An activity that can be practiced at the beginning of any yoga class (particularly when there are lots of beginners) or yoga session is an exercise for learning to feel your spine. You do that by activating spinal muscles and then relaxing them.
The spine is a difficult body element to learn to feel and control but we can work towards feeling the spine by first learning to feel and control the ribs relative to the pelvis and the head relative to the ribcage.
We can then use this as a general action within any yoga pose.
So that we don't have to worry about stability we can start in a seated position and practice bending the spine backwards and forwards.
Actually what we can start of with, since the spine is too big and too general (it has 24 vertebrae after all), is moving and feelng the sacrum and the pelvis.
The sacrum can be moved relative to the hip bones creating movements called nutation (nodding forwards) and counter-nutation (nodding backwards).
This is movement happens at the sacro-iliac joints, where the sacrum connects to the pelvis.
You can learn to control these movements using the lower transverse abdominus and the pelvic floor muscles. However, now the goal is to use the sacrum as a reference for moving the pelvis. So rather than moving the sacrum relative to the pelvis, now we are trying to move the sacrum and pelvis together, as one unit.
Some movement between the sacrum and pelvis may occur, but for now we'll ignore it. Unless it causes pain that is.
Generally, people don't tend to think about their pelvis as a whole and so when in the past I've talked about tilting the pelvis forwards or backwards my students don't really "get it." However, the sacrum is easy to feel and recognize, it's the triangle of bone at the base of the spine that sits between the buttocks and points to the anus. It's easy to feel, it's part of the spine and moving it not only moves the pelvis, it also causes the spine to move also.
And so, lifting the sacrum causes the pelvis to roll or tilt forwards while dropping the sacrum cause the pelvis to roll backwards. If the ribcage is kept upright then these movements cause the lumbar spine to bend backwards and forwards.
By bending the lumbar spine back and forwards the lumbar erectors turn on and off repeatedly and if the movement is smooth enough and slow enough and if awareness is directed to the lower back, which is just above the sacrum, the practitioner can learn to feel the spinal erectors activating and relaxing.
A key aspect of this exercise, and all that follow, is to do the movements slowly and smoothly. Take 5 seconds or more to rock forwards and the same again to rock back.
When lifting the tailbone, focus on feeling your lumbar spine erectors activating. Try magnifying this feeling, making it feel stronger. The backbend may increase as a result.
For the opposite movement, I tend to prefer a relaxed sinking of the sacrum. Here body weight can be used to sink the pelvis down, the weight of the ribcage and head pressing down via the spine through the sacrum to help cause the pelvis to tilt back.
By making the tailbone lifting phase of this exercise more active, so that the spinal erectors activate, and the lowering phase more relaxed, it can be easier to focus on and learn to feel the spinal erectors and the lumbar spine.
The goal of this next exercise is to learn to lift and expand the ribcage, but to get there I find it easier to start with "feeling" the sacrum, and then from there the lumbar spine, and then from there to expand the movement to include the thoracic spine.
If you've got the feeling of the lumbar spinal erectors contracting, then work to carry the contraction up into the thoracic spinal erectors.
Often I find some students retracting their shoulders to assist in bending their thoracic spine backwards.
If that's the case and they can't do otherwise then I'll do an exercise to help them learn to feel their shoulders then invite them to do the spinal back bends without using their shoulders.
Continuing with the spine and ribcage, after some time bending the thoracic spine backwards and then relaxing, the next step is to focus awareness on the front of the ribcage, the chest.
What happens to the chest when the thoracic spine is bent backwards?
It moves upwards, away from the pubic bone. And it expands or opens meaning the ribs slide relative to each other in such a way that the volume within the ribcage increases.
Once you can feel your chest lifting and expanding, the exercise can now be to lift the chest while bending the thoracic spine backwards and then to lower the chest while bending the thoracic spine forwards.
You can do the previous chest lifting and lowering exercise in combination with movements of the lumbar spine and also in isolation.
You might choose to do the movements together, so you lift the sacrum causing the lumbar spine to back bend. Then you carry that up the thoracic spine. Then as your thoracic spine bends backwards you also lift your chest. You then reverse the steps, sinking your chest as you bend your thoracic spine forwards, then you bend your lumbar spine forwards by dropping your sacrum so that you pelvis tilts back.
Or you focus solely on your ribs and thoracic spine. You bent your thoracic spine backwards, lifting your front ribs. Then you drop your front ribs as you allow your thoracic spine to bend forwards.
Generally I find that people often have difficulty lifting and lowering their chest straight off the bat and so it is easier to start with the sacrum, the lumbar spine and then work on the thoracic spine and ribcage.
Since the ribs attach to the thoracic spine any movement of the thoracic spine will affect the ribcage.
This doesn't mean that every time I ask students to lift their ribs I also want them to bend their thoracic spine backwards. However, at a beginning level when I'm first trying to teach conscious proprioception, it helps to work on bending the thoracic spine backwards in order to open the chest.
The point here is that it is possible to move your ribs without moving your thoracic spine. The amount of movement is small, but perceivable. The reason I mention it is that when bending your ribcage backwards or forwards, you may get a deeper and more efficient movement if you focus on feeling and controlling both your thoracic vertebrae and your ribs.
Often I don't talk about the breath.
Instead I have students focus on smoothly and slowly bending their spine (or a part of their spine) backwards and forwards, and if they work on this the breath naturally follows since this action naturally increases and decreases lung volume.
And so the movement teaches them breath control via learning to control the muscles and bones that drive the breath.
Students thus get a taste of learning to feel their breath by feeling the movements of the muscles and bones that cause breath in the first place.
Too further exercise some of these same muscles, another exercise while seated could be a simple seated cross legged twist, either using the arms to help twist the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae relative to each other or using the intrinsic muscles of the waist and ribcage to do the twisting.
As a way of learning to activate the paraspinalis muscles, the smaller muscles that work between adjacent vertebrae, I could have students move their awareness up their spine, one vertebrae at a time, and working on twisting the current vertebrae relative to the one immediately below.
To make this exercise more effective I'll have them count vertebrae, five for the lumbar, five for the lower thoracic, seven for the upper thoracic and seven for the cervical spine. If by the time they've counted upwards for the five lumbar vertebrae they end up somewhere in the middle of the upper back then it's a hint that they can make smaller jumps as they move up their spine.
Generally, when I'm on a roll, this phase of learning to feel the spine goes quite well.
The movement actually feels good and so I don't have to keep on telling people what to do.
For a more thorough introduction to feeling (and controlling) your spine, as well as your hip bones and ribs, check out the Muscle control: spine, hip bones, ribcage course. It teaches you how to feel and control your spine in such a way that you can use that awareness and control in anything that you do. Find out more about Muscle control: spine, hip bones, ribcage.