The following is by guest writer Jessica Chow. For her full bio, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Anyone who has been to my classes at YogaOne in Abu Dhabi lately will notice an increased focus on spine strength and more importantly, spine mobility. I’ve removed urdhva mukha svanasana, better known as upward facing dog, and replaced it with active heart-openers like sphinx, locust and, for those who are looking for a challenge, floor bow. These poses are designed to engage the much neglected muscles on the back of the body. We spend large portions of our day sitting in hip flexion and hunched over a keyboard, or spine flexion. This results is weakening in the muscles on the back of the body and shortening or tightening of the muscles at the front of the body.
Frequently, we attribute the discomfort in our neck and back to the tightness or stiffness in our shoulders and hips, and focus our attention on opening up the shoulders and the hips to release tension in the neck or the lower back. However, I have discovered another area worth investigating – the thoracic spine.
What is the thoracic spine?
The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebral discs, commonly referred to as T1 to T12, that make up the middle of the spine. It runs from the base of the neck down to the abdomen. The ribs connect to the thoracic spine and protect vital internal organs like the heart and lungs, resulting in limited range of movement compared to the cervical and lumbar spine.
Why is it important?
Since the thoracic spine has less range of motion than the rest of the spine, decreased mobility is common, which in turn affects the rest of the spine. That’s why I recommend focusing on mobility in the thoracic spine in order to create relief in the cervical and lumbar spine.
Here are three simple exercises that you can do in the comfort of your own home to increase range of motion in the thoracic spine:
Supported corpse pose (option 1)
Roll up a yoga mat (or a blanket) and set it lengthwise on the floor. Position your hips about a hand’s-breadth away from the bottom end of the mat and lay down with the mat supporting your spine. Your head should rest on the top end of the mat. Arms can be by your side or overhead.
As you take 10 to 20 deep breaths, feel your shoulders relax and let gravity pull the head of the humerus (the long bone in the upper arm) down, gently releasing the muscles at the front of the body (pec major) and opening up the chest.
Supported corpse pose (option 2)
Roll up your mat and set it breadthwise on the floor. Place the rolled-up mat underneath the bottom edge of your shoulder blades and lay down. Place your head on a towel or blanket and take your arms overhead.
If using the mat is uncomfortable, you can also use a rolled-up blanket or rolled-up towel. As you take 10 to 20 deep breaths, focus on relaxing the shoulders and softening any tension around the rib cage. Elevating the mid-back encourages the chest to open in order to counteract spending too much time in spine flexion due to general poor posture.
Most people are familiar with the cat/cow to warm up the spine at the start of class. To isolate flexion and extension mobility in the thoracic spine, I usually recommend a modified version.
Start by sitting on your heels (if you struggle sitting on your heels, sit with a block between your knees) and plant your hands on the mat. Your shoulders, elbows and wrists are in one line, your palms are flat on the floor. If you have hypermobile elbows, do not lock them; instead, try to keep a soft bend in them.
As you inhale, lift your sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink toward the floor. Feel your scapula come together with each inhalation.
As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling and feel your scapula move further apart.
You will notice that your range of motion may be limited compared to a regular cat/cow. Sitting on your heels while you alternate between flexion and extension of the spine restricts movement in your lumbar spine, allowing you to isolate movement in your thoracic spine.
Remember, it is not the big fancy poses that you do infrequently that will help improve your quality of life, but rather the small adjustments that you make to your daily life that will make a difference in your body. These simple poses will help enhance body awareness, while improving range of motion in your thoracic spine and can help provide relief in the neck and lower back.
Jessica Chow is a Yoga Medicine 200hr certified instructor. She is currently training with Yoga Medicine and Tiffany Cruikshank for her 500/1,000-hour certification. Chow is passionate about empowering her students with the right tools and information to understand their bodies in order to further their practice. To learn more about increasing mobility in your spine, join her at YogaOne, in Mangrove One, Abu Dhabi, for Gentle Flow Saturdays, 11am and Restorative Yoga, Mondays at 8pm.