Yoga Instructions: The Upper Back Does Not Bend

upper back     

I like to complain about yoga instructions. Or maybe I just like to complain. But it doesn’t make any sense to me when yoga teachers employ demonstrably false instructions. One that I have heard often lately is to bend from the upper back.

The Idea as presented in a recent class is to prevent compression in the lower back by bending from the upper back. The main problem with this is that there is no bend in the upper spine. The rib cage exists  to protect the heart and lungs and as a result its range of motion is limited. The lumbar spine and the cervical spine are designed to bend both backwards and forwards.

All of the spine’s vertebrae have the same basic composition. There is a body of the vertebrae with two transverse processes that extend out to the sides of the bodies. There is a spinous process which extends backwards from the body of each vertebrae (with a couple of exceptions at the top of the spine). Even though the basic bony segments are the same, the way they are aligned is different in different parts of the spine.

When you look at the picture of the thoracic spine above you will notice that the spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae are bent down to lay directly on top of the spinous process below it. While this arrangement will allow for forward bending it limits all backward bending in this area of the spine.

When you look at the picture of the complete spine, there is a good deal of space between the spinous processes of the vertebrae in both the lumbar and cervical spine. This space allows for the bending of the spine. Though I think this is the wrong way to look at what we are doing in a “backbend”. We are always trying to extend the spine rather than bend it.


Muscular Alignment vs. Skeletal Alignment
Core Tone: Transverse Abdominis
    • THere could be a number of things you are feeling. Hopefully it is the extension of the spine via the erector spinea muscles lengtheing upwards. Also the latissimus dorsi is activating as well as the rhomboids. Hope that helps. What do you think it might be?

  1. I’m confused-please help to clarify.
    At first I thought upper thoracic has little mobility so it does not bend so it subscribes to what you say here.
    But lately I read some articles & also exercises on we should have a mobile upper thoracic. neck and/or shoulder pain’>

    What do you think- maybe I’m not understanding it correctly

    • THe question is what kind of mobilty. The thoracic spine has extension and rotation and we should want to increase our access to both of these actions. But the backbend as we talk about it in yoga doesn’t come from the thoracic spine. The spinous proccesses of the thoracic spine make sure of that.

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