Most people today have C-shaped spines as they slump in their chairs or sofas. Periodically, they sit up straight and adopt S-shaped spines. The S-shaped spine is commonly regarded as normal for our species. It is featured in chiropractic charts, anatomy books and is the rationale for the lumbar adjustment in our car seats and lumbar support in our chairs.
But not so long ago, at about the turn of the 20th century, we thought differently. Here is an illustration of a spine from an anatomy book published in 1911, shaped more like a J than an S (on the right).
Note the pronounced angle at L5-S1 (corresponding to the behind positioned behind), the flat contour in the upper lumbar region and the shallow curves throughout the spine above L5-S1. Interestingly, this J-spine is also found in pre-industrial cultures today. Look at the Ubong tribesmen (left), for example.
Their behinds are behind them, the upper lumbar spine is quite flat, and they have relatively little curvature throughout the spine above L5-S1. If we go back in time and look at photographs or statues of our ancestors, we find the same J-spine, as seen in this Greek statue.
We also find the J-spine in every young child on the planet.
When populations as diverse as the Ubong, the ancient Greeks and children converge on a spinal shape, it is suggestive that the shape is natural for our species. It is unlikely that so many disparate populations from different geographies and time periods would converge on a contrived shape. When you consider these populations have virtually no back pain, repetitive stress injuries, bunions and other musculoskeletal problems, it becomes compelling to give this spinal shape a try.
Current guidelines on how to improve spinal shape include tucking the pelvis, and thrusting the chin up and the chest out. If it is true that a J-spine is desirable over an S-spine, then these guidelines need revision. Here is an updated set of guidelines that support a J-spine:
1. Tuck the ribs, not the pelvis
Though many people are taught to thrust out the chest, this results in low-back muscle tension and compression of the lumbar discs and spinal nerves. Tucking the ribs elongates the low back and relieves compression in the lumbar discs and spinal nerves, especially desirable if you are suffering sciatic pain, stenosis or nonspecific back pain. If you thrust out your chest to compensate for slumped shoulders, then tucking the ribs will show up your slump. Go for it anyway and then address the slump directly, by doing shoulder rolls rather than compensating for it with a sway in the low back.
This move is tricky, especially for those who need it most. To make it easier:
a. Place your fingertips on the lower border of your rib cage and gently push the ribs back.
b. Imagine your ribcage as a large oval and rotate the oval forward.
c. Imagine you are doing a mini-crunch.
2. Behind behind
Tucking the pelvis compromises the wedge-shaped L5-S1 disc, jams the hip joints and predisposes the head and shoulders to slump forward. To reposition your pelvis, place your imaginary tail behind you rather than under you or between your legs. Your pelvis is the foundation for your spine. If you tuck your pelvis, you have two choices, both of which are problematic: You can relax and slump or you can be upright but tense. It takes a well-positioned, tipped forward (anteverted) pelvis to allow the rest of your spine to be upright and relaxed.
Be sure you don't tense your low-back muscles to thrust your behind behind you. A healthy way to get your pelvis to settle in a healthy position involves
a. Learning to relax any unnecessary tension you may have in the groin area. A good way to relax the groin is to stand bending forward with your hands on your knees, lock your elbows and let your lower belly relax toward the floor.
b. Toning your gluteus muscles by using them in your gait. Toned glutes help draw your sacrum behind you.
3. Chin down, not up
Many people attempt to lengthen their necks by tilting up their chins. This actually shortens the neck. Instead, grasp a clump of hair at the base of your skull and gently, but firmly, draw your head back and up. Immediately, your cervical discs and nerves have more room, your neck muscles stretch and you feel more comfortable.
For more information on how to restore your natural J-spine, visit www.egwellness.com. Offerings include free downloads, teleseminars and classes, as well as Esther Gokhale's Nautilus award-winning 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back and the six session Gokhale Method Foundations course offered internationally. The StretchsitTMcushion helps elongate the back while sitting, making sitting a therapeutic activity.
*Photos provided by Esther Gokhale.