I agree with Yoga, which tells us that age begins in the spine. Keeping young, or re-claiming youth, has a lot to do with how flexible and free our spine may be. Think of a child’s spine. It is flexible and pliable. As we get older the spine looses it’s elastic sap and grows tighter and more brittle. The fibrocartilage disks that are between the vertebrae get dehydrated and worn down. The vertebrae might fuse together resulting in a loss of flexibility, or it could degenerate and certain vertebrae might collapse. It is essential to keep our spines healthy. The spine is the backbone of life and through it flows one of the most profound rivers of life: the spinal chord, and the cerebral spinal fluid.
Degeneration of the Spine
Spinal degeneration often begins in our mid 20’s. When I went to Chiropractic school, freshman students were required to take full body X-rays. Many of us were surprised to see that even in our 20’s and 30’s the beginning of degenerative conditions were already evident.
How to Keep the Spine Young and healthy
There are three major factors in preventing and reversing degeneration and prolonging the youth of the spine.
Nutritional (provides the raw materials to support the optimal health of bone, muscle, fascia, fat, blood, and other bodily fluids.)
Mental/Emotional (More important than is commonly realized)
***This first post will deal with structure.
I like to think of the body as similar to a suspension bridge. The bones are the gross structure of the bridge, and the muscles are like the cables. Like a bridge, the human body needs relative balance. The muscles should hold the bones in as symmetrical a fashion as possible. This means that the muscles should exert a fairly even pressure on the bones. However, many people are born with imbalances. Such as one who has a short leg. But even if we are fortunate enough to be born healthy and in relative balance, life is bound to cause imbalance.
Physical Factors that Cause Imbalance
One sided activities (Sidedness)
Sports such as golf or tennis are, more or less, one sided. They have benefit as exercise, but can’t be called a balanced activity. The regular practice of one sided sports or activities harms the body. Certain jobs such as a painter, or carpenter, or even a teacher that writes on the board the same way year after year will mold an imbalance. I had a patient who was a painter. He explained how he held the brush and roller with the same hand. His stance on the ladder was always with the same foot forward. After working that way for many years, one day he woke up in severe pain that wouldn’t go away.
A woman sat at her desk gazing at the computer screen, which was off to her left side. After years of doing the same thing she injured her neck so that she could barely turn, or hold up her head without pain. The body always tries its best to compensate but there is a limit or overwhelm point. Sooner or later our overuse activities will create a degree of imbalance that can’t be compensated for.
Our Body Molds to What we feed it
The great natural healer Dr. Bernard Jensen was fond of using that profound expression: “your body molds to what you feed it.” He meant it , not only on the physical body, but also on the mental/emotional levels. However, we all get into ruts. Our lifestyle—depending on what we do—molds our bodies and minds. A bike rider may have tight Hip Flexors. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players get into positions that emphasize a lot of flexion, which causes imbalance in the adductors, Psoas, and spinal extension. Too much sitting harms the spine. Usually our posture is poor, and secondly gravity is constantly exerting a compressive force on the spine.
Spinal Imbalances effect The Nervous System
There are many nerves that enervate our organs and glands. So a balanced spine is important to not only to the function of the muscles and physical body, but also the health of the Autonomic nervous system. Chiropractors believe that the alignment of the spine is so important, even a subtle Mal-alignment could cause the Autonomic nervous system to tip more towards sympathetic stimulation, which takes us further from relaxation–the state in which we heal. To be in Sympathetic dominance may cause our immune system to be less efficient, and weaken our internal organs.
The Energy Body and The Spine
The most important energetic channel of the energy body, the center channel, runs near the spine and is effected by the health of the spine. So, ultimately, an imbalance in the spine is a blockage in our flow of energy. And anything that crimps the river of life could be the seed cause for almost any problem.
Yoga to the Rescue
There are other ways to keep the body in balance but regular yoga—to me at least 2 times a day—is one of the most profound and enjoyable ways to keep the spine young, fluid, and healthy. Yoga, perhaps more than anything else keeps the river of life flowing.
Movements For Spinal Health
We must move the spine in every direction that it naturally moves. There are some schools of yoga that de-emphasize, or don’t do at all, the postures that stress full extension of the cervical spine. The reason is that full extension, especially when weight bearing has a higher percentage of injuring the neck. So some American yoga schools, wishing to avoid troublesome injuries, that might even lead to lawsuits, just don’t perform those postures. However you must use it or lose it. We should move the way nature intended: in every direction.
Necessary ranges of motion include:
Rotation (The vertebrae rotate on it’s axis to the right and left)
Lateral Flexion (side bending)
Traction might be calle the hidden element of spinal health, but it also may be the most important. This is because gravity is always pressing down on us, exerting compression on our spines. We need a way to antidote the constant compression our spines. Inversion tables, special belts, and mechanical traction devices can be very therapeutic because it accomplishes the task of spinal traction. The overburdened nerves have more breathing room, and pain disappears. I like these methods but yoga and Qigong has methods that vertically traction the spine without mechanical devices.
Flexion (Forward bending)
Extension (Back Bending)
The Yoga Wave (Flexion/extension)
What I call the wave is a dynamic flow of full flexion and extension of the spine. This “wave” is the movement of life. People and animals use this motion during sex to create new babies. It is truly a Prana pump that pumps energy up and down your center channel.
Qigong reminds us that the spine contains a series of pumps that facilitate the flow of energy up our spine to the brain. The wave motion pumps vital energy up and down the spine. It is an essential movement for your health.
When you perform this movement you not only increase flexibility and range of motion, you also pump energy up and down the spine. You facilitate the flow of the river of life.
Here is a video on some simple ways to perform the wave.
Here’s another video on some simple ways that Yoga keeps the spine young by facilitating optimal range of motion in flexion, extension, lateral flexion, rotation, and vertical traction.