale to lower. Repeat 4x. On last repetition, stay up and slowly alternate lowering and lifting opposite hand and foot while maintaining a lifted spine and head – swimming. Repeat 10 x  *note – keep legs extended strongly so knees are straight. Do not jam the movement from the low back or neck but extend the upper spine away from the anchored pelvis and legs, moving the chest forward with the neck following the same curve, and the shoulder blades drawing back and down. Breathe calmly.

Puppy stretch 

Curl toes under, take hips back toward feet, stick bottom up, stretch arms forward and rest head to block or mat. Breathe deeply 5 x then gently round tail bone under and curl spine into a shell shape with soft elbows.

Supine Spine Twist – lying on back, spinal rotation 

With legs off the floor, knees bent, arms outstretched to a T. Inhale first then exhale and slowly take both knees over to one side so that the spine rotates. Keep your arms and shoulders pressing down into the floor and gently turn your head away from the knees. Hold twist for 3-5 deep breaths then repeat slowly to the other side. Perform 3 full cycles. *note – if your shoulder comes off the floor in order for your knees to come down to the other side, place a pillow or block under the knees so that they are supported and then focus on twisting first from the belly and then the chest as the spine rotates up its column sequentially.

Side Body Stretch – seated, lateral spinal flexion

Sitting tall with legs crossed (or on a chair), inhale to reach left arm out to the side and then up over the head to lengthen the left side body. Then exhale and gently “bend” the spine to the right reaching ears away from shoulders. Inhale to return spine upright and exhale to lower the arm. Change sides. Repeat 3 x. *note – keep both sit bones firmly grounded when side bending to not lose pelvic stability and continue to lift upward instead of sinking with gravity.

Spine Stretch Forward – seated, spinal flexion and extension

Sitting with legs outstretched in a V, weight back on sitting bones and tall lifting spine, inhale to prepare then exhale and slowly roll down the spine starting from the head, and then softening the upper back and then the mid back, reaching the arms towards the feet. The pelvis should still be vertical and the abdominals are quite active hugging back toward the spine. Inhale here to encourage a gentle stretch of the rib cage and back spine, then exhale and “roll” back up, stacking the vertebrae to sequentially extend upwards from the pelvis to the top of the head. Perform 5 x *note - try sitting on a pillow to elevate the hips and/or bending the knees slightly to help the low back and pelvis start and stay in neutral. The shoulders should stack over the hips, and ears over the shoulders.

Relaxation – lying on back, neutral spine, relaxed and passive

Lie down on your back, outstretch and open the legs slightly and allow the feet to turn out. Rest your arms away from the sides of your body, palms up, shoulders rolled back and heart lifted. Close your eyes, relax your face and jaw, slow your breathing, release your muscles and simply allow your body to become heavy and deeply relaxed for 5 minutes. *note – Cover yourself with a blanket and rest deeply.