“The body is as young as the spine is youthful.”
We know from experience our spine’s health impacts our daily activities and our long-term health and well-being. When we tweak our back moving furniture, we hobble around for a day or two, restricted in what we can do. When we wake up stiff, we instinctively know doing some gentle movements will loosen us up.
What is the spine?
The spinal column is made up of 33 short and irregular weight-bearing bones that encases and protects the spinal cord. Branching off from the spinal column is the peripheral nervous system. The PNS conveys crucial information to and from our brain. Through motor nerves, our brain sends a signal out to our leg muscle to move; sensory nerves bring the brain information from the outside world. A sensation of heat is going to send a signal to our brain to move our hand away from a hot burner.
As we age, the bones that encase the spinal cord and the cushioning between the bones gradually get thinner. This often shows up as arthritis or degenerating discs. The peripheral nervous system also is affected by aging. Messages between your body and brain are relayed a bit more slowly and sensory feedback might be reduced, including things like diminished hearing.
How can yoga help?
Keeping our spine strong and flexible and maintaining good posture can help minimize these changes. And proper alignment of our vertebrae will help keep our spinal cord from pinching and narrowing, which could cause nerve pain or dysfunction.
One of the best things we can do for our nervous system is to have a healthy spine. A regular yoga practice can help. A typical yoga class will include moving our spine in six directions:
- Flexion, as in a forward bend
- Extension, as when we reach our arms overhead or do a backbend
- Lateral extensions, bending to the right and left
- Rotation, twisting or revolving right and left
Additionally, strengthening the muscles around the spine improves our posture. We feel agile and strong and our nervous system functions at its ideal and optimum efficiency.
Three yoga postures to do daily
Yoga postures don’t have to be complicated to be effective. These three simple yoga poses will keep your spine strong, supple and healthy.
Doing Cat/Cow first thing in the morning can gently warm up your spine and get you ready for the day. If your wrists hurt or are weak, you can do cat/cow on your fingertips or with a fist. If you have a low back pain, keep the arch small.
How to: Come to your hands and knees with your hips over your knees and your shoulders, elbows and wrists aligned. You can place a towel or blanket under your knees and shins if you need extra cushioning. Spread your fingers and you press firmly into the mat to keep your elbows straight. Your spine is parallel to the floor, long from tailbone to the crown of your head.
Cow: Inhale as you gradually arch your spine into a backbend by moving your pelvis and lifting your tailbone. Relax your belly as you lift your head and chest forward. Be careful not to over-extend your head to keep your neck safe. Broadening the collar bones. and tailbone; exhale as you round your back, dropping your tailbone and head toward your mat. Repeat as often as you need to.
Cat: When you’re ready to exhale, gradually round your spine toward the ceiling, turning your sitting bones and tailbone down. Hollow your abdomen toward your spine and drop your head and neck toward the floor. When you’re ready to inhale, move back into Cow. Repeat the two movements several times, matching the movements with your breath.
Another simple and effective yoga pose for rotating the spine is Easy Seated Twist.
How to: Sitting in Sukhasana (Easy Sit, or cross legged), inhale, lengthen the spine and raise your arms up and out to the sides so they’re parallel to the floor. Exhale and rotate your upper belly, chest and head to the right, placing your left hand on your right knee and the right hand on the floor behind your hips. Focus on using the muscular action of your abdomen and spine instead of wrenching into the turn with your hands. Return to center and turn to the other side. Repeat as often as you need to feel loosened up.
From there, you can move your spine into a lateral extension in Seated Side Bend.
How to: Place your right hand on the mat next to you. Inhale your left arm up. As you bring your arm over your head, exhale and bend to the right. Return your left to the mat next to you. Repeat with the right arm, inhaling as you raise your, exhaling as your bring your arm over your head and bending to the left.
A yoga practice doesn’t have to be long or have a complicated sequence. Moving with the breath and mindfulness in these three postures is just as much a yoga practice as sitting in a 60-90 minute class. Do these every day to keep your spine long and strong and you’ll soon be feeling youthful.