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It’s your backbone

Understand your spinal anatomy and you’ll feel better

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Most people think of the spine as one entity in which our skull rests and our pelvis thrusts. However, it is important to understand the anatomy of your back as an interconnected collection of bones among nerves, tendons, muscles, and ligaments that work together to enable your movement. 

Each vertebrae is its own entity, and understanding this is crucial in forward folding and backbending properly, which are key exercises in ensuring spinal health. 

For instance, when most people bend down to touch their toes, they fold at the hips and let their spine fold in vertebrae groups. Instead, what should be happening is that each vertebrae should be thought of as an individual part curling and stacking on top of the next. 

To practice forward bending properly, have a pal stand behind you and point out when the spine is folding together instead of as individual vertebrae stacking on top of each other in order to bring awareness to the potential of your forward bend. Start the forward bend by bringing your chin onto your chest, and then imagine you are rolling into yourself while maintaining focus on the individual vertebrae. 

Forward folding in this way will allow for your spine to fully release and receive the maximum benefits of forward folding as a way to counteract all the sitting we do. 

The reverse of forward folding, and one of the most important exercises for spine health, is backbending. Backbending requires the same awareness on the individual vertebrae to reach its full potential. With my experience, understanding the spine as individual vertebrae allows for the most liberating backbends. 

In the same approach, stand on your knees and place your hands facing outward near the bottom of your back to set up for camel posture to achieve a moderate backbend. Let your head drop back in the opposite action like that of a forward fold, while paying the same attention to including the top vertebrae in the spinal exercise. Then, with your awareness on the spine as individual vertebrae, let your back arch back into the pose. Again, hopefully someone can stand behind you and watch to point out when your back begins to move in chunks, rather than in the individual stacking method. 

Backbends are good not only for preserving the health of the vertebrae but also in stimulating the proper functioning of the digestive system and opening the body to full diaphragmatic breathing. It is important, however, to know that backbends are demanding on the lumbar region of the spine; to keep this area safe, tuck the tailbone in and engage the core. 

The regions in which the individual vertebrae are divided into play a role in spinal health. 

Firstly, the top seven vertebrae in the area of your neck are called the cervical spine. 

Below the neck is the thoracic spine, made up of 12 vertebrae. The thoracic spine, when standing up straight, should be pressed in. Imagine the thoracic spine as deeper than your shoulders for good posture. 

Finally, the last five vertebrae are called the lumbar spine, and is the most sensitive area of your back. It’s built for power and flexibility, but can be easily damaged when it’s not taken care of. 

Raising awareness of your spine has the potential to make your entire body feel lighter and more flexible. Give backbending and forward folding a try, and see what it does to how your body feels. 

This information is based on information taken from trainings under yoga masters Baron Baptiste and Leslie Kaminoff. 

Reach Wellness Editor Mira Petrillo at specials@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @mirap

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