Yoga for the spine: lengthening and releasing

A man adjusting his rear view mirror while driving

Did you know that we lose up to 2,5cm in total body height during the day, and gain it again while sleeping at night? 2,5 cm or almost an inch, that may require you to adjust your rear-view mirror when your drive somewhere in the morning, and adjust it again when you return home in the evening… The cause of this change in height lies with our intervertebral discs, the shock-absorbing pads we have between the vertebrae of our spine. Gravity and our upright position deplete the intervertebral discs, while staying in a horizontal position for many hours hydrates and nourishes them.

This is also one of the reasons why touching our toes is more difficult in the morning: the muscles and ligaments are more taught as they have to cover the extra spinal length. With age the nocturnal replenishing becomes less efficient, and this causes us to become shorter as we age. The health and plumpness of the intervertebral discs is extremely important for our spinal health. Herniated discs and degenerated discs are painful conditions in which the intervertebral discs have become narrow or ruptured.

Yoga helps us to move our spine through its range of motion and this nourishes the spinal discs (see also this previous blog). Moreover, many yoga poses encourage the spine to elongate by gently stretching the spinal muscles and ligaments. This can help the intervertebral discs feel less “squished” and thus alleviates the force of gravity and bad posture during the day. Here are three simple poses that can help you keep your spine long and healthy.

Mountain Pose

Maintaining good posture is one way of looking after the elongation and alignment of our spine. It ensures that the intervertebral discs do not continuously get pressure on one side, for example. A natural and effective way of relaxing into good posture was explained by the yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli in her book “Awakening the Spine”. She writes that there are two forces at work on the spine: from the waist down the body responds most to gravity and from the waist up there is a lightness and lengthening. This anti-force is not possible without first feeling “grounded.” So whether you are standing or sitting, it is helpful to simultaneously surrender to the pull of gravity from the waist down and feel the crown of the head lifting upward. Having the two forces at work on the body makes a lot of sense: If you lose the sense of grounding, you lose stability. If you lose the upward pull, there is only heaviness and a slumped posture. Responding to only one of these forces would mean that our body is either heavy and collapsed, or completely tense and uptight.

So let’s apply this to mountain pose: stand upright, the weight equally distributed between your two feet, behind all the toes and on the centre of your heels. Feel how you can surrender your weight through both feet and your spine relaxes down from the waist. From the waist up, however, feel light and imagine lifting upward as if there is a force pulling you up through the crown of your head. I like to use the breath with this: exhale and feel grounded, inhale and get in touch with a sense of lightness and lengthening in the upper body.
Practise this way of standing a few times a day — sneak it in whenever you have to wait somewhere…

Forward bend with a raise

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Come into a forward bend with your hips over the feet and your hands resting on a cupboard, a wall or bookcase. The right height will allow you to feel a stretch in the back of your legs but your back should be straight. Work up to staying in this position for about a minute. Feel the spine lengthen in two directions, reaching back with the tailbone and forward through the crown of your head. Make sure the spine is not dipping down in the middle so avoid lowering the chest. Stay for as long as comfortable and up to a minute. Imagine that you are breathing all along the spine: breathe out towards the tailbone and in towards the head.

Dog Pose
This pose is not appropriate if you have had pain as the result of a herniated disc in the past 3 months.

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Start in child’s pose (see below), spread your hands shoulder-width (or even yoga-mat width) apart, plant them down firmly with the fingers spread and then unfold your legs so your body makes a triangle shape. If your hamstrings are tight, keep your legs bent. The most important aspect is to stretch the spinal muscles in this pose so lengthen the tailbone away behind you and imagine your spine is hanging down from the hips. You may have to bend your legs to allow a better release along the spine. Keep the shoulders broad in order not to tighten the neck muscles and allow the head to hang down. Do not push the shoulders or chest down as this tightens the spine rather than releasing it.

Child’s Pose
Rest in child’s pose afterwards, using a rolled towel under the ankles if your feet are tight.

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