We often hear these words “the neutral spine” as a cue in yoga classes.
But they don’t often come with a clear explanation of what that means or why it’s important. Sometimes a yoga teacher tells us to “tuck our tails under,” which for some people helps to lengthen the lower back, but for others just emphasizes an already rounded lumbar spine. All of our bodies are differently shaped, so a “neutral spine” is different for every person.
So what is it exactly?
A neutral spine is like a spring that can absorb impact as we walk, stretch, strengthen, and generally move about. Like shock absorbers on a car. Anyone with classical dance training has been told to keep their backs straight as a rod, but this removes this spring in our step and our body’s ability to accommodate impact. I often see former dancers come to my yoga classes with chronic lower-back pain or slipped discs. A neutral spine has curves, and generally forms two S-shapes; one at the bottom at the lumbar spine and one at the top at the cervical spine. Long hours of sitting at a desk with a rounded lower back and chin jutting forward can affect longterm impact upon our body’s built-in shock absorber.
Why is it important?
When we take the double-S form of a neutral spine, it helps to keep not only our spines healthy, but other parts of our bodies too. It reduces impact and helps nutrients and oxygen flow where they need to. It also reduces the likelihood of pinching nerves that extend from in-between the vertebrae into the arms and legs. Pain or numbness in the arms or legs can occur when a disc bulges or slips backwards into the spinal canal and presses against nerves that extend outwards. These most often occur at the lower spine, but over the last 15 years with the popularity of the laptop, tablet and smartphone hunching posture, we are seeing many more people with pinched nerves in the neck and upper back. These can often be quite dangerous, because surgery is required to push the disc back or remove the inflammation. Physiotherapy and a regular yoga practice can help, but most people do not take enough time for that. Orthopedists recommend practicing yoga, pilates or physiotherapy 2 or 3 times a week over a minimum of a year in order to heal from a slipped or bulging disc.
How do I know if my spine is neutral?
There are many cues that yoga teachers give to help participants find their own neutral spine position. “Extend the tailbone down.” “Zip up the belly button.” “Lift the heart.” “Pull the shoulder blades together.” “Lengthen the neck.” etc. But only you know when you’ve reached it. You will breathe more freely because your chest is at its most open. Lower back pain may dissipate because the pressure gets lifted as the lumbar spine lengthens. Your balance could improve is one-legged poses, you might feel stronger in warrior poses. One way to test and get to know where your neutral spine is, is to do the rod test. You can get a friend to help you.
- First, you can try it in tabletop pose.
- Ask your friend to place the rod against and in line with your spine.
- Touch the tip of your tailbone and the flat part of the back of your head to the rod.
- Engage your abdominal muscles so that your belly is not drooping.
- You should feel long on both the front and back sides of your torso.
- There should be a gap between your lumbar spine (lower back) and the rod.
- Now that you’ve got the hang of it in tabletop pose, try it standing!
Juli offers Community Yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, with an emphasis on creating a space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga classes: sliding scale prices for no- / low-income earners. Juli is currently enrolled in the Svastha Yoga Therapy advanced teacher training program and has completed the first two modules, yoga for injuries and illnesses of the body.