Amy Ward Brimmer

mother daughter wife teacher writer dreamer sister worker seeker activist minister healer student human


Got Spine?

The spine is the central column of support and the core energetic pathway in our bodies. At Way Opens Center, I teach Alexander Technique as a way to learn how to access this central support and move according to its design. In lessons, we focus on freeing up the spine, allowing it its full length and renewing its supple, flexible nature. Thinking up, inhibiting downward pull or collapse, and rediscovering the poise of the head in movement -- these are all excellent ways to encourage the body to reorganize itself so that activities are easier and more enjoyable.

But do you really know anything about your spine? If you don't have the facts, if your inner body map is badly drawn, you will have a much more difficult time moving in harmony with its design. Over the years, I have heard students say things like:
  • I am trying to straighten my spine
  • My spine is my backbone, right?
  • The spine runs from my lower back to my shoulders
  • I inherited a crooked/collapsed/overly curved/arthritic/weak spine, there is nothing I can do about it, it's genetics
  • My spine is like a flag pole and everything hangs off of it
Nonsense. Simply not true. Unfortunately, if you go through life thinking these and other untrue ideas about your spine, that is how you will try to move. To give just one example, if you believe that what we call the "backbone" is the extent of your spine, you will try to get that "backbone" to do all the work of weight support and movement, way back in the farthest reaches of your torso. Your back muscles will find this exhausting and soon give up, leading to downward pull and collapse.

It is essential, therefore, to get to know the anatomy of your spine. Luckily for all of us, my colleague Sarah Chatwin has written a wonderful, practical article describing the details of this amazing structure that sets us apart as a species. You can click to it on her blog HERE.

I am also reproducing it below, in case you prefer to just keep reading.

In the next few posts, I will share simple bodymind experiments that will give you the opportunity to experience moving through and with your spine, so you can put this new, accurate information to good use.

Five-and-a-Half Things You Need to Know About Your Backbone
by Sarah Chatwin

We humans come equipped with some fairly amazing infrastructure. Here’s five and a half spine facts to help you love your back just a little bit more:

1. All present and correct?
There are 33 vertebrae in an average human spine. Vertebrae are the bony parts of your spine.

Your cervical spine, aka your neck, has seven vertebrae. As all good Alexander Technique students know, the very top of your spine is right up between your ears, not languishing down around your collar somewhere.

Next comes your thoracic spine. That’s the twelve vertebrae that are joined by ribs to form your ribcage.

Your spinal cord runs down from your brain stem, through the cervical and thoracic spine to just below the ribcage. It doesn’t go the whole way down.

Below that is the lumbar spine, which is made up of five large vertebrae.

Next, the sacrum, which is five vertebrae fused together to form the back of your pelvis. The vertebrae are separate when you are born, and don’t completely fuse until around age 26.

Last but not least, your coccyx or tailbone. Four fused bones, but still technically part of your spine. Tailbones are like noses in that they can be very different from each other. Yours may be twice the size of your neighbours’, or half the size, or point a different way.

Not everyone has all these vertebrae. Some people have extras. Others have some missing. Some people have vertebrae in strange shapes, or fused together where they shouldn’t be. As you might imagine, that can cause all sorts of trouble. If you have a standard issue spine, be grateful.

2. Location, location, location
Run your hand along your cervical or lumbar spine. The part you can feel isn’t the main body of the vertebrae.

Each vertebra has three arms. Two stick out to the sides, one sticks out to the back. What you can feel is that little arm that sticks out the back.
That means that the main part of the vertebrae is further inside you – more towards your centre – than you probably thought.

3. Size matters
Prepare to be surprised.

Imagine a pile of citrus fruit, as tall as your spine from the lumbar upwards. Grapefruits at the bottom, then oranges, satsumas and finally clementines. Got it?

That’s the dimensions of an average human spine as a working unit, not a skeleton: vertebrae plus nerves, muscles, ligaments and all the other equipment. Pretty chunky isn’t it?

4. Shock treatment
Two things give your spine its shock absorbing properties.

Between the vertebrae are the (in)famous discs. These are tough, fibrous pieces of cartilage that act as shock absorbers between the moving bony parts. In fact, 25% of the length of your spine is disc.
Secondly, the natural curves of the spine make it brilliant at absorbing and redistributing impacts, as well as simply supporting the weight of the body.

How we do what we do makes a huge difference to the pressure we put on our spines. For example, standing in proper alignment puts 100lbs of pressure on your lumbar spine. Stand out of alignment and lean forwards, you double the pressure on your lumbar. Which is why Alexander Technique training is so effective for people with back pain.

5. Flex and bend
Not all parts of the spine work in the same way.

The cervical and lumbar regions have the most mobility. You can nod and shake your head, and do the hula (should the fancy take you).

But the thoracic spine is far less flexible, and for a very good reason. This is the part that has ribs attached. Inside your rib cage are your lungs and heart. You wouldn’t want a system where a couple of vertebrae could move, swinging a few ribs around with them and pressing on your innards. So it’s pretty important that they work as a unit to create a protective shape that stays more or less the same.

Extra free half-fact
97% of all other creatures on earth don’t have a backbone at all.

Please love your spine. 20 minutes a day lying in semi-supine will make your spine very happy.

If you want to know how to do that, e-mail me at amy@wayopenscenter, and I will be happy to send you instructions.  Better yet, call me for an Alexander lesson, and learn how with hands-on guidance.


There is No Try

    Now that Way Opens Center is on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, I am learning how best to take advantage of these social media venues.  It's a little daunting, but the Alexander Technique shows me how to learn something new by slowing down, observing, and experimenting.
     When there is something I don't understand, if I remember to notice the tension that arises around "not knowing," I can release it before it begins to cloud my brain with panic-based messages about how stupid I am. I feel this tension in my neck and behind my eyes; other people get upset stomachs or jaw pain or sharp headaches. I observe myself striving to understand a new way of doing something, using different controls, and in the striving, I tighten. So I let go of trying at the same time I let go of the tension in my neck.
     I have had plenty of opportunity to practice this lately with my new android phone. I had my old cell phone for nearly five years, and the same SIM card since 2000 (the guy at the cell phone store could not believe it).  My muscle memory with that phone was awesome--I could access information and make calls (even play games) without having to think about what buttons to push. 
     With the new phone I am very, very slowly getting the hang of it. At first I had to pay 100% attention to even answer an incoming call or place an outgoing one. It is a challenge to edit my contacts, all of which got lost in the transfer of my ancient SIM card. (oops!, said Phone Store Guy.) I downloaded my gmail contact info, but all the phone numbers are gone and need to be restored. I still don't know half of what this phone can do; I only know what I need it to do, and even that not so much.
     I realize that some people reading this might be internally rolling their eyes and thinking that this middle-aged person is a techno doofus. They'd be right.  To be fair, however, I think everyone gets anxious when they have to learn something new, even if it is something they are excited about learning.


     Bodymind experiment:  Think of something new you had to figure out recently. Choose a physical activity, not an intellectual concept. It could be how to use a mechanical device, or it could be learning travel directions to a new location, like a friend's house or a doctor's office. How about an activity like assembling furniture from IKEA?  That can be an adventure. Maybe you've been given some new physical therapy exercises to do, or you've taken up yoga or tai chi or running. There are many everyday examples of needing to learn something complex in a short amount of time.
     Take a moment now and think back on your experience of trying to understand something new. How did that feel emotionally?  What thoughts went through your mind while you practiced this new task?  See yourself in this experience clearly, picture it in detail. 
     Begin to notice your physical response in this moment as you remember the experience of trying to learn something new. What do you observe?  Is your brow furrowed? Are you holding your breath? Grinding your teeth?  Locking your knees? Clenching your abdomen? Where do you feel the most effort in your body?
     How do you talk to yourself as you try to learn the new movement activity?  If you're like me, you probably hear comments such as, "I'm a total idiot" or "this phone (computer, traffic, bookcase) sucks!"  Feelings of frustration can be internalized ("I'm stupid") or externalized ("this phone is stupid"), and often a combination of both. My mind lies to me at times like this; I have thoughts like "I hate learning new things" (not true) or "I will never figure this out" (almost never true) or "you're so old" (not quite true, and irrelevant).
     Guess what? Tense thoughts create tense bodies. Tense bodies don't function well, making one feel clutzy and inept, leading to more physical tension, and on it goes into the viscious downward spiral. 
     When we can notice this happening, we have a choice. Whether unclenching muscle or mind, the most important thing is to stop.  Slow down.  Step back, take a look around.  Take a breath.


     So it's important to let go of striving, especially when taking in new information, or learning an old skill in a new way. Of course it's helpful to have a goal in mind (being able to answer my incoming calls is useful), but each step along the way is what really matters (first I have to recognize my new ringtone before I can even think about answering a call). Alexander called this "end-gaining" -- the pushy efforting I do to accomplish something that gets me ahead of myself and out of balance with reality.
     Instead, I can practice "non-doing". Non-doing allows me to function naturally and automatically from moment to moment. It helps me notice and let go of the tension in my neck and the pressure in my eyes, and release the need to gain any particular end.  The non-doing way of being simultaneously opens my field of vision and sharpens my mental focus, thus making it possible to understand what I need to learn about the task or object at hand (swipe down the touch screen to get the call. oh.)
     And my neck and eyes feel better too.