MOJO's Got Your Back: A Primer

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced a back problem. Yeah, me too. Our backs are so critically important to our wellbeing and our ability to operate in the world. And yet, how much do you really know about your own spine? Do you know how your yoga practice affects it? Well, by more popular demand this week we’re bringing to you an updated series shining light on our splendiferous spines!

So, to get our spines all warmed up for the occasion, I recommend you take some time out this week to practice along with a very special free video feature: Sara Crawford’s Rest and Recovery Day. This well-rounded full practice hits all the sweet spots to help us take care of our spines and the rest of our beautiful being. Check it out for free this week only right here:

*Uh-oh, this free video of the week expired! Enjoy this MOJO Yoga Preview of Yoga for Athletes and Crossfitters, or try the full practice for free in your first 30 days, along with over 100 hours of high quality yoga and movement practices to help you get your mojo working anywhere, anytime. 

Now, back to our backs…

What injuries or conditions do you have? When I ask that inevitable question of yoga students, the single most common problem area seems to be the back. Yes, there are lots of knee and shoulder issues, wrists and ankles, too. Yet, I think it's safe to say that the spine accounts for a majority of the injuries or conditions I encounter in my students. I count myself among these ranks: it's not exactly news to long-time readers that I have quite the active scoliotic curve and corresponding, shape-shifting pains myself. And were it not for yoga, I shudder to think what my life would look like - how limited I might be by unaddressed pains.

All of this considered, I thought it appropriate, nay, necessary to look at some of these problems here on the blog. I've wanted to do this for some time, but felt that some of my puzzle pieces needed more fleshing out and testing before I shared them with you. But I finally feel like we need to just get down to it. The fact of the matter is that most back problems are not cut and dry. The causality of any given issue is usually multi-faceted and spanning the time of many years. Then, the big picture of either maintaining or rebuilding spinal health is a puzzle with almost too many individual pieces to count. On top of all of that, the pieces are by no means static, but always changing with minute refinements as our bodies respond to the course of practice and therapeutic measures. Phew! Oh, and don't forget that the only person who is going to make any of that happen is...you. So we also have to deal with the psychology of overcoming pain, of listening to it and learning from it, rather than being defeated by it.

You thought this was going to be just any old simple blog post, didn't you? Ha! Fasten your seat belts, kids, because momma's finally ready to tackle this monster!

And because it's such a behemoth, we’ll break it down into parts of a series, breathing fresh life and understanding into our compressed, contorted, and aching backs: I'll call it MOJO’s Got Your Back. The installments of this series could be infinite, but we'll start, as we must, with a primer. Any introduction to the spine must be, you guessed it, anatomically-oriented. So let's get to defining our terms, and familiarizing ourselves with the tangible matter of our subject. Geek out!

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THE SPINE: PARTS OF THE WHOLE 

The spine is a splendid structure, really. It's very kind to hold us upright, allow us to bend, twist, and generally ambulate about, all the while safely housing our main switchboard: the spinal cord. There's so much fascinating anatomy to cover about the spine that I could go on forever. Yet, I must remember that this is a blog post, so I'll give you a Short Attention Span Theater version. 

The bony structure of the spine is referred to as the vertebral column, and usually consists of 24 individual vertebrae and 9 fused vertebrae in adults. So we're all on the same page going forward, you must know that vertebrae are referred to individually by a letter and a number. the letter represents the section of the spine in which that vertebra is located (i.e. Cervical = C, Thoracic = T, Lumbar = L, and so on). The number is simply the vertebra's placement in the column, counting from the top-down.

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VERTEBRAE 

Let's first get familiar with the general structure of a vertebra, shall we? As illustrated, it consists of an anterior vertebral body, transverse processes on either side, and a posterior spinous process. The spinous process is what sticks out most as you reach back and feel your spine. That hole in the center of the vertebra is the vertebral foramen and houses your spinal cord. The shape of each vertebra is slightly different from the next. Neighboring vertebrae have facets, called intervertebral facet joints, that fit together much like pieces of a puzzle. It's interesting to note that no two people have identical spines: the shapes of the vertebrae and the curvatures represented are much like a fingerprint and uniquely yours.  

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INTERVERTEBRAL DISCS 

Most vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs. Discs act primarily as shock absorbers between vertebrae, but also help to simultaneously hold the vertebrae together and allow for mobility in the spine. Vertebral discs are made of a tougher outer layer, the annulus fibrosus, surrounding a soft, gel-like center, the nucleus pulposus.

Disc problems are pretty ubiquitous, ranging from degeneration to slip to rupture, and can be symptomless or excruciating. At birth, our discs are 80% water, and dehydrate gradually as we age. This is one place where we tend to lose height as we get older and our discs deflate. Discs allow for separation and approximation of vertebra, and respond to the influences of weight and gravity. After a night's sleep in a horizontal position, for example, we are at our tallest height. As we go through the day, our discs will depress downward and expand outward in all directions, leaving us a bit shorter than when we began the day. With this in mind, you can see what a god-send that hanging in a supported inversion might be for our squished discs. Reversing the effects of gravity by hanging in an inversion swing or on a rope wall can help keep our discs healthy by creating glorious space for them to rehydrate or can alleviate the pressure of compression or an injury to a disc. (Of course, the nuances of hanging in an inversion should only be learned with the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you have a severe or acute condition, you should consult a medical professional before attempting any inversion at all…period.)

TO BE CONTINUED…

Well, methinks that was quite a bit of information already, and I did promise you Short Attention Span Theater! So, we'll leave the rest of our anatomy lesson for next time. In the second installment of MOJO’s Got Your Back, we'll get to know the cervical spine, otherwise known as your neck…and just below.

So until next time, stay active and give your spine some love. To that end, if you want an even more targeted practice for your spine this week, check out our featured premium video for MOJO Members only: Kassandra Reinhardt’s Hatha Yoga For A Healthy Spine. This one helps us support our spines when we only have a wee bit of time! So, MOJO Members, just login to see this one at the top of your Member Home Page this week. And of course, if you’re not a MOJO Member yet, check out this preview and start your MOJO Membership today to get the rest of this superb spinal practice.

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