On Wednesday, I shared the story of my flattened spine, and how it likely got that way. Today, I’ll discuss the journey I have taken to reclaim its curves and learn more about how I’m put together.
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), and five in the sacrum (pelvic, S5, fused), 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.
Over time, the shape of our spines changed 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.
Secondly, the neck had to be picked up to its convex position (in) so they could look for food or spot out a predator, before they could approach. The lumber curve (in) became more necessary as our ancestors started to gain the ability to bear weight on lower extremities – and began walking on two legs. The lumber curve is a human specific feature. (Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews).
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 of the bodies.
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 things I can do to reclaim my s-shaped spine. One of the Yoga Tune Up®. exercises that helped me a lot was Spinal Undulation.
When I teach this in my class, it is shocking that the majority of people are not in touch with their spines. When we go into 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. By moving habitually, you won’t be able to figure out where your blind spots are.
Try YTU Spinal Undulation, take your time, remember to breathe, and feel the movement in your spines. 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-shaped spine. One of the biggest reasons why YTU is so helpful is it makes you become more aware of your body–not anybody else’s, but yours!
One of my favorite activities is to go to the Museum of Natural History in NYC to visit the dinosaur exhibit. When you see the different bony structures from over many millions of years, the result of evolution is evident. Yet, we are all exactly alike. When I witness this I get welled up with the realization that we are all ONE.
Thank you for this spinal undulation video and the reminder of how far our spine has come through evolution. When I teach this and see how many of us cannot articulate our individual parts of our spine I’m reminded how fortunate I am to have discovered YTU and to be able to experience and share the “weird” YTU poses so we can isolate and discover what needs work to be fully integrated.
Great video Kyoko! When I was introduced to the spinal undulation in my Level 1 YTU cert training, it made me realize how important it is to reclaim my own spinal movements, but also for my clients. Most of us often sit for such long periods of time that the kyphosis in our thoracic spine gets more pronounced. Of course there is that nature curvature to it, but we should also be able to extend the thoracic spine with some degree and not live in an over-flexion of the spine. I need to practice this technique more so than I am now. Thanks for posting it!
YTU Spinal Undulation video was really good and so different than cat/cow. I have students do pelvic tilting in constructive rest but to have them take on the pose from a tabletop allows for more freedom than the floor. The floor give the feedback that they are moving the pelvis…Will teach this in my next yoga class for sure.
Very interesting – and fantastic demonstration! I love the idea of helping students feel their spine more clearly by working with the different regions of the spine in this way.
What an interesting journey your spine has been on. There is a saying that I like to share with my students is that a juicy spine is happy and flexible and that you are as young as your spine!
The YTU training is really an eye opener for blind spots! Propreoception is key to understanding how our body is working in healthy, and not healthy ways. Learning to teach students to really turn inward, to notice the subtlties of how their body moves in space is really a game changer for how we teach movement!
I also have a relatively flat spine. Not sure why. When I did my first 200 hr YTT I remember how tricky and frustrating it was to slow it down and articulate up and down the spine in Cat/Cow, even though I’d been practicing for 15 years!! Nonetheless, it is a work in progress and this article gives me hope to carry on!
This is a very good reminder of the benefits of the ripple of the spine and a good way to find my blind spots.
Thank you for sharing, I will try this pose to help me find my blind spot for sure!
I agree one-hundred percent that spinal undulation is important. After many years of restricting my motion due to lumbar herniations, I’m finding now that the thing my back is craving is movement. One of the gentle things I can do is o undulate my spine. Thanks for this post.
Wow, such an interesting way to deconstruct the spine and notice the blind spots and parts that are over-doing it! I was showing the upper back part of this exercise, but it never occured to me that I could do the whole spine like this. Probably because of some past instilled “fear” about SI joint pain/lumbar pain…Thanks for the tip, I will sure practice and integrate it!
Very nice video of the spine in undulation! At first it isn’t easy to isolate each area of the spine, but your video did a good job showing the distinct areas of the spine. Thanks!
Thanks for this post. I tried this version and I found it also gave me the time to engage my core while moving through the spine, which is a good habit to bring to standing.
Kyoko, I like your explanation for the curves of the spine (the neck needs its curve to spot food and predators!). I really enjoyed your undulating sequence. I came across this post when I was in Pilates training and I found it to be a nice, dynamic way of mixing up cat/cow and finding the blind spots in the spine.
I like the “tribal” side of this exercice.
It’s so primal, so internal, so experimental and self discovery/self exploration.
It allow people to restaure their own “normal”.
Thank you for this post!
This article and video feels supportive to me in my learning curve of becoming familiar with my body blind spots. I move my spine, in what seems to me like very advanced and wavelike motions. Yet, when I practice this move, I can sense how I move through blind spots from one place to the next without thinking about how this affects my local and global movement patterns and posture. Thank you Kyoko for bringing this to my attention in this manner.
The author followed up her story of discovering that her spine was the reverse of what it should be, and here she offers useful information that would help anyone pay closer attention to the spine. Attention and closer attention is the key to everything in life, avoiding the distractions that daily assault us, and keep us from paying attention to the important things.
Kyoko san thank you for sharing your thought and experience. I undulation movement when I bellydance but I found doing that pose on my knee and hands on floor is pretty different and harder. I’m happy I found something I can work on my body.
I remember learning this in the level 1 teacher training… This really blew my mind about my blind spots.
I have had many injuries over the years and always felt pain through out the neck and upper back. I have seen many therapists and practitioners like Chiropractic, Massage Therapists, Physical Therapists, Osteopaths etc., I practice yoga and have done cat cow 100’s if not 1000’s of times so I was not expecting where this road lead me… I began undulating the coccyx then the sacrum, L5 and so on until I got to about Thoracic vertebrae 8. it was as if the highway I was traveling dropped off the face off the flat earth. I was so shocked to be this faced with my blind spot. So at the desire to explore further I started my undulating my spine From C1 through C2 and so on… Until T5 and BAM. Dropped off the map again. I am so empowered to feel this spot that has been hidden for so long . Thank you for the article and Undulate On!
This looks to be so much more beneficial than a traditional cat/cow pose. I suffer from head forward posture and am slowly forming a kyphotic curve and really need to work on my spine health. I will absolutely be adding this into the mix. Thank you!
This looks fabulous! Great video and post. Thank you, I really need this to find my stuck places.
Thank you so much for sharing your story! As a movement professional, it’s incredibly hard to admit when we have a physical issue that we’ve caused ourselves. ? I just did the Yoga Tune Up certification, but I’ve been a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist for over 15 years. The past few years, I’ve started to realize that I’ve taken my “good” habits too far and have ended up with chronically depressed shoulders and a relatively flat spine. I had been blaming the flat cervical spine on a whiplash injury, but last week I saw a picture of myself from the side and realized that it wasn’t just my C-Spine but also my T- spine that had flattened out – and that it was the flat T-spine that was sabotaging my efforts at regaining my cervical curve!
I am now on a mission to reclaim all of my curves! I’d been doing lots of cat/cow and skipping undulations because I wasn’t good at it – but your posts have inspired me, and now I am determined to squirm like a worm!
This has been a great post to remind me that I need to do this pose regularly. I find that doing this as soon as I get up in the morning relieves me of any back stiffness or pain I may have from the night/day before. Thank you for the reminder that I can do this to whatever level of mobility I have at the time and that I will still benefit. Thank you for the demonstration.
This is a great reminder to do this pose to find your body’s blind spots. Thank you for the detailed explanation on how to do this pose and all the many benefits!
Kyoko, This was really nice to read. I was cruising through blogs looking for something that helped define creating space in the spine. I found that in what you wrote in a way that surprised me…the description you gave of cat and cow and how people move from what is already moving, leaving the blind spots undiscovered. It is attention to these nuances that make such a huge difference. Thanks for all you wrote.
Spinal Undulation is the missing link for many people. We have so many body blind spots in the spine. With how much we sit in chairs and live sedentary life styles, we forget where normal really is. As I have begun to incorporate Spinal Undulation into my daily practice, I am noticing where I once believed I had lower back problems, that they are really originating in my Sacroiliac joint. I can actually separate the movement and feel the snap, crackle, pop that is happening at the Sacrum. As I am proprioception this movement in my body, I am becoming aware of other habits I have.
Thanks for posting!
Spinal undulation is a great exercise. It’s been really eye opening to see where my spine moves freely and where it’s a bit locked up. Thank you!
Wow, I just did a whole training on line for Pilates about moving the spine. I too found spots that are hyper-mobile and stuck spots as well. This is work for me to contain the mobile areas and move the stuck areas. Thank you for some tips to help me move again. I have got to try this on my clients to see how connected or disconnected they are in their own body.
Excellent blog post! It’s so true, yogis are excellent at moving the thoracolumbar junction in a back-bend (ie: cat/cow), but so rarely can we isolate and articulate different segments of our spine. I love these spinal wave undulations! (Although very challenging). I also really enjoy cuing my students to rise up from a bridge on a 10 second count, lifting one vertebrae off the ground at a time, and then back down. The floor is a nice proprioceptive feedback for students who don’t have a lot of spinal movement awareness. Thank you for sharing!
Fascinating! I really liked the subtle sacral movement. I am definitely going to try this on my private students who are unable to move their upper back into cow pose. It will build a lot more proprioception and body awareness and force them to focus on different segments of their spine. Thank you!
It’s so helpful and important for us to really know and honor our innate, evolved shape — especially as we play with exploring our potential to make restorative shapes with our bodies! Thanks for the video – this is wonderfully slowed down and easy to follow along with. Too often we (myself, other yoga students, etc) just sling from one movement (flexion) to the next (extension), without exploring the range of movement throughout the vertebra – which is the whole point of the movement flow!
I am definitely going to try this. Our spine seems to be one of those areas we take for granted until we experience back pain which reminds us of how we are not moving in a mindful way.
I’m looking forward to sharing this in my classes and having students really concentrate on how they move. Thank you for this article.
I love this blog post! Our spines are so amazing and I often forget about how we have evolved and how our spine has adapted to meet new demands. I wonder now that we are in the age of technology how our spine will continue to evolve and how that will affect how we move, think and behave – for the worse or the better! The spinal undulation is one of my favorites, too, for how simple and challenging it is!
Whenever my lumbar spine feels particularly tight, I spend considerable time practicing spinal undulations and spinal skipping ropes to increase mobility. Love the evolutionary outlook you provided in this article. Really gives you something to think about – how quickly the spine has “adapted” to modern life.
I have recently noticed that my lumbar spine is relatively flat as I do a forward fold. Since I believe in proactivity, I will definitely work on undulating my spine prior to training to increase my spinal mobility and prevent potential injuries from compensation. Thank you for sharing!
I loved this exercise and the way you described it. It’s amazing how much more effective this is than regular cat/cow. I was shocked at how hard it was for me to move my thorasic spine. I will add this to my daily practice and hopefully reconnect to this area of my spine!
Thank you for this video. It’s amazing how this version really connects you to spinal movement so much more than regular cat/cow. I was shocked at how hard it is to move my thorasic spine. I will have to add this to my personal daily practice.
Thanks for this article Kyoko. I’ve noticed the same thing with my students when we do cat/cow. Just going through the motion but not feeling the spine. One technique I have used is to start with bringing attention to tail bone and very slowly flex with head coming down last then keeping the head there starting with tailbone extend spine with head coming up last. Going vertebrae by vertebrae. It’s amazing this cuing seems to help bring attention to that sleepy thoracic area you described.
Thank you so much for sharing, I love the evolutionary history of the human spine! And I do see the habit of just moving the lumbar spine in cat/cow. I also see that students tend to flex the thoracic spine more during the cat phase. Will definitely try this in my classes!
Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ll definitely bring this into my classes to bring awareness to my students blind spots and where they compensate to create the movement in the spine. This is my new go-to cat/cow!
Our spinal discs are constantly filling up and reducing the amount of fluid inside them. Without the thick jelly absorbency in the discs, our spine would break and crack. When we sleep at night, the spinal discs fill up so that they’re at their fullest in the morning and can make our backs tight and creaky in the morning. Undulation of the spine and exercise relieves the tightness so that our back can perform properly through all our daily activities. The spine is only able to receive water and nutrients through osmosis and a process called imbibition. This last method occurs when the motion between vertebral discs similar to spinal undulation acts as a pump to move fluids in and out of the discs. Thus, the health of our spine depends on movement. Undulation of the spine in the morning is a great routine especially for those who lead a sedentary lifestyles particularly among senior citizens. The movement can be adjusted as gentle or vigorous depending on their health.
This is a lovely organic exercise. The undulation has a rather easy cadence until I try to incorporate the cervical spine around T1 or C7….. this transition was a little “sticky” or perhaps “blind” as you describe. The most interesting aspect is adding only one or two vertebrae per undulation until the spine is fully mobile and then reversing in a subtractive motion. The action has a dance like quality. It is also a good exercise for focusing the mind interiorly. Thank you!
These are nice clear and simple explanations about the anatomy and the importance of the spine for humans and also for every creature. There is a reason why human have evolved to have this beautiful S-shape spine and why would we fight against it? Although I find it quite difficult to do the Spine undulation, I totally understand the importance of this movement. Blind spots won’t remind blind for much longer! 🙂
You made an interesting comment about cultural practices and how this could be genetic for you. I believe that this is entirely possible. It is interesting to think that because of the cultural norms found in Japan during the World War II, and still, that this could alter genetic makeup for future generations. This is definitely a subject that I want to look further into.
Thanks for the post
This thoughtful exercise is delightful. I will add it to a class that I am pulling together which examines expectations — how we bring them along with us we move through life (and through yoga classes). This movement is not your same old same old cat and cow: I find that when we practice familiar poses we can turn off our attention because we think we know what we are doing. But you–and Yoga Tune Up in general–playfully thwarts are expectations stimulates our attention. Fun and refreshing. Gracias.
Oh, well this is the perfect exercise to find my blind spots. Now, I have to it many times, to get more flexibility in some parts of my spine.