So, here I am in the midst of yet another magnificently mind-blowing teacher training at the beloved Maya Yoga Studio. By my count, this is number 9. And as I gratefully take on more and more responsibilities and integral roles, I'm so appreciative of how much new knowledge there is for me to gain as a student of my teachers in these trainings. Always learning! And yes, my time is yet again completely consumed. So, I'd like to humbly offer you a chance to revisit some intricate knowledge and learn something new, too. The students in this training just got a detailed look at the spine today, so maybe you'll feel like you were there! Plus, I dropped off with this series a while back and think this a nice way to pick up the thread again so we can keep exploring. And now, without further ado, I re-present to you....the splendiferous spine!
What injuries or conditions do you have? When I ask that inevitable question of yoga students, the single most common problem area seems to be the back. Yes, there are lots of knee and shoulder issues, wrists and ankles, too. Yet, I think it's safe to say that the spine accounts for a majority of the injuries or conditions I encouter in my students. I count myself among these ranks: it's not exactly news to long-time readers that I have quite the active scoliotic curve and corresponding, shape-shifting pains myself. And were it not for yoga, I shudder to think what my life would look like - how limited I might be by unaddressed pains.
All of this considered, I thought it appropriate, nay, necessary to look at some of these problems here on the blog. I've wanted to do this for some time, but felt that some of my puzzle pieces needed more fleshing out and testing before I shared them with you. But I finally feel like we need to just get down to it. The fact of the matter is that most back problems are not cut and dry. The causality of any given issue is usually multi-faceted and spanning the time of many years. Then, the big picture of either maintaining or rebuilding spinal health is a puzzle with almost too many individual pieces to count. On top of all of that, the pieces are by no means static, but always changing with minute refinements as our bodies respond to the course of practice and therapeutic measures. Phew! Oh, and don't forget that the only person who is going to make any of that happen is... you. So we also have to deal with the psychology of overcoming pain, of chasing it, rather than being defeated by it. And you thought this was going to be just any old simple blog post, didn't you? Ha! Fasten your seat belts, kids, because momma's finally ready to tackle this monster!
And because it's such a behemoth, this definitely warrants a new series, breathing fresh life and understanding into our compressed, contorted, and aching backs: I'll call it Spinal Spiration. The installments of this series could be infinite, but we'll start, as we must, with an introduction. Any introduction to the spine must be, you guessed it, anatomically-oriented. So let's get to defining our terms, and familarizing ourselves with the tangible matter of our subject. Geek out!
THE SPINE: PARTS OF THE WHOLE
The spine is a splendid structure, really. It's very kind to hold us upright, allow us to bend, twist, and generally ambulate about, all the while safely housing our main switchboard: the spinal cord. There's so much fascinating anatomy to cover about the spine that I could go on forever. Yet, I must remember that this is a blog post, so I'll give you a Short Attention Span Theater version.
The bony structure of the spine is referred to as the vertebral column, and usually consists of 24 individual vertebrae and 9 fused vertebrae in adults. So we're all on the same page going forward, you must know that vertebrae are referred to individually by a letter and a number. the letter represents the section of the spine in which that vertebra is located (i.e. Cervical = C, Thoracic = T, Lumbar = L, and so on). The number is simply the vertebra's placement in the column, counting from the top-down.
Let's first get familiar with the general structure of a vertebra. As illustrated, it consists of an anterial vertebral body, transverse processes on either side, and a posterior spinous process. The spinous process is what sticks out most as you reach back and feel your spine. That hole in the center of the vertebra is the vertebral foramen and houses your spinal cord. The shape of each vertebra is slightly different from the next. Neighboring vertebrae have facets, called intervertebral facet joints, that fit together much like pieces of a puzzle. It's interesting to note that no two people have identical spines: the shapes of the vertebrae and the curvatures represented are much like a fingerprint and uniquely yours.
Most vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs. Discs act primarily as shock absorbers between vertebrae, but also help to simultaneously hold the vertebrae together and allow for mobility in the spine. Vertebral discs are made of a tougher outer layer, the annulus fibrosus, surrounding a soft, gel-like center, the nucleus pulposus.
Disc problems are pretty ubiquitous, ranging from degeneration to slip to rupture, and can be symptomless or excrutiating. At birth, our discs are 80% water, and dehydrate gradually as we age. This is one place where we tend to lose height as we get older and our discs deflate. Discs allow for separation and approximation of vertebra, and respond to the influences of weight and gravity. After a night's sleep in a horizontal position, for example, we are at our tallest height. As we go through the day, our discs will depress downward and expand outward in all directions, leaving us a bit shorter than when we began. With this in mind, you can see what a god-send that hanging in an inversion can be for our discs (shout out to those of you who come to Relax Deeply regularly). Reversing the effects of gravity by hanging in an inversion swing or on a rope wall can help keep our discs healthy by creating glorious space for them to rehydrate or can alleviate the pressure of compression or an injury to a disc. (Of course, the nuances of hanging in an inversion should only be learned with the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you have a severe or acute condition, you should consult a medical professional before attempting any inversion.)
TO BE CONTINUED...
Well, that was quite a bit of information already. And I did promise you Short Attention Span Theater, so we'll leave the rest of our anatomy lesson for next time. In the second installment of Spinal Spiration, we'll get to know the cervical spine: hurray! So until next time, stay active and give your spine some love. To that end, I hope to see you in class!