The Spine

linda_looksbacktint1The night sky spins. The sun revolves. Standing on a cliff in the middle of the desert you can believe two seemingly opposite ideas. You seem the center of the universe with all this cosmic play staged for your benefit: this is really theater-in-the-round! At the same time, you see yourself as a floating bubble on the universal sea, the pivot of reality, and the effluvia of existence. How’s that for a double message?

We probably first started this particular contemplation of the universe when we stood erect. Standing up opened many doors for our species. It allowed higher vision, a different kind of locomotion and encouraged a philosophical bent unique in the universe. It also placed our spines in positions very different from most other mammals. And for that, we sometimes pay a heavy price.

At least that’s what the common talk tells us. It blames uprightness for back pain. It doesn’t always bother to include the information that in many pre-industrial societies back pain is almost unknown. African and peasant European women have carried “heavy” loads for centuries without back strain. I once met a chiropractor who’d attended a lecture by a very famous back specialist just returning from China one a trip to start a back clinic there. The upshot was that there was so little need he’d changed his plans. I knew a physical therapist and Chi Kung expert who once told me that, “No one every injures themselves lifting. It’s sitting that injures them.” By this he meant that the muscles were so weakened by continual sitting that they simply gave out when called upon to work.

There are even greater aspects to this. The whole iconography of the spine is our intermediary with Heaven. Human culture celebrates the upright position of our race and, at the same time, keeps encouraging us to contort out of that position.

How are we to know the “right” posture? And who is the best teacher in this case? Gravity. We spend our lives trying not to pay attention to our teacher but she’s there every moment nonetheless. We might as well stop an instant and see what’s up—literally.

Our goal is actually quite simple. We want to align the vertical axis (read: “spine”) along our bone structure so we don’t have to clench out muscles to hold ourselves erect. Now you should understand that habits die hard; when you are in the right position you won’t necessarily feel right. But, frankly, feeling doesn’t count for much or there wouldn’t be so many divorces in the world. We have to go by what’s right and let the feelings educate themselves.

To align ourselves in this way we will probably have to make all of the following adjustments. First we’ll have to bend our knees. Just a little. Then we need to tuck in our pelvis until it is slightly rotated to the front. Finally (and the weirdest at first) we will want to pull our jaw back a little (about a 1/4 inch) so that our cervical vertebrae are vertical.

Now you have it. Bones resting on one another. Spine straight. Heaven supported and Earth supporting. Feel taller? You are. And if you think that’s nice you’ll hear your internal organs thanking you for the effort.

im_art9originally appeared in The Connection, February 2002.

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