Taking a yoga class, one can almost guarantee there will be some version of a twist included in the practice. Twisting, in general, is great as a neutralizing pose, a beautiful way to keep the spine healthy, and often times a challenge pose. Typically, we find that most of our twisting is centralized in the low back - which for the most part is great for low back health. The problem with twisting over and over in a generalized area is that the less mobile parts (i.e. thoracic area) tend to stay immobilized. Overtime this can have negative implications on the the low back and neck.
So, you might be thinking - I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time. That’s definitely not the case here. Mobility through your lumbar and cervical spine are a great way to keep the spine supple, but with a little bit of mindfulness you can actually work to create the most optimized movement for a more dynamic and structurally sound practice. Let’s take a quick look at the structure of the spine to help us understand and mindfully apply movement toward the middle/ upper back region.
Anatomy of the spine
The spinal column is made up of 33 individual bones, split into five regions (we’ll be focusing on the top 3). Its surrounded by ligaments and a sound muscular structure that helps to keep the spine aligned and the bones stacking on top of one another. The spinal column is our main support and as so helps us to stand upright, bend and twist. The cervical spine, thoracic spine and lumbar spine make up the 3 largest regions of the spine.
The seven cervical vertebrae (the neck region) make up the most mobile part of our spine and its main duty is to keep the head supported. The thoracic region is made up of twelve vertebrae and houses the structure to protect the heart (the rib cage). The last 5 vertebrae are referred to as the lumbar spine (the low back) and bear much of the weight of the body.
It is important to note that while creating mobility is optimal,the thoracic spine is naturally limited in its range of motion because of its direct connection to the rib cage.
Building a Mindful Practice for the Thoracic Spine
Applying a bit of mindfulness to a specific area will always help you to hone in on your intuitive movement, this is no different for the thoracic spine. One of the most important things to remember is to utilize the surrounding structure to increase mobility through the upper and middle back. For the most part you will find that if done correctly your abs will be firing; activating your abdominal structure will help to support your low back. Here are 3 cues to keep in mind:
1. keep your chin over your heart
2. plug the shoulder into the shoulder socket and move as an entire unit, rather than a singular structure.
3. if your are twisting to the right, keep twisting the navel to the left
Connecting the movement to the knowledge
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go through a Spinal Immersion with Yoga Medicine. I picked up a few tricks, specifically for the thoracic spine. Below are my 4 favorite poses to emphasis movement through the thoracic spine. I recommend doing them in sequential order as each one builds upon the other. See if you can apply this idea to bigger postures like revolved triangle.
Start by grounding yourself
1. Lie in savasana and allow yourself to observe your natural breath. Become aligned and integrated with the natural cadence of your breath. Slowly begin to deepen your breath and turn on your ujjayi breath. Think about sending your inhalation to the base of your lungs first and allowing for the breath to travel upwards rather than starting in the chest. On your inhalation see if you can begin to create space between each rib set, beginning to activate and stretch the intercostal muscles. With each exhalation see if you can retain that lift of the rib cage but gently settle deeper into the posture. If you find yourself gripping or tightening in any place, just back off a little.
2. Lying on your back - bring your knees over your hips and “T” or cactus your arms out toward the side. Find a twist by gently taping your knees to left side and letting yourself relax here. Think of turning your navel toward the right and breath into the lateral lines on the right side body. This is a simple twist, but with a bit of targeted thinking you can begin to develop movement through the thoracic spine
3. Standing in a Uttanasana (Forward fold) feet hip distance apart plant your left hand in between your feet (may need a block if your hand does not reach the ground) try to keep a micro bend in the knees. Inhale to bring the right elbow to the right side waist - think pulling back a bow and arrow. Keep that elbow hugging toward the midline as you begin to open your arm toward the ceiling. Keep your chin over middle of your chest to keep the movement centralized. Take 5 breaths here and repeat on the other side.
4. Come into crescent lunge. Find a steady foundation with an emphasis on squaring off the hips. Think navel toward the spine to keep the low back steady. Inhale to raise the arms toward the ceiling, palms to face each other. Exhale your hands in front of you keeping your torso long. As you inhale slide the right arm past the mid line of the body coming into an open twist. Keep the chin over the chest and the tail bone slightly tucking forward and up to protect the neck and low back. Take 3 breaths here.