The notion that the spine is a ramrod-straight structure still persists in the yoga and exercise community, so let's set the record—but not your spine—straight.

The spine curves front to back. Your lower back—called the lumbar spine—arcs toward your navel. Your middle and upper back—called the thoracic spine—rounds posteriorly. Your neck—the cervical spine—waves toward your throat. These curves function to distribute your body's weight. Picture a Japanese rock sculpture: the stones aren't stacked in a straight tower, rather they're offset for improved equilibrium. Attempting to iron out the spine's natural curves inhibits optimal functional movement and can contribute to lower back, shoulder, and neck pain.

Consider these three revisions to postural/exercise patterns that may sound familiar:

Deep-Six the Six-Pack

Yeah, six-pack abs are sexy, but they're not synonymous with the core stability that permits free and efficient movement. In anatomical language, the “six-pack" is your rectus abdominis, just one, superficial layer of your abdominal wall. Too many abdominal crunches excessively tighten rectus abdominis. It then pulls its attachment on the bottom of your breastbone to its attachment on your pubic bone, flattening the lumbar spine's lordotic curve and pitching the shoulders and head forward. The muscles of the back then work overtime to preserve an upright posture, leading to muscle fatigue and ache. Further, a flattened lumbar curve loads the fronts of the intervertebral disks with pressure and squishes the gelatinous nucleus at the center of each disk backward. That scenario can increase risk of disk herniation.

So cut down on the crunches and instead focus your core routine on the deep transverse abdominis, a muscle that girdles your midsection like a corset and that is a prime postural muscle and stabilizer. Any abdominal exercise that guards your spine in its neutral curves will work transverse abdominis. Consult your Pilates teacher or personal trainer for specific suggestions.

Don't Be a Mothertucker

Your lumbar spine sits on your sacrum, the triangular-shaped bone that forms the back of your pelvis. Think of your pelvis as a pedestal and your spine as the statue poised on top of it. Pelvis position, therefore, affects the curve of your lumbar spine. If you perpetually tuck your pelvis, you're tipping the pedestal backward and flattening your lumbar curve. Tucked has somehow become the new neutral—perhaps because individuals attempt to create a flatter-looking belly, perhaps because yoga teachers regularly cue dropping the sitting bones toward the heels. That cue has its place: it protects the vulnerable lumbar spine from arcing excessively in backbends. But the lumbar spine does move into greater extension when you practice backbends. The trick is to allow that movement without deleteriously crunching the lower back.

Get Out of the Slump

Slumping is epidemic these days. I'm slumped over my keyboard as I type this article. And you're likely slumped over some kind of device as you read. We slump in car seats and in front of the TV. Slumping produces an exaggerated thoracic curve. That thrusts the head forward and forces the neck and shoulder muscles to support the weight of your very heavy head. Excessive rounding of the upper back topped by a forward position of the head is often responsible for shoulder and neck tension. Conversely, yoga students are so often told to lift the chest that we wind up flattening the natural thoracic curve. Again, the work is to seek neutrality: allow the organic rounded shape of the thoracic spine but don't give in to gravity (or laziness).

Preserve the Curve

Straighten out your bedsheets each morning. Straighten out your life (good luck with that!), but STOP TRYING TO STRAIGHTEN OUT YOUR SPINE. Permit your spine to billow organically front to back. Let nature follow its curvy course to optimize movement and stave off future pain. Yoga philosophy teaches that we needn't wrestle the self into enlightenment. We need only unveil that preexisting state. Just so, the human spine has evolved into a perfectly stable, functional shape. We need only rediscover then nurture that form.

About the Author: Jennie Cohen, E-RYT 500, teaches classes, privates, workshops, and teacher trainings internationally. Precise instruction and focused sequencing create an experience that is both informative and transformative. Jennie's fascination with anatomy and her studies of the texts that form yoga's philosophical foundation infuse her classes. Teaching schedule available at and at

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