For the past few weeks I have been teaching flexion and extension of the thoracic spine in all of my yoga classes. Not in an obvious way, and not that everyone gets it, but in a way that the ability to move the thoracic spine plays a role in every yoga pose. The thoracic spine is key in posture, and underlying every yoga pose is posture.
We start every class with a block (or blanket) under the thoracic spine to bring openness and awareness to this area. To stretch through the chest and pecs, to reverse, or rather bring more pliability to the kyphotic curve of the thoracic spine. Throughout class I bring the students' attention back to this space in various poses.
What we all know about posture, but try not to listen to is, through the aging process, and accentuated by our western culture, working at desks, driving a car, sitting, and not moving, our thoracic spine over time rounds forward. Forward head posture. A rounding of the upper back, a flattening of the low back. Tightness in the shoulders, pecs. And, weakness in the muscles of the thoracic spine.
Now, how does this relate to yoga? In every way!
* Strength, and extension, in the thoracic region plays a role in Tadasana. Posture, baby!
* In Backbends, especially if you are going to bring the depth of the bend out of the lumbar spine (low back) where we tend to dump and it hurts. A misconception of backbends is that people who go deep are "just flexible". That is onlyhalf the answer. And many are not as "flexible" as you think, because if they are truly bending safely, they are using muscular strength - yes, strength in the upper back too - to extend the spine to the back!
* Twists! A tendency in twists is that we compensate for lack of mobility by bending, essentially curving the spine. I use the analogy of the spine being like a Maypole, straight and strong, and we want to twist like the ribbon around the pole. This is by no means an anatomically correct idea, but it is a visual that seems to make the connection. So, the area where I most often see this bend happening is in the thoracic spine. When We make this connection, lift and elongate through the thoracic spine, we strengthen the muscles of the upper back, and are able to twist more deeply and safely.
* Forward Folds... want to get into those hammies without compromising the lumbar spine? Did you know that people with tight hamstrings (especially those who cannot sit on the floor with a neutral pelvis with legs extended in front) are at greatest risk for lumbar disk hernia because of the pressure put on the spine? Yea. So, if you are that tight, first sit on a folded blanket. Then, use your core strength (yes even here!) to sit tall. As you lean forward with a straight lumbar spine (IF you lean forward) keep your chest lifted. That means, use the strength of your thoracic spine to lift up! This keeps the stretch in hamstrings, not in the spine. (And yes, if you are lengthened in the lumbar spine, and not pulling yourself deeper, then you can round forward, but notice how the stretch changes. Not so intense in hamstrings, perhaps really intense in the upper back and neck!)