Updated: Jan 17
*Please note: do not take advice or comparisons directly from this blog. If you are unsure of anything related to your spine, speak to an professional.*
‘Stand up straight, shoulders back.’ A saying that I often heard my dad say whilst growing up.
As a baby and young child, my posture was always ok. However I began to notice my spine more as I began to intensify my dance classes. Being quite tall as a child and having long legs, (chicken legs is what my brother used to call me) meant that I used to slouch when standing next to friends at school.
Growing up as a child, I used to attend many dance classes. I remember our teacher always saying “no banana backs” because you didn’t want to be pushing your stomach too far forwarded and result in your bum sticking out. Equally you didn’t want to be rounded through the shoulders and be curving your stomach inwards. It was about finding that mid point between the two.
So where would I classify my spine? As a banana back or arched like an angry cat? Well the answer is neither because the curve is in the middle.
I noticed this as a teenager in dance and gymnastics. Backward rolls, leg lifts whilst lying down and sit ups would always cause some discomfort. Every time I rolled backwards I would feel my spine hit the floor and often would roll over to one side. But I just thought this was normal, I never even questioned it.
When I practised yoga on my own, I never had anyone tell me about my alignment. I didn’t have a big enough mirror to check if my back looked extended or not. I just assumed mine looked like everyone else’s.
As a young teenager, I visited a “Wellness Centre” where I was examined for my spine and posture. At the time they were more concerned that my hips were a little off centre, and that my neck was slightly forward. I remember having a strange innersole to wear in my shoe to try and level out my hips. I wasn’t questioned about my spine. Perhaps it wasn’t as profound as it is now.
So let’s quickly talk about posture and what the spine should naturally do…
Having the correct posture is important for many reasons. One being that it is linked to your spine, the major bone in the body that keeps us upright and also has many nerves connecting to it to help with the function and mechanics of our organs. The spine is made up of four parts. Cervical, thoracic, lumber and sacrum and coccyx.
As a baby, the spine has a primary curve known as Kyphosis which is through the thoracic spine. It is curved that way so the baby can be curled up comfortably in the womb.
Once they begin to get control of the head, this creates a form of lordosis in the cervical spine and once the baby starts to sit up and begin crawling or walking, a lordosis occurs in the lumbar spine. The curves are there for a reason as they help you keep the mechanics working as each part of the spine has different functions.
However, what is different for me is that I have a long thoracic kyphosis, which extends all the way down to L3 (lumbar spine 3rd vertebrae) which means extension happens lower down from L4 instead of being spread evenly through each vertebrae.
As you can see from the picture, each dot represents each vertebrae of my spine. They look almost evenly spaced out. Yet once you reach my lumbar spine on L1, L2, and L3, they begin to become further apart. This is because these are flexed when they should be more extended.
As I begin to bend forward, you can see how the dots become separated and again the gap gets bigger.
In my classes, I am always pointing out alignment tips. This is because it is so important to ensure you are aligned the right way to avoid injury and bad habits. I am always aware in my yoga practice of how my spine is, which is why my class always here me say “spine lengthened, lift up from the crown of the head.” In my own time, I practice some gentle movements daily, and I also have a back stretcher to help extend my spine.
This is something that I bought almost a year ago. I lie on this a few times a week, anywhere between 5-15 minutes. I ensure that the part of my spine that needs to be extended is on the top to ensure that I get the most extension. At first it did ache. I laid down and could feel my core also stretching out. After just a few minutes I felt that it was enough. However now, I can comfortably lie down on the stretcher for up to 15 minutes and I have certainly seen improvements with my back. (I do want to add that I am not suggesting anyone should purchase this if they have a spine like mine. I did ask my partner who is a professional and he agreed it could help my spine. He also checks that I have this in the right place each time so do be careful when purchasing equipment like this and you should also seek medical advice first!)
Below are also some pictures of me in child’s pose and in downward facing dog. It is visible in both how much my spine sticks out and it is impossible for me to extend this on my own, no matter how much I try and push through my hands in Adho Mukha.
So when did I notice this?
It was when I went to India to do my Yoga Teacher Training in 2018 when I started to realise exactly what the problem was. Practicing yoga certainly helped throughout the years to maintain as much extension as possible but I never noticed my alignment in other classes. No-one physically corrected me so I thought I always did a perfect downward dog. However one morning in an alignment lesson, I was asked to demonstrate a downward dog. Now we had an amazing instructor who was also a local doctor and he ran his own yoga classes and specifically looked at the anatomy and alignment. I was often used for demonstrations because of my back. Yet I was asked “Have you ever been in an accident?” My answer was no, and then this followed with “Have you ever been diagnosed with Scoliosis?” I began to panic and quickly replied no never! Immediately I became aware of my spine even more than before. Suddenly it became my main focus in all my practices and I was always trying to ensure my lumber spine was extended. What felt like a normal sitting position for me, where I was comfortable and relaxed, was actually damaging my alignment and the part of my lumbar spine that should be extended, is fully flexed. I thought I was sat like everyone else but in pictures I could easily see how bad my posture was.
Backbends I always found harder too, and it is only now as an adult that I understand why. Even though they are achievable with lots of practise, I am unable to hold them for too long as the ‘extended load’ is on my lower back.
I would say that I have become a little obsessed with looking at alignment in pictures and I would often become jealous of those who I see have the “perfect back.” It is important to remember to not compare yourself to others. Social media has such an influence on how we view ourselves and others and there is a lot of content out there that says, “do this and not this.” I am very supportive of some of these pictures, however some positions do depend on how your body naturally is.
Whenever I perform my first downward dog in my classes, I always say to soften the knees. This is not incorrect, it is an adaptation to help support and align your body correctly as the focus is about lengthening the spine. In one of my yoga classes during training, I would keep my knees slightly bent whilst I was warming up and I experienced the teacher holding my legs and pulling them back to straighten and would then pull down my heels to get them closer to the ground. This wasn’t exactly pleasant because I didn’t feel warm and ready to fully extend my legs and I could feel my back compensate for this. I also have had teachers put their hands on my back and try and push that part of my spine to get flatter. Even though I kept saying it will not flatten anymore, they somehow thought that this technique would work. They were wrong. I have also had people, (even professionals in the past) say to me “But you are a yoga teacher, how come your spine is like this?” Well every person’s spine is different. You cannot expect everyone to be able to perform all asanas and transitions perfectly. Yoga has helped me a lot in order to maintain some extension day to day and is slowly helping me to extend this part of my spine more and more in different asanas. But what you can take from this is that:
1) Be aware of your posture and how you hold yourself day to day.
2) When practising yoga, remember to listen to the instructions carefully and check your alignment to avoid injury.
3) Use support equipment, that is what they are there for.
4) Adapt the position to suit your body. Who cares if your knees are bent in downward dog, adapt and listen to yourself.
5) Don’t compare the structure of your body to ones you see online. Everyone is different, even in yoga!
6) Enjoy yoga! Yoga is for EVERYONE! You do not need to have a “Yoga spine” to do yoga correctly and you certainly don’t need to be performing advanced backbends to call yourself a yogi!