“For yogis, the altar of worship is the spine.”Paul Grilley
Back pain. That’s what most of us think about when we hear the word spine. That’s not surprising: specialists argue that 80% of the world population will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Of all the statistics, the most astonishing one reveals that more than two-thirds of people suffering from back pain do not get access to an effective treatment.
The reasons for back pain are many, varying from bone and tissue degeneration to lifestyle choices to emotional stress. And still, for many people, it has no apparent reason at all.
Mobility And Stability
If you look at the anatomy of the spine, one thing becomes clear: the spine is made to move AND to be strong. It is made of 24 articulated bones which allow movement in six directions. A varied and active life outside naturally moves us in all these directions: think of climbing trees, bending down to move a rock, reaching high to pluck an apple, twisting to the side to see if there’s anything following you. Sitting in chairs for long stretches of time when working, and then sitting in chairs when driving or riding the bus home, and then sitting in chairs at home provides the spine very little movement in any of these directions. Even common exercise like running or walking do little to keep the tissues and bones well-oiled and supple. And as with all things organic, if it is not used, it will deteriorate: muscles become weak and stiff, fascia becomes dry and densified, bones become fragile and brittle.
The spine is also made to be stable and strong: eight layers of ligament ensure the vertebrae and the disks between them are secure and stay within the limits of safe and healthy movement. Layers of muscle at the back and at the front of the spine also promote both healthy movement and stability.
But if these tissues are not used regularly and on a daily basis, they will no longer provide us with the functions they were intended to fulfill. Regular use means bending your spine forward, backwards and laterally, and twisting it. It means using the vertical muscles that run along your spine and the multidirectional muscles on your belly. And yes, yoga does this beautifully (as does Pilates and other functional fitness styles).
I cannot count the number of people who began a yoga practice with considerable back pain, and who not only found long-lasting relief but also a strategy that helps them to avoid or diminish a future crisis.
Of course, lifestyle does not not cause all back pain, and yoga cannot cure all back pain. But with a healthy flow of energy and a mind-set of tranquillity and observation, even chronic, persistent pain can be mitigated by a body that is as strong and as supple as it can be. Even a little dedication can have transformative effects.
The Pearl Inside
But the spine is not only muscles and bones. Set deep within it, between the body of the vertebrae and its facets at the back, protected by bone and fascia and muscle, runs the core and reason of our being, the spinal cord. It lies within its own bag of fascia that wraps the brain and continues all the way to the sacrum, with some sleeves reaching further down towards the tailbone. Both our brain and spinal cord float in a marvelous and still somewhat mysterious fluid, the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF.
This fluid has many physical functions like pressure regulation (our brain would literally crush our nerves with its weight if not for this fluid), protection from shock and removal of toxins. All our perceptions, actions, movements; all our heartbreaks, memories and happiness; and all our anger, kindness and love are experienced because we have a spine and a brain.
For us yogis, the spine is the primary focus, our direction. We make the body strong and supple so that we can sit still with a straight spine. To be able to turn our attention within and actually feel the spine is our path. We want to feel the energy circulating there, and the different pressures we create with our attention and what that brings to the surface. We want to gently awaken the seven centers of energy and awareness nested in within the spine; we want to understand the role they play in our daily and not-so-daily lives, to influence our energy away from what binds and enslaves us and towards what elevates and frees us. The spine is the link, the means and the goal. Take good care of it (and watch our interview with Bernie, this guy is literally a rocket scientist).