by Kyoko Jasper
When I was young, my mother always told my sister and I, “stand up straight,” or “keep your back upright when you are walking!”
Growing up, keeping our backs straight was standard protocol in my household. When I used to walk to school, my mother would always be watching me from her window, so I worked very hard to walk “properly” in order to please her. At the age of 19 I started dancing, and that helped me keep my back even straighter, especially in ballet. In my ballet classes, I learned to squeeze my belly in to lift up my back. With daily stretching and training, I became really flexible. Or I believed I was, only because I was able to kick my leg to my face.
Looking back now, my movement pattern was not well balanced. Luckily, I never hurt myself throughout a decade of dancing nor my musical theater career. I never bothered learning much about my body; I didn’t feel like I had to, because I had no particular issues.
The shape of our spines changed over time according to our primal needs. First, while our ancestors roamed around the ground on their four limbs in search of food, the thoracic spine formed into a concave shape (out) in order to push their bodies away from the ground.
The human spine consists of five parts. There are seven vertebrae in the cervical spine (neck, C1-C7), 12 in the thoracic spine (upper back, T1-T12), five in the lumbar spine (lower back, L1-L5), five in the sacrum (pelvic, S5, fused), and four in the coccyx (tailbone, fused). A healthy human spine when viewed from the side, has a beautiful S-shape curve. The convex forward shape is called the lordotic curve, present in the cervical and lumber spine. The concave forward shape is called a kyphotic curve, present in the thoracic spine.
The spine was developed over millions of years of human evolution to support the body’s weight and to protect the spinal cord. The curve of the spine can withstand great amounts of stress by providing a more even weight distribution. Also, when we walk or run, our spines undulate to support our movements. Amazingly, almost every human movement is assisted by the movement of our spine. If the spine doesn’t move well, we have to compensate by engaging other parts.
Reclaiming the “S”
I remember looking at my parents’ form and thinking it must be genetic that I have a very flat spine. Or is it cultural? My parents spent their youth during the Second World War in Japan where standing straight or bowing correctly were considered to be proper.
There are certain things I can do to reclaim my S-shape spine. One of exercises that helped me a lot was Spinal Undulation (see video below).
When I teach this in my class, it is shocking that the majority of people are not in touch with their spines. When we practice Cat and Cow in a yoga class, most of us automatically go into the movement pattern we are used to—moving from what moves, like the lower back, while part of our thoracic may be completely locked. However, by moving habitually in this way, we won’t be able to figure out where our blind spots are.
To reclaim or discover your “S” try this Spinal Undulation exercise, take your time, remember to breathe, and feel the movement all along your spine. The part that’s not moving needs to be awakened and retrained. The part that is moving a lot may be the answer to the pain in your back. This exercise is helpful for you to feel your S-shape spine and the practice will help you to become more aware of your body.
It’s A Curvy World
One of my favorite activities is to go to the Museum of Natural History in NYC to visit the dinosaur exhibit. In seeing the different bony structures from over many millions of years, the result of evolution (a undulation) is evident. Yet, there is a reminder that we are all so much alike. When I witness this, I get welled up with the realization that we are all ONE.
Art by McKella Sawyer
Kyoko Jasper (ERYT-500) is an integrated Yoga Tune Up teacher. As a former musical theater performer, Kyoko loves any types of movement. When she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 2000, it changed her life. Through her long journey of trial and error, and after several debilitating injuries, she discovered YTU, got certified in 2011 and 2015, and in 2016, she launched Yoga Tune Up Japan. Her teaching style is largely a blend of traditional Yoga based on ancient scripture, alignment of Iyengar Yoga, and corrective exercise in a playful and experimental set up.
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