Back issues are one of the most common physical complaints people have, and practicing yoga without good spinal alignment can exacerbate back problems. On the other hand, yoga done with good spinal alignment can work wonders for spinal health, both in the short and the long term.

One of the main causes of acute spinal trouble is over-compression of one edge of one of the discs between the vertebrae, especially of the lumbar spine, which can lead to tears in the outer layer of the disc (the annulus fibrosus), or even to ruptures of the annulus. Minor ruptures or bulges can heal within weeks, but major ruptures (also known as hernias or prolapses) can cause chronic problems. (This condition is also sometimes called a “slipped disc,” but this is a misnomer as the disc cannot slip; instead they rupture.) We will focus on spinal alignment this week to train ourselves to be mindful of keeping our spines long (and during bending postures, to distribute the bending forces along the entire spine) to avoid compressing any intervertebral discs to the point at which they are damaged.

However, lengthening the spine has another benefit for spinal health aside from reducing the threat of disc tears and ruptures. Over a lifetime, the main cause of spinal problems is degeneration of the intervertebral discs, not disc rupture. This degeneration is easily measurable: As we grow older, we grow measurable shorter in height as a result of the degeneration of the discs which causes them to flatten and lose elasticity.

How do you keep your discs healthy long term? Intervertebral discs contain living cells which maintain and repair the intricate structure of the discs. However, these living cells require an ongoing supply of nutrients and oxygen for survival and to do their work, as well as the removal of metabolic waste products. Since the discs lose their blood supply around the age of 25, and simple diffusion of materials in and out of the discs via the adjacent vertebrae is insufficient, alternately compressing and extending the spine creates a pumping action that helps move waste products out of, and nutrients into, the discs.

Thus for longterm spinal health spinal compression is just as important as lengthening the spine. How do you safely compress your intervertebral discs? (After all, I just warned you about the dangers of spinal compression in the first paragraph.) Nothing beats spinal twists for safe compression of the discs, as in a twist the discs are evenly compressed front, back, and sides, which avoids the potential for disc ruptures caused when only one side of a disc is compressed, as in forward- and backbends. One additional word of caution: While twists are very good for spinal health, combining them with forward bends is actually a very common way to damage a disc, so we will emphasize keeping your spine in its neutral S-curve when twisting, rather than collapsing into a forward bend, which is a common phenomenon.

Try it now: Come to a comfortable seat on the floor (or a chair), and lengthen your spine by letting the crown of the head float up. I never say “straighten your spine” when I want a neutral spine, because a straight spine is NOT the same thing as the natural double S-curve of the spine. However, the one time that we do actually want to straighten the spine is in spinal twists, because when we lengthen the spine we end up straightening it by necessity, and thus create two positive effects at once:

1. The lengthening of the spine reduces the internal pressure of the discs, and this pressure reduction, in conjunction with the pressure increase during the twisting action, creates the pumping action that increases the nutrient exchange in the discs.

2. The straightening of the spine that accompanies the lengthening of the torso realigns all the intervertebral joints more closely to the plane in which the twist is happening (the transverse plane) and the more the discs are aligned with the plane of twisting, the more evenly the pressure created by the twist will be distributed throughout the discs, keeping them safe.

Inhale and let your left arm float up while engaging your deep core muscles (transversus abdominis) to pressurize your abdominal cavity and thus lengthen the spine and flatten its natural S-curve. The feeling is that of the crown of your head floating up. As you exhale, lower your left hand to the opposite knee as you bring the right hand behind you, initiating the twist from the base of the spine. With each subsequent inhale, re-lengthen the spine, making sure to avoid any forward bending to evenly distribute the compression to all parts of each disc. With each subsequent exhale, deepen the twist, gently and evenly increasing compression, spiraling up from your left hip to your right shoulder blade. As you alternately compress and decompress the spine, visualize waste products being expelled from the discs during exhalation, and nutrients dispersing into the discs during inhalation. After 5-10 breaths, return to center on an inhale, and repeat on the other side.