If you’ve practised Yoga, especially Āsana, with a good instructor, you know how much Yoga focuses on spinal health and movements of the vertebral column. Why is there so much focus on this one part of the body, though? Why is it given so much importance?
Let’s first quickly take a look at what we mean by the spine. Colloquially speaking, the spine often refers to the entire back from the shoulders to the top of the buttocks. Medically and anatomically, there is a bit of a difference in the terms.
- Spine – spinal cord or spinal column that is an encased bundle of nerves and fluid connecting directly to the brain
- Vertebral column – set of 33 bones or vertebrae running vertically along the back of the body that encase and protect the spinal cord
- Back – the entire back of the body from the base of the skull to the top of the buttocks
- Includes the spinal and vertebral columns, muscles and tendons, shoulder blades
Now that we have a better idea of these terms, let’s delve into the Yogic aspects of the back and spine.
Why does Āsana practice focus so much on the back?
In Yoga, the back is referred to by the Sanskrit term mérudanda. This word has a literal and a figurative meaning that’s applicable.
Literally, mérudanda means the vertebral column. Āsana practice focuses a lot on the vertebral column for a number of anatomical and physiological reasons:
- Correctly aligned vertebrae lead to good posture
- This in turn reduces pain and disorders related to poor vertebral alignment
- A healthy vertebral column means a well-protected spinal cord
- Improves reflexes and response time of the nervous system
- Leads to a more alert brain and better sensory perception
- A vertebral column that is stretched, warmed up, and not stiff avoid injuries
- Everyday activities like lifting and moving heavy objects become safer and easier
Figuratively, mérudanda means character, courage, confidence. This is another reason Yoga places a lot of emphasis on back health:
– Holding the back correctly aligned indicates self-confidence; what is often called standing tall
– Holding your back straight without a slouch also indicates courage to face life and your own self
– A correctly aligned back could also be an indicator of mental and emotional strength and resilience
(Note: The above bullet points apply only to those with a normal healthy back and not to those suffering from genetic or other back-related problems that may cause change on posture or alignment.)
These two meanings of the terms mérudanda together make it such an important part of Yogic practice. The figurative meaning is especially important to understand.
It is not a judgement of character, absolutely not. The idea is more on the lines of, we can develop and build on self-confidence, courage, resilience through working on the back, posture, and alignment through Yogic techniques.
We will go into the details of the various ways we can move, exercise, and align the vertebral column and the entire back in another write-up, but it is crucial to understand that correct spinal movement and health should form the basis of all physical Yogic practice.
Even for those with anatomical issues with the back, physical Yogic practice should focus on maintaining, and if possible improving, current back and spinal health. This will only not apply to someone who has complete paralysis neck down and cannot move at all. In such cases, the focus will be on the breath and the mind.