Roselie’s New Favorite Exercise
I was trying to think of a different, more descriptive title for this article, but decided to just call it what it is.
This is my new favorite antidote to the slumped position the upper (thoracic) spine tends to adopt from all those long hours of sitting and/or doing things on the computer. There are lots of reasons that a rounded, slumped posture creeps into the upper spine, I don’t want to just vilify sitting, but creep in it does. And it tends to get more pronounced as the years go by.
Sometimes I start thinking about the mechanics of something in the body and two bits of information connect, the sparks fly, the synapses fire and I get it.
So here it is.
You know Sphinx Pose from yoga? You can probably imagine. It looks like the Sphinx. You lay on your belly with forearms on the floor and lift your upper body while keeping your belly button on the floor. You end up in extension (backward bending) of the spine.
To get the most out of the pose you can alternately relax your body and then do your best to move your chest forward (the opposite direction from your feet). Don’t bend your neck backward, just look straight ahead with length in your neck and relaxed (not elevated) shoulders. As you try to move your chest in the direction you’re facing you will increase the bend in your upper back, and your shoulders will drift a little more toward your back.
This pose is a great way to concentrate on bringing mobility into the upper back. Otherwise it can be hard to specifically move the upper spine because the lower spine tends to jump in there first.
There are two main problems with a rounded upper back habit.
The first is that it limits how our shoulders can move around, making it hard to reach the back of our body, and changing the kinematics of our daily tasks in ways that could create problems later.
The second is that there is a tendency for the spinal curves to balance each other out. When the upper back’s forward curve (kyphotic curve) increases, then somewhere in the spine a backward (lordotic) curve increases as well.
Stated another way, when the upper back curve becomes greater, the spinal curve in the neck will adjust. The lower part of that curve, where the top of the torso meets the bottom of the neck becomes sharper as the neck has to go into extension to keep us from staring at the ground all the time. Meanwhile the upper part of the neck, where it meets the base of the skull also has to go into extension.
According to Shacklock (Clinical Neurodynamics, 2005) “It is likely that reduced movement…in the thoracic spine [upper back] will impart altered forces on the cervical [neck] region because the neck must move differently to compensate for the stiffness in the thoracic region.”
A stiffer thoracic spine makes for a stiffer bunch of neck bones which decreases the ability of the nerves exiting the neck to move around. This is partly due to the change in the position of the bones, and partly because bigger curves make the distance the spinal cord needs to travel longer, leading to more overall tension on the whole system.
And actually, having those nerves become less mobile probably also has an effect on shoulder mobility as well. The body wouldn’t allow itself to move beyond the extensibility of the nervous system, as that could result in neural tension problems.
Maybe that was too much information, but basically what I’m saying is that if the upper back gets used to being rounded then there will be more pressure and tension on the neck (cervical) nerves and that won’t be good.
If you can tell you have a rounded upper back, or if you have limited shoulder mobility, or if your head rests an inch or more in front of the top of your shoulders, or if you get headaches that seem to be either neurological or tension based, then consider exploring the stiffness and mobility of the thoracic spine.
Bringing more mobility into the thoracic spine will allow the cervical spine to change to a more neutral curve and help with nerve movement in the area.
I’d recommend giving this pose more than one attempt. When something is pretty stiff it can take awhile to feel how the form fits into your body. It can take a little practice to feel like you’re doing anything.