Spine Health: The gauge of overall wellness, & why its important

~Doing a 'lil "triangle pose" with the "Bikram Yoga" crew before kayaking on the "Deschutes River"

"The spine should be as supple as a baby, as flexible as a willow tree..." ~Eastern Proverb

When you walk down the street, how many elderly people do you see hunched over as they move? Their shoulders rounded, their posture appearing uncomfortable? In our culture we seek chiropractors to help our spines "get aligned" or "adjusted." While this is a viable option, certainly, we must ask ourselves what our personal responsibility is to maintaining proper spine health. How can we best achieve this? Lets explore, first, the importance of the "staff of life," as the ancients referred to the spine. How does it affect our every movement, our sense of well being, and our emotional status?

We first can all attest to the fact that when we're experiencing pain our emotional well being is affected. It affects our state of mind, and how we feel throughout our day. When we look at the majority of musculo-skeletal complaints, we can typically trace them back to a spine that is in a state of dis-ease (& possibly has been for awhile). The way we walk, run & move about our day is all contingent upon an operable spine. One that is doing what its supposed to do, which is maintaining an upright, balanced posture, allowing the body to adapt to variances in surface change or environment (i.e. hills, pavement, gravel, sand, uneven surfaces, etc.).

In every culture around the world, spine health is emphasized in the health care system. I've had the opportunity to travel the globe, studying indigenous or traditional methods of medicine since 1994. My undergraduate degree was in Medical Anthropology. From yoga in India and Tibet, to Pilates in Germany, from capoeira in Brazil to Tai Chi in China, for centuries systems have been put into place to maintain the proper health of "the tree of life."

The spine, referenced as a tree, gives us the sense that if we nourish it with the same foundational principles, that it can bear fruit for many years to come. The question is how to go about doing this? While all of the above systems of spine health, from yoga to Tai Chi work, it will be the most effective if you find one that you know you'll be compliant with. It does little good, I tell my patients, to have a bottle of herbs on your shelf, if you do not take them. To find a system or methodology to maintain, with consistency, the well-being of your spine is the most vital.

There is a re-surgence in the running community of making note of postural alignment while running to prevent pain, and to give "the upper edge" in running performance. Concepts such as the "POSE Method," "Chi Running," "Barefoot Running" are all answering a call within us to evaluate the motion of injury-free running, and how we can affect this ourselves simply by the way we move. By "body sense-ing," as Danny Dreyer calls it, we can become in tune with the rhythm of the breath, how our feet touch the ground, and how it really all comes back to the postural alignment of the spine. Danny combines his knowledge of working with the ancient art of Tai Chi with his love of ultra-running in his book, "Chi Running." A fascinating read, weaving the principles of the east with the knowledge of the west.

Danny invites us to look at the notion of viewing nature: this includes watching the suppleness of the spine health of children at play, to the magnificence of a cheetah running. What do these things tell you about the flexibility of their spines, and how that affects the movement of the appendages?

A large majority of yoga asanas (poses) are named after animals: "the locust," "cobra," "downward dog," "cow pose," "the cat," etc. Various systems of Tai Chi & Qi Gong are named after animals. An example: "Soaring Crane Qi Gong." What is the meaning of this? Ancient rishis (sages) throughout time have observed that animals move fluidly, not with rigidity. Even when an animal is about to pounce on its prey, and is rigid in body, the sages say, "they're 1000 times more supple than a human being relaxed." The above poses or styles of movement from the east are to assist us in re-gaining the suppleness of our youth. Another example of reference to the state of suppleness that is exhibited by children in the system of yoga is the "child's pose." Again, the way children move is light as a feather. When they run, they run with lightness in their being, not a sense of gravity pulling on them.

The maintaining of proper spine health and alignment is not a one time thing. It is like tending to a garden. There is no end to it, and the joy is in the journey. When this is performed regularly, people need practitioners like myself less. Backs don't just "go out," injuries recover quickly, muscles are well-developed, and posture is maintained. I invite you to find a system of spine health, and treat it as the cog in the wheel to your exercise regime. The spokes coming out of the cog are additional activities which bring you joy: biking, hiking, climbing, surfing, dancing, running, skipping, jumping...

It is never a bad thing to have periodic "tune-ups" from a chiropractor that you trust. Particularly when one is very active. My chiropractor in Bend, Dr. Jason Kremer, said to me upon my last check-up: "Your spine is in such good health, I don't even know what to say, except for keep doing that yoga. There is no need to adjust anything." I was in and out of his office within 5 mins.

Eastern wisdom suggests, "When there's yin, you do yang. When yang is predominant you do yin." How does this seemingly esoteric advice apply to the concept of spine health? We walk upright and bend forward all day. To maintain perfect yin/yang balance, we must cultivate movements opposite in nature: a variety of backward bends, inversions such as hand/headstands, defying gravity like a bird.

The latest statistics prove that cardiovascular health is best maintained for longevity when inversions are done on a regular basis, thereby providing "additional assistance" to the heart to move blood more readily towards the brain. In addition to cardiovascular health, studies also prove that "brain power," cognitive thinking skills & memory is improved by the above mentioned movements. This has been said in the east for thousands of years. Assist the body in pumping blood and lymph more efficiently through proper spine health, and you will be rewarded with a long, happy, and healthy life.

~Rehearsing prior to a bellydancing performance, Oct. '09

"The spine is the key to all. Maintain it well, and chiropractors will come to you." ~Bikram Choudry