Want a happy spine? Give Pilates a try.
Let’s start with a brief anatomy lesson of the spine. Our backbone is made up of 24 vertebrae + the sacrum/tailbone. The bones vary in size and shape based on the location and function within the spine. I have an easy method to remember the 24 segments which I’ll happily share with you:
● The first section is the cervical spine; made up of 7 segments - think breakfast at 7am
● The next section is the thoracic spine; there are 12 segments - think lunch at 12 noon
● The last group of 5 segments make up the lumbar spine - think dinner at 5pm
● The sacrum is a wedge-shaped bony structure made up of 5 fused vertebrae
● The tailbone is a small triangular-shaped bony structure made up of 3-5 fused vertebrae
Starting from the top, the cervical spine’s 7 segments (C1 through C7) attach to the skull to form the neck. The thoracic spine’s 12 segments (T1 through T12) make up the chest/rib cage and abdominal area. The last section of individual segments is the lumbar spine (L1 through L5). These vertebrae are larger and connect to the sacrum/tailbone.
All together, the entire spine resembles an elongated S with curves to the front and the back. In simplest terms the curvatures are designed to absorb shock. As I alluded to earlier, each bone varies in size and shape. The smaller bones of the cervical spine that make up the neck allow us to look down at our feet, gaze up to the sky, and twist to the side to check for oncoming traffic. We have a great deal of mobility in the cervical spine. The same is not necessarily true for the thoracic spine. When it comes to the chest cavity, T1 through T7, made up of the ribs and spine, we tend to be less mobile. This section of the spine has a lot going on, the ribs wrap from our back to front and attach to the breastbone, housing our vital organs is no small feat. From T8 through T12 the vertebral bodies increase slightly in size. The ribs in this section are called false ribs because they either attach to cartilage or float. This midsection is ideal for twisting and bending. Hint – we just have to work on it - stay tuned for more on this. When we get down to the lumbar spine and the sacrum/tailbone the bones get even bigger. The lumbar spine connects to the hip/pelvis via the sacrum. In the case of the sacrum/tailbone, these structures are fused and articulate on the spine and bones of the hip. We rely heavily on this area of the body to move us through space and connect our upper body to our lower body.
With basic knowledge of the spine let’s address movement, specifically Pilates. Pilates helps us move through activities of daily living with greater ease and efficiency. After two back surgeries and lots of physical therapy, I can say, with certainty, most of us regularly use or have only used 4 of our vertebrae to move our bodies. As a Pilates professional, I’ve learned that in order to keep the spine mobile, resilient, and safe, we need to practice a few things: good alignment/posture, proper breathing, body awareness, and distribution of load to all our vertebrae. Since the cervical and lumbar spine already have a good deal of mobility, the thoracic spine is the ideal section to assist in the distribution of load. In order to place less stress on the other two spinal sections, our goal for the thoracic spine is to gain greater bending and twisting range of motion. In Pilates terms we call these movements flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation. In every class/session, it’s my goal to move you in each of these planes (unless contraindicated by your physician).
Here are examples of thoracic spine movements:
The 100’s = flexion
Mermaid = lateral flexion
Breaststroke = extension
Spine twist = rotation
When it comes to alignment, I don’t believe there is single perfect alignment. Everyone’s body has a unique shape made of bony structures and soft tissues that we work with to achieve their ideal alignment. There are general postural guidelines and my job as a Pilates educator is to look for deviations from these standards. Ideally, your head/neck are balanced on your shoulders, your shoulders rest easily on your rib cage, and your rib cage sits squarely atop your hip/pelvis. Having these structures aligned allows your extremities to move without restrictions.
Our bodies are amazing and the best thing you can do is to keep moving. Whether you are starting or continuing a Pilates practice, your spine thanks you