A central piece of Pilates practice is articulation of the spine; that means moving your spine sequentially, one vertebra at a time. Why is this so important? Well, the spine is central to the whole body, quite literally. It takes the weight of the load of gravity and the curves are designed to allow for the weight to be distributed evenly throughout the whole body as we move through space. Any misalignments will impact your overall muscular function through uneven load distribution.
Not only this, but the spine houses our spinal cord, and through the holes in the vertebrae protrude nerves that allow messages to flow from our brain to the rest of our body. Good spinal health allows the body to stay in good alignment both for our muscular health and neurological health.
Here's a quick overview of the spine. There are 5 sections. Starting at the top where your skull meets the top of your spine you have the first section, the cervical spine, consisting of 7 vertebrae (cervix means neck in Latin). Next you have the thoracic spine, or the upper back section that connects to your ribs. This consists of 12 vertebrae. Then you have the lumbar spine, or what you might consider your lower back, which curves slightly in towards your pelvis and this has 5 vertebrae. Finally there are two more sections of bones which are actually fused together. These are your sacrum, which you can feel at the back of your pelvis and then your coccyx, otherwise known as your tailbone. These consist of 5 and 4 fused bones respectively.
Each part of the spine also has a different natural range of motion in each direction. The cervical spine is very flexible forwards and backwards as well as in twisting motions. The thoracic spine has more flexion forward but far less backwards and has a good range of motion in twisting actions. The lumbar spine has far less twisting range but can flex forward and backwards, yet to a lesser degree than the thoracic spine. The sacrum and coccyx have little to no range of motion in any direction.
So, why the anatomy lesson here? I think it's helpful to know why we do the movements we do so that you know how you're benefiting your body and I hope it helps you to focus on improving your flow when you are doing spine focused movements. Below is an overview of different spine movements from both a physical and metaphysical viewpoint. Also, attached to the bottom of this article is a link to a video of some ways to keep your spine (and whole body) healthy through movement.
Flexion and extension
Spinal articulation movements are movements that sequentially move the vertebrae one piece at a time. These movements lubricate the joints and discs that sit between each vertebra. When the body moves, muscles contract, requiring fresh blood and fluids to be pumped into this area, refreshing the tissues and removing stagnant energy. Fresh blood and fluids means removal of waste and toxins that accumulate through stagnancy.
From a somatic movement perspective, bringing your attention to smooth movement (or lack thereof) in the spine helps you to re-pattern your neural pathways so you can remember and feel into the back of your body where you spine is, helping you release any muscular tension stored in this area.
Twisting movements of the spine will help you improve your range of motion when doing everyday activities such as turning your head to look over your shoulder, or something like digging which requires bending and twisting motions. This sort of motion is frequently where you are likely to sustain a back injury if the muscles and joints aren't used to doing this type of action. Twisting movements also help to squeeze and massage the internal organs, again helping them to stay healthy by releasing stagnant energy.
Finally, from a metaphysical point of view, the spine is where your life force energy flows up your body. That's why we sit in an upright position when meditating, so that the energy can flow up the spine. If there are restrictions in the spine the energy won't flow as well as it could. Emotional
manifest themselves as physical blockages too so restoring health to your spine will help to unwind emotional holding as well.
Take a look at this video for some gentle spine movements you can do to stay supple and mobile.