The majority of the extension observed in a backbend occurs in the lumbar spine. The degree of backward bending is influenced by the individual’s vertebral structure, specifically the shape of the spinous processes.
The spine is made up of 33 individual vertebrae
Cervical spine – connects the skull to thoracic spine = 7 vertebrae, C1-C7.
Thoracic spine = 12 vertebrae T1-T12 & also connect to the ribcage.
Lumbar = 5 vertebrae L1-L5 & connect to the pelvis.
Sacrum bone = 5 bones, connects to the 4 coccyx vertebrae (tailbone).
The Cervical Spine
The cervical spine, located in the neck, has an approximate range of motion as follows:
80° to 90° of flexion/forward bending
70° of extension/back bending
20° to 45° of lateral flexion/side bend
80° of rotation to both sides/twist.
However, it’s important to note that individual variations in the range of motion can exist among students. Factors such as tightness, tension, & individual vertebrae shapes can affect movement ability in the cervical spine.
The Thoracic Spine
The thoracic spine is characterized by a relatively restricted range of motion (ROM) compared to the cervical & lumbar spine. This limited mobility is primarily attributed to its unique bone structure, which will be discussed in more detail. Additionally, the presence of the rib cage further contributes to the constriction of movement within the thoracic area.
The Lumbar Spine
The lumbar spine plays a pivotal role in facilitating movement throughout your body. Its flexibility enables your trunk to engage in various motions, including forward & backward bending (flexion and extension), side bending (lateral movement), & twisting (rotation).
Notably, most of this movement is attributed to the last two lumbar vertebrae, L4 & L5.
Compared to the thoracic spine, the lumbar region exhibits greater mobility.
A vertebra, a building block of the spinal column, comprises three distinct components:
- The drum-shaped body, which is responsible for supporting weight-bearing (white).
- The arch-shaped bone forms a protective ring around the spinal cord (green).
- The star-shaped processes consist of a spinous process (posteroinferior), two transverse processes (posterolateral), & four articular processes, which serve as attachment points for muscles (tan).
These three parts collectively contribute to the structure & function of each individual vertebra.
The Spinous processes
The Spinous processes play a crucial role in back-bending movements.
Located along the spine, the spinous process is a wing-like bone projection extending outward from each vertebra. It serves as an attachment point for the back muscles, ligaments, & fascia, providing stability & support to the spine.
Notably, the spinous process is visible in certain individuals, particularly when they bend forward, as the prominent part of the spine becomes visible.
Spinous Processes & the Spine
Within the Thoracic spine, the spinous processes exhibit a distinct characteristic. Unlike the cervical & lumbar spine, the spinous processes in the thoracic region are long & overlap each other, resembling the scales of a fish. This overlapping arrangement limits the range of motion in the thoracic spine.
This structural design is further reinforced by the ribs connecting to the thoracic vertebrae. The ribs enclose & protect the vital organs housed in the thoracic cavity, such as the heart and lungs. This protective mechanism ensures the safety & integrity of these essential organs, & functions.
Back-bending in Yoga
The lumbar spine plays a significant role in back bending due to the natural shape of the spine. The extent of extension in a backbend is influenced by the individual shape of the vertebrae & the space between the spinous processes.
The gaps between spinous processes can vary greatly among individuals. Some may have larger spaces, while others have minimal space, with the spinous processes almost touching even before attempting a backbend.
Even if you work on lengthening & releasing tension in the sides & front of your body, the natural shape of your vertebrae & the proximity of the spinous processes will determine your back bending ability. In some cases, the spinous processes may touch even with minimal movement, limiting the range of motion & the ability to extend the spine fully.
To illustrate these differences, you can refer to the provided pictures, courtesy of Paul Grilley, which exemplify the variations in spinous process alignment.
Spinous processes & the yoga practice
In backbends like Seal pose, understanding the variations in the spaces between the vertebrae’s spinous processes can change our perspective on the depth of extension we can achieve. Despite mindful efforts to release tension, we may still encounter compression, where bone meets bone, limiting further extension.
With this awareness of skeletal variations, a functional Yin yoga approach minimizes alignment cues. Rather than dictating specific arm or hand positions, we may offer variations that reduce compression or increase stress, depending on individual bone shapes & reaching their edge or sweet spot. Embracing our unique differences, we focus less on aesthetic alignment & more on how the pose feels.
Functional Yin Yoga alignment acknowledges the variability of our skeletal anatomy, including the spinous processes. Therefore, it is common for teachers to provide different pose variations targeting the same area of focus. Each person’s body alignment in a class will naturally differ, allowing them to align their body according to the pose’s intention, which targets specific physical areas, stimulates meridians, & promotes emotional balance & overall wellness.
What truly matters is how the pose functionally serves each individual, how it feels physically as we hold it, & how we honor the messages our bodies communicate.
As we embrace this perspective & trust the Yin Yoga process, it becomes a powerful tool for releasing tightness & tension, improving flexibility & joint mobility, promoting the flow of Chi by releasing stagnant energy, & fostering a sense of balance in our overall well-being.
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