The alignment of our body plays a vital role in our quality of life, from mobility and strength to the prevention of injuries. Poor alignment is a major cause of pain, in particular, back pain. Nevertheless, by deliberately engaging our muscles to activate the right alignment for our body we can prevent injury, improve our mobility, optimises our strength, as well as, relieve and prevent back pain. In the practice of yoga asana, we move through a series of postures with the intention of finding the right alignment of our body. Correct alignment in our yoga postures works to improve our strength and flexibility while preventing injury.
But, consideration of our body's alignment isn't just important in our yoga postures, good alignment should be activated in every-day life too. This is because our body's alignment impacts our muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and likewise, our muscles, tendons, and ligaments impact our posture. Poor posture, daily and in yoga, begets poor posture. Creating a cascade of poor muscular-skeletal health. One of the key indicators of poor body alignment is our spine, alignment is visible in the way our spine is shaped.
What is a Neutral Spine?
Consider your spine like an 'S', it's role amongst other things, is to act as a kind of spring for the impact of moving; walking, bending, twisting, lifting, etc. Somewhat like suspension in a car. A neutral spine, therefore, holds a natural curvature which optimises its shock absorption. However, too extreme of a curve is considered poor postural alignment and can often lead to pain and injury. Likewise, too straight of a spine doesn't allow for the right level of shock absorption and leads to other poor health outcomes. Naturally, the exact curvature of a neutral spine varies from person to person.
The most visually obvious point of spinal posture, the area in which we can actively correct posture fairly simply is in the intersection of our pelvis to our spine. The tilting of our pelvis directly affects the curvature of our lower spine, lumbar, which in turn affects the rest of our spine.
A posterior pelvic tilt often referred to as a 'tucking under' of the pelvis lengthens the lower spine. While an anterior pelvic tilt encourages a deeper curve in the lower back. Too far in either tilt can negatively impact our spine health and reverberate throughout our body, up to our neck and shoulds, and all the way down to our ankles.
A neutral spine is the angle of your pelvis which encourages the best balance between anterior and posterior tilt, it fosters a subtle curve of the lower back to allow for the shock absorption, without 'crunching' the lumbar vertebrae or without overly 'flattening' the lumbar spine. The exact positioning of your pelvic tilt may be quite different to someone else's.
Why is a Neutral Spine Important?
Our posture facilitates, or in some cases impacts, the interaction between our joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, connective tissue, and neurons. Our posture impacts the way we hold and carry our body weight, it impacts the way we breathe, how our internal organs function, as well as our cognition, concentration and brain function. Posture generally affects the way energy travels around our body.
Actively encouraging a neutral spine position positively impacts our overall body posture, thus positively influencing our conscious and unconscious bodily functions.
How to Find Your Neutral Spine
So, if a neutral spine position is slightly different for everybody, how do you find your neutral spine? First, standing comfortably in front of a mirror, place your hands on your hips, find the very top of your hip bones and place the space between your thumb and forefinger there, turn your hands so palms are kind of parallel to the ground. Relax. If you push down with one arm (on to the top of your hip) you should notice the other side lifting in response.
Now, turning side on to the mirror, play with tilting your hips back and forward, you might feel it more in the way your buttocks feel, sticking your butt out, versus squeezing your butt in and under. Your legs should be relatively stationary. A neutral spine is a position where your hands should be rather flat.
A neutral spine should be a position which allows free movement and strength, it should reduce pain and discomfort. That being said, if you have severe back pain you should consult your GP or health professional.
Another exercise to try is to, on a yoga mat, lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent, as demonstrated in the pictures below. This exercise is sometimes practised with a small bowl of water on the lower abdomen to help you quite easily see the change in angles from your pelvis. But gently placing your hands on your lower abdomen works fine too.
- Lying comfortably, play around with tilting your pelvis anteriorly (to the front) and posteriorly (to the back), once you are aware of the movement and position try both of these exercises in an anterior tilt, posterior tilt, and somewhere in between.
- Take a few deep breaths in. Notice, how easy is it to breathe, can you comfortably expand your abdomen? Can you feel your breath expanding your lungs and side body?
- On your exhales, notice, is it easy to breathe out? Can you feel the flattening and lengthening of your lower belly?
Your neutral position should be somewhere in between anterior tilt and posterior tilt, it shouldn't crunch your lower back or straighten it too flat. If you have been holding your pelvis and spine in a non-neutral position it may feel as though you need to tuck your butt or stick your butt out a bit more. It takes time to correct poor postural habits, but it is possible. You just need to remain aware and dedicated. Yoga is an optimal exercise for fostering body awareness and encouraging good body alignment. For help in finding your neutral position don't be afraid to ask your yoga teacher for guidence, another set of eyes is often helpful. If you suffer extreme back pain consult your doctor.