J Spine or S Spine?
(This is a slightly edited article I wrote for yoga teacher training)
I am fascinated by the human body. How it moves, how it heals, how it is all connected, the energy, the emotion, the network of tissue that makes up who we are on a physical level, and how that is all connected to what most people would think of as soul.
I came across an article a few months before yoga teacher training started that talked about a different shaped spine then the traditional S shaped spine that we learn about in western culture. (Click here to see article). An acupuncturist named Esther Gokhale started studying back pain a few decades ago. She traveled around the world, and noticed that more “indigenous” cultures had less back pain. The reason she believed this was because their spine had more of a J shape then an S shape. She noticed that people in the areas she traveled could be squatting and weaving all day or bent over for hours harvesting food, and these people did not suffer from back pain.
Having an anthropology background I was drawn to this article. I thought this idea of a J shaped spine was interesting. Growing up I had heard about how the spine should be S shaped. Becoming a massage therapist, I kept hearing about how the spine should be S shaped. I guess it made sense without me even really thinking about it. Then I ran across this article and this idea of a J shaped spine.
It actually made sense to me, but I was having a hard time wrapping my brain around how this would work with the body alignment that I had been taught in previous yoga classes.
In past yoga classes I had been taught to tuck my tailbone under, engage the core by bringing my pubic bone closer to my ribs, and bring the curve out of my low back. At the time it made sense because I thought to engage the muscle you had to shorten it, not having any concept about how many muscles are in the abdomen and how many different directions they engage. Even after massage therapy school when I had learned about all the muscles and action of the abdomen, I still wanted the tailbone tucked under. So, how does this J curve spine work if it encourages the opposite?
To be honest, I thought this was the way to that highly sought after flat belly. I have noticed that what is considered healthy or “good for us” changes all the time. The science behind how to have better posture, a flatter stomach, the cleanest colon, etc change like the leaves on trees. Who really knows. I just say what works for you? Follow your intuition and your body knows what it needs. That is not to be confused with sugar cravings, but I digress.
The article Lost Posture:Why Some Indigenous Cultures May Not Have Back Pain has a picture that depicts an S shaped spine and a J shaped spine. To me, they do not look that different. The S shaped spine has more exaggerated curvature in the thorasic and lumber sections of the spine. The J spine still has slight curvature, but not as pronounced. The article goes on to talk about whether the J shaped spine is the cause for decreased back pain. It says that the decrease in back pain has to do with the muscle engagement more than the actual shape of the spine. Western society has more back pain because in general we are heavier and less active (according to the article). It is the engagement of the core and spinal muscles that causes this decrease in back pain.
I remember one of the first days of yoga teacher training postural study talking about neutral alignment of the spine. The teacher, Sara Cook, said something to the effect of, “pull your pubic bone down, stick your tailbone slightly out, engage the rib cage, draw the shoulder blades down the back.” When doing this alignment in my body, it felt like my spine went into more of a J shape!
I think many of the cues we learned encourage more of a J shaped spine. It still has the slight curves in the thorasic and lumbar spine with more of a sacrum/tailbone posterior tilt.
- “Encourage your navel to spine” – the muscles of the core engaging towards the lumbar curve to add length.
- “Lengthen your spine” – taking out the exaggerated curve of the spine.
- “Tip your pubic bone forward and knit your ribs in” – guiding the sacrum into a slight posterior tilt.
- “Open your heart” – lengthening the curvature of the thorasic spine.
- “Tuck the chin, bring the head back” – encouraging more length in the cervical spine.
This article that I read months ago finally clicked in my head. The alignment that I have been learning clicked in my head. I am not saying that this J curved spine is the answer to back problems at all. I looked up some other articles out there and found some adopting Esther’s methods and others questioning them. For example, a woman named Eleanor Taylor wrote a blog post about Esther’s J shaped spine. Eleanor studies the Alexander Technique, which she describes:
In AT, we seek a dynamic relationship between the primary organizing elements of body – the head, the spine (including the top section of the spine, the neck) and the whole torso, and out into the limbs. So whether your spine is more or less curved is not the guiding element. AT asks whether you are releasing up through whatever curves you’ve got, or compressing and shortening that stabilizing column. It explores whether the weight of your skull is pulling back and down and pressing on the spinal structure, or whether it’s lightening up and balancing easily at the top of the spine. It looks at whether the ribs are responsive to the ongoing movement of the breath, and whether you are allowing that mobility by not holding your breath. And we do all that indirectly by using thought to wish for a change rather than doing it with muscular effort.
I feel that the Alexander Technique follows the idea that every body is different. Every person should be looked at individually, and the spine does not have to have a certain shape across the board to be pain free. Instead they find the alignment that works for each and every person taking in consideration their own body. It is mentioned that Esther Gokhale studied the Alexander Technique and brought the ideas into her studies.
I think what Esther Gokhale was saying about the spine and the information that I have been learning about alignment in yoga teacher training makes sense to me. If I stand up and exaggerate an S shaped spine, I feel like I have poor posture. If I exaggerate the J curved spine, I feel closer to neutral. And, if I want to go back to talking about this flat belly that most people in our society want, it makes more sense for the rectus abdominus to be stretched for “flatness” instead of crunched up and contracted. The actual “flatness” really comes from diet and genetics. I have learned to actually love my stomach and the curves I have. As long as I feel good on the inside (physically, emotionally, psychologically).
Some of Esther Gokhale’s back exercises are included in the article. I am not sure I agree with all of them. One of them mentions not sitting up straight, but being more concerned with the shoulders on the back. I think our society has gotten to the point of sitting so much that encouraging length and strength in the spine as much as possible is beneficial. It goes back to lifestyle and doing what is right for your own body. I am a firm believer that strength in the core muscles is huge to alleviating back problems.
As a massage therapist, I have learned extensively about how the body moves. Between what happens in the brain to the muscle actions, joints, and connective tissue. I have learned about posture, alignment, and body mechanics. I thought I had a very well rounded idea of how the body works in space. With this new idea of alignment, some of the things I had learned in school were re-enforced. I just needed to run into this idea down the road for it to stick and give me that deeper understanding of what I already knew. I also found in my own yoga practice I could access some poses much easier. Headstands felt more comfortable not only in getting into them, but keeping pressure off my head and neck. The strength in my shoulders increased as the fascia and tissue was able to move because of new space added by shifting my pelvis. It really is crazy how everything is connected.
Many people walk around with an energy disconnect to different areas of the body. The most common disconnect I see is top to bottom. People cannot get in touch with their lower body and feet (lower chakras). We have lost grounding through our feet. It is less common, but some people who are too grounded and have a hard time connecting with their upper body. There are many causes to this, but I would guess one reason of this energetic disconnect has something to do with posture and misalignment of the spine.
We definitely cannot forget the emotional component to all this. Our bodies will take on the shapes of our emotions. When you imagine a depressed person, they look much different in our minds then an ecstatic person. We physically take on our emotions in our bodies. This being said, if some traumatic emotional stuff is happening in our lives, I believe it will affect the pain in our body. We could even talk about a physical samskara that is causing pain. Maybe in another life we were shot in the back. Could that be a wound that could be carried ove
r to another life? If there is some karmic pattern there that we have not let go of yet? It is something to think about. Just an idea out there…
The human body is really amazing how everything is connected and how everything is constantly changing. The bones are not an unchanging structure. The muscles pull on the bones to change their shape over time. The bones in turn influence how we hold ourselves up and walk bipedally. There is so much more to it then that, but that is for another paper.
If a test had a multiple answer question that read along the lines of what is the proper theory for less back pain? I would have to answer all of the above. Gokhale’s J shaped spine makes sense, the Alexander Technique makes sense, every body is different, core strength is important, more movement (in general) in western culture is beneficial, the alignment in yoga poses has positive effects on back pain (when done with a healthy spine and correctly).