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Each and every time we stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) in our asana practice, we have the chance to establish and then re-establish neutral in the spine. In a sense, neutral spine is home—it’s the perfect place to reset, both anatomically and energetically. The principles of Tadasana—and subsequently of a neutral spine—are present in myriads of other shapes, including Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3), Vrkasana (Tree), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon).
But what exactly do we mean by “neutral” spine? There are three natural curvatures of the spine: the cervical, the thoracic, and the lumbar. The cervical spine is at the neck and curves slightly inwards towards the throat. The thoracic spine is at the upper/middle back and curves slightly outwards towards the back. The lumbar spine is at the low back and curves slightly inwards towards the belly button.
Once we understand what neutral spine is, how do we find it? Here are three simple practices to explore. Note that each has a different relationship to gravity.
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Supine (Laying Down)
Begin laying down on your back, arms down alongside your body, feet planted on the mat, and knees pointed towards the sky. Begin to attune yourself to the different points of contact you are making with the mat: the soles of your feet, the back of your pelvis, the backs of your ribs, and the back of your head. Allow these points of contact to inform where the rest of your body is in space. Because the backs of your ribs and the back of your pelvis are both heavy into the mat, there should be a tiny bit of space underneath your low back or lumbar spine.
Once you’ve established neutral in your spine, play with the idea of moving your limbs/extremities without disturbing the integrity of the spine. For example, lift one leg into a ‘table-top’ position, noticing if you can keep the back of the pelvis and the back of the ribs heavy into the mat. Once lifting one leg at a time feels manageable, play with lifting both legs up into ‘table-top’ position. You can also play with moving the arms around in any direction, noticing if any of the movements challenge your ability to maintain neutral.
Remember: Neutral spine does not mean passive! It takes quite a bit of energy (hello, core work!) to hold the spine in neutral while you move your limbs and extremities in any and every direction.
Begin with your hands underneath your shoulders about shoulder-distance apart, and place your knees under your hips about hips distance apart. The first part of this exploration will be familiar if you practice yoga: Cat-Cow. Breathe in and cow your spine, reaching your chest forward and your sitting bones up and back; breathe out and cat your spine, curling your chin to your chest and your pubic bone towards your belly button. Repeat this several times: The inhale for cow is extension of the spine and the exhale for cat is flexion of the spine.
The second part of this exploration is from Pilates; it’s called the Cat Stretch. The movement is similar, but the breath pattern is different and the exercise is bit more activating muscularly. Begin by finding neutral, allowing all three natural curvatures of the spine to be present. Take a breath in to prepare, and as you breathe out, curl your chin into your chest and your pubic bone towards your belly button. Take a breath in to return to neutral, and as you breathe out, reach your chest forward and your sitting bones up and back. Repeat this a few times: breathing in to neutralize the spine, breathing out to flex the spine, breathing in to neutralize, and breathing out to extend.
In both Cat-Cow and the Cat Stretch, use the experience of moving in the opposite directions of extension and flexion to illuminate your sense of ‘home’ within yourself.
Begin standing in Tadasana—feet about hips distance a part and arms down alongside your body. Take a couple of breaths here to arrive and to feel for the natural curvatures of the spine. Then, place one of palm of your hand at your occiput, the base of your scull. Place the palm of your other hand at your sacrum, the base of your spine. Imagine that the hand at your occiput was tractioning upward, and the hand at your sacrum was tractioning downward. Allow the placement of your hands on these two distal points of the spine to heighten your awareness of your whole spine. As we connect to the individual pieces of the spine (and self), we can integrate the pieces into the whole.
The spine has the capacity to move in multiple directions: It flexes, it extends, it rotates. And because of its capacity for multi-directional movement, an awareness of neutral spine will facilitate more integrated movement patterns from a structural perspective because there is a clearer understanding of where we are moving from. This is true regardless of our chosen movement practice, sport, or exercise, and these same principles can be applied when we are moving around in our day to day lives. Ultimately, the hope and intention is that when we align the joints and the bones properly, the muscles will function as they are meant to function—optimally and with ease.
Justine Malick is a Yoga & Pilates teacher living in Silver Lake, CA. She loves to travel, being by the ocean, drinking coffee, and hanging out at home with all her lil’ plants babies. A figure skater for over 10 years, Justine started practicing Pilates when she was 13. Yoga came into her life just as she was transitioning out of the competitive skating world and into college. She lived in Santa Barbara for six years before moving to Melbourne, Australia on a whim. For more on Justine, click here.