Exploring Neutral Spine
Curiosity is one of the most valuable tools in our toolbox. I often like to explore one particular thing in my yoga practice, like “What do my shoulder blades do?” or “What’s my tailbone doing?” during my practice. This can reveal some interesting habits and liberate poses into a more graceful expression and bring greater ease into my daily activities. To be truly effective, I find I need to do more than bring a cursory curiosity to my body. Don’t stop at, “Look, there’s a shiny rock on the ground,” but take the time to drop down and look more carefully at it’s features… turn it over a few times… notice, “Wow, it’s not just a shiny rock, it has other qualities; I think it’s an emerald!”
Recently, I’ve been exploring the concept of “neutral spine” which in my mind encompasses a larger, more complex view of what it means to “knit the ribs”. It’s a gem worth exploringl!
First, the expression, “knit the ribs”; explore this in Constructed Rest Pose (lying on your back, feet on the floor): Notice the movements of the ribs as you breathe. As you exhale, gently drop the lower ribs down and back towards the spine; maintain a small fraction of that (3-4%) as you inhale…. Allow your lungs to sink and spread across your upper back like water. Knitting the ribs engages some deep postural support muscles and gives the low back some relief while inviting an opportunity for some much needed extension in the thoracic spine / upper back & rib cage. Great!
However, there are some other parts of the body that like to help with this effort and should probably stay out of it. I’m talking about the tendency to tuck the tailbone as well as clench the jaw as a way to involve the neck in this effort. Both are not necessary and just create new places of tension or, for many of us, add to the tension that’s already in those areas. Sigh…
So, the term “neutral spine” takes a broader view, and I’ve found that with time and practice, my body is learning to go there without so many cues. It becomes a two-second checklist: Neutral spine? Ribs. Tailbone. Jaw. Check.
Let’s look at some of the facets of this “emerald” called Neutral Spine.
As you knit the lower ribs, bring your awareness to your tailbone. You might even imagine a long tail… what kind of tail do you have? A bushy fox tail, a mouse tail? A sloth or monkey tail? Invite your tail to uncurl onto the mat. When animals sense danger or fear, they tuck their tails. Our everyday stress is a kind of fear response as well, so you too can benefit by allowing your tail to uncurl. In reality, your tail is not that long, but it too responds to stress and is capable of moving with the breath. Let it move. Just this can release tension all the way up to your neck. Take time to notice.
With the lower ribs knit a bit and the tailbone relaxed, bring your awareness to your jaw. Unhinge the jaw. Notice if you were holding tension there. Even relax the roof of your mouth, and let it broaden out to the horizon as if your back molars could broaden. Notice if the neck and shoulders sigh in relief. Maybe even the eyes rest more easefully into their sockets.
This is how I’m thinking about neutral spine. With each complete exhale, recommit.
Now, see what you notice as you practice “neutral spine” in all your poses and transitions. Does it reveal any habits that may not be serving you? Does it create more stability and ease in some poses? Maybe. Maybe not. What is the relationship of breath and the dynamic expression of neutral spine? It’s a dance. In some poses, I feel it as a waltz while in other poses I feel it as a tango. In what poses does the tailbone want to assist more or the jaw and neck, where do they tend to kick in? Does using neutral spine liberate these common areas of held tension for you?
Try this for a few weeks. See if this slightly enhanced sense of midline stability improves your posture and helps you feel more ease in your body.
Let me know! My results are my results; you may notice something different or something I had not yet noticed. I’d love to hear what you discover.