Fresh Take Friday: Segmented Spinal Movement

Happy Friday, everyone. I took a little break from the blog this week, but I’m back. Today, let’s take a fresh look at how we’re moving through the spine.

Your spine. It’s an engineering marvel.

It bears the loads of being upright in gravity. It is responsive to your movements. It protects your spinal cord and contributes to the stable container that houses your heart and lungs, your life force. It allows you to move effectively through the world.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Spinal Structure

While it might seem like the spine is all one thing, there’s actually quite a lot of variation in the structure of the vertebrae. This causes different parts of the spine to function differently.

  • The cervical spine (neck):
    • Your neck is designed to be pretty mobile overall, especially its ability to extend (tilt the head back). This gives us the ability to look around.
  • The thoracic spine (upper back):
    • The upper back has more limited movement, especially when it comes to sidebending and backbending. This creates more stability to protect the space that houses the heart and lungs.
    • At the bottom of the thoracic spine, our bone structure contributes to a very mobile joint, where we can access extra extension (backbending) and rotation (twisting) motion.
  • The lumbar spine (lower back):
    • The low back has the most flexion (rounding forward) of any part of the spine. It’s pretty limited in other movements, especially twisting. This lends more stability to a region where there are no ribs to add support.
Photo by Michael Dorausch on Flickr

Healthy Spinal Movement

Leslie Kaminoff defines healthy movement as well distributed movement. Instead of relying on one or two areas to create the bulk of our movement through space, sharing the work over more of the body allows the loads to be shared and gives us more options for how we move.

When we’re moving through the spine, this means stabilizing more mobile parts of the spine, and getting more movement from parts of the spine that might be less mobile and possibly left out of our habitual movement. This has different implications depending on what movements we’re doing and what’s going on in your individual movement patterns. (Need a functional assessment? CLICK HERE.)

One way we can explore this idea is through slow and segmented movement through the spine. This can be done in a variety of ways. Today, we’ll look at rolling up and down between standing (Tadasana – Mountain Pose) and a forward fold (Uttanasana – Intense Stretch Pose)

Practice: Rolling In and Out of Uttanasana

Start standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Roll down into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) one segment at a time, moving from the top of the spine to the bottom. Then roll back up to standing, stacking the spine from the bottom to the top. (Don’t do this movement or any other movement if it hurts, and check with your doctor if you’re not sure if this movement is safe for you.)

If you’re not already overthinking it, how do you move in the spine? Where does the movement start? Do parts of the spine want to move together in chunks? Are there parts of the spine that get left out? Are there parts of the movement that are difficult or feel clunky?

When we hear this cue to roll up or down, we often think we’re moving one vertebra at a time, but we’re really not. Most of us have habitual patterns of movement that will come into play. (I want to acknowledge here that it is not actually possible to move one vertebra at a time. The intention is segmented movement where the joints of the spine can move more independently, and we can distribute movement well.)

Slow Down

Do this movement again, but slow it way down, even if you think you were already moving slowly. Keep the movement pain free unless instructed otherwise by a medical professional who knows your medical history. This might mean you move less through parts of the spine that are painful.

Keep the arms and shoulders loose as you go through this movement. Soften the knees so you can keep the weight centered on the feet all the way down. Move with the breath in a way that makes sense to you.

  1. Keep the rest of the spine neutral and start by moving just at the atlanto-occipital joint (AOJ) – that’s the joint where the skull sits on the top vertebra of the neck. This takes the chin in towards the throat. Take a few easy breaths through the nose.
  2. Maintain that movement and start to roll down the neck, being aware of each segment moving from top to bottom. Pause at the bottom of the neck for a few easy breaths.
  3. Maintain the movement through the neck, and begin to roll down the upper back slowly, getting movement out of each segment before moving on to the next. Notice if it’s difficult to keep soft through the arms and shoulders. Notice if you have a tendency to grip or brace anywhere. Keep the knees soft and weight centered on the feet.
  4. Continue to roll down through the low back one segment at a time. This is the part of the spine that is most mobile in this direction. Maintain all the movement you’ve already gotten out of other parts of the spine.
  5. When you get to the bottom, you can let the hips move too if you like, so that the tailbone lifts and you’re folded all the way forward. Don’t worry about being able to touch the ground. You can keep the knees soft and let the arms hang or hold opposite elbows if you like. Make sure you’re still centered on the feet. Take a few easy breaths at the bottom, letting the breath create movement within the pose.

To come back up, reverse the movements, starting by moving at the hips to bring the tailbone under you in a neutral position, and then stacking the spine one segment at a time. Remember to keep the weight centered and the arms and shoulders soft throughout. Maintain the easy flow of the breath and use as many breaths as you need to create slow, conscious movement through the entire spine. The joint at the base of the skull comes up last. Take a few easy breaths and notice how you feel.

Once you’ve tried this out, you can add this work into other poses where you’re doing spinal movement. Let me know how it goes!

The information, instruction, and advice contained in this post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.

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