by Rena Urso
What do you know about your spine?
Where is it?
What is it like?
What is its function?
To better access your kinesthetic sense, close your eyes, and see if you can imagine where your spine lives inside your body. You might even do a quick Google search and explore images of the spine, noticing what resonates with you and what is new as you learn more about this important structure. Developing greater spinal flexibility is essential for freer breathing and fluidity in your overall movement. The first step is refining your whole-body awareness and balance so you can map this structure properly.
Your spine occupies a lot of space in your body, running from your ears to your tailbone. It’s your core and plays a major role in your overall support and balance – think of it as the trunk of your human tree. In perusing images online, it may have been surprising for you to learn that your spine is curved, not straight. It’s also segmented with vertebrae and fluid-filled discs, the smallest of which are at the top of your spine, gradually getting larger moving down toward the base of the spine. The cervical spine, located at the top, is made up of 7 vertebrae and discs followed by 12 thoracic vertebrae and discs, 5 lumbar vertebrae and discs, and finally a sacrum and coccyx, or tailbone.
Your spine plays a significant role in the coordination of your breathing, with its natural gathering on inhalation and lengthening on exhalation. As I’ve mentioned in my previous articles including January’s issue on breathing, this is a subtle movement and one we don’t want to manufacture in any way. We simply need to understand and allow for it. Whole body balance makes this possible; if we’re out of balance, dragging our head forward and down, or holding unnecessary tension trying to sit up/stand up straight, it will create a pattern of unwelcomed compensatory tension and will limit the natural movement of our ribs and spine.
Come to standing and find the magical place where your head balances on top of your spine, with long and free neck muscles, and organize yourself around the front of your spine, with awareness of the S curves of your spine. Allow your lumbar spine to bear weight from above and deliver weight below; it’s the biggest part of your spine for a reason! Doing so will help you to enjoy more ease in your breathing, as your ribs and spine are free to make their full, natural excursion. Remember, you’ll want to avoid delivering weight along the back of your spine; that’s not the part of your spine designed to bear and deliver weight, that’s where your spinal cord is housed.
Just like the need to take your joints through their full range of motion on a daily basis, developing greater spinal flexibility is vital for everything I just mentioned and more! Many people suffer from back pain and stiffness, and classical musicians are high on this list. Long hours seated in rehearsals and concerts, or driving from gig to gig, can really takes its toll.
Here are some tips to explore movement and gain greater flexibility in your spine…
Get on your hands and knees, with hands under your shoulders, and find your table top position with a neutral pelvis. Do some gentle cat and cow poses, tucking your tailbone and chin and rounding your back, then flexing your spine in the opposite direction by lifting your tailbone and gazing upward, continuing to inhale and exhale with each movement, breathing through each pose with ease. You can also take this a step further and shift your hips from side to side as if wagging your tail.
Another variation of this can be done while lying on the floor in constructive rest. Think of having a face of a clock on your belly and your belly button is the number 12. Continuing to maintain the flow of your breath, tipping your pelvis toward 12 and 6 alternately, then find a place of neutral in the middle of your clock face. Notice what part of your backside is touching the earth and what isn’t. Close your eyes, and in your mind trace your spine all the way to the top, noticing what makes contact with the earth and where there is space. You’ll likely notice space at the two front S curves of your spine; cervical and lumbar. When coming to stand or sit in a chair, are you able to think about balancing these two S curves? Maybe you’ll find that you’re arching your lower back and tipping your pelvis forward when seated and playing. Try to take a full breath in this position. Return to neutral, balancing over your sit bones and organized around the front of your spine, and now take a full breath. Try this with your instrument. What do you notice?
Seated twists are incredibly beneficial; they improve spinal flexibility and promote good organ health and digestion. Sit crossed legged on your yoga mat or studio floor. Inhale deeply through your nose as you reach your arms up over your head, gazing up to your hands for a nice stretch. Exhale and twist to the right, bringing your arms out to a T, and letting your gaze follow around to your back arm/hand. Inhale, arms up, gaze up, and do the same thing on your left side. Do this 3 – 5 times, then switch your crossed legs to the opposite, less natural direction; if you were right over left, switch to left over right. Repeat the exercise. Something I’m noticing in my yoga practice is that I have greater spinal flexibility toward the left than I do to the right. Not too surprising, right? The other thing I’ve noticed over the past several months is how much more flexible my spine has become with daily yoga practice. Imagine the profound difference improved spinal mobility will have on your playing.
You’ve undoubtedly tried folding over and touching your toes, seated or standing, so let’s take your spine in the opposite direction. Experiment with whichever version of a back bend, bridge, or cobra pose that feels best in your body. My favorite is bridge pose; while in constructive rest, bring your feet a little further than hip distance apart and your heels close enough to your body so that you can reach them with your hands. Lift your torso, tuck your shoulder blades underneath your body one at a time, and interlace your hands underneath you, stretching them down toward your feet as you inhale and lift up into your bridge pose. Take 3 – 5 deep inhalations and exhalations through your nose, then slowly unravel and untuck your hands/arms, and lower down to the earth.
There are so many fabulous bends and twists that you can integrate into your daily stretching and yoga routines. Be creative and make time for movement every day. It’s the perfect way to warm-up your whole body before you even play your first notes.
Have fun exploring and happy practicing!
Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts. She is the course coordinator for The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts, a biennial summer flute course taking place again this July 2020 at CSU Fresno. As a licensed Body Mapping educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops all over the world. An active California based freelance musician, Rena is also a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. She enjoys balancing her time between her homes in the Chicago area and California’s Central Valley with her husband John and their beagle Lillie. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.