Straight or Curved – A Spiny Question

Is your spine straight, or is it curved?   What would you say?

The normal human spine is made up of 26 segments(*) ie. 24 vertebrae, plus 1 sacrum and 1 coccyx, which are the little ones at the bottom.  These segments form curves.  Yes, curves plural.  Four of them, something like this(**)

If you’re wondering what a single vertebra looks like, imagine you buy a salami – one of those big ones that curls right round on itself – and chop it into slices.  That, very roughly, is your vertebra.  It’s a slice of a tube, but not a nice straight tube.  It’s built to fit into a curve.

Now in reality, a vertebra is vastly more complex in shape than our slice of salami.  It has dips and depressions, bumps and poky-out bits.  In fact, it’s the most beautiful, incredible design, and no two vertebrae are exactly the same.  That’s why, when you stack them up, they don’t stack in a neat vertical line.  They “stack” in four curves – a shape that makes the spine much stronger.

“Yeah, yeah.  26 segments.  4 curves.  So what’s the big deal?” I hear you ask.

This is the big deal.  Each of these segments moves, just a little bit.  What do you suppose happens when someone is told to sit up straight?

Scary, isn’t it.

They do sit up straight.  Absolutely straight.  Straight like a wall, or a chair leg or a ruler.   And there’s only one way you can achieve that: by brute force.  To get a straight spine you have to pull each and every vertebra out of its natural alignment using sheer muscle power.

That’s a lot of work.  A lot of unnecessary strain.  And a recipe for backache.  Forget “straight”.  Get reacquainted with your lovely spinal curves.

(*) I’m taking the fused bones of sacrum and coccyx as 1 segment each, and part of the functional spine.   Some people count them separately.  Either way is fine.
(**) The guy with the big nose is not necessarily drawn to scale

CNHC and ITM registered Alexander Technique teacher.

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10 comments on “Straight or Curved – A Spiny Question
  1. Geetha.d says:

    this is the great post, and thinkable.
    Normally every body says total 4 curves.

    Shall we think that 5 th tailbone as a curve .

    What wrong with that?

    That is a human tail, is not it?
    Another doubt comes now,
    suppose, the COW,DOG tail can be told is a part of the spine?

    The australian kanagaroo balances supporting the tail while sitting, means that animal is sitting on the spine?

    What about lengthening the 5 curves to take the spine back and up with head forward and up?

    Shall you kindly answer these questions.

    • Hi Geetha,

      Great to hear from you again, with such fantastic questions. I’ll take them in order
      1. The 5th curve – I’m not sure about this., I’ve always understood that the sacrum & coccyx (or tailbone) make the 4th curve, the other three being lumbar spine, thoracic spine and cervical spine. If you’re interested in the references I’ve used:
      ’The Physiology of the Joints’ vol.3 I.A. Kapandji, Elsevier 2002, pp14-15
      ‘Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy’, Agur & Lee, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins p.238
      However, I’m aware that different people have different methods of classification. I’d love to know, where do you count the extra one?
      2. As to whether we can include the ‘tail’ as part of the spine, technically I should have called it the ‘vertebral column’, as do Kapandji and Grant. However, I think vertebral column is a bit off-putting for beginners. I went for simplicity rather than accuracy in my descriptions, so the fault is mine.
      3. I’m not sure we can compare the human ‘tail’ to a dog, cat or kangaroo, because in the animals the tail bones are not fused, and they can move independently. So from the basis of function, if not any other basis, they will be different. However, I’m certainly no expert on animal anatomy. Do we have any vets reading, who can help us out on this?
      4. As for lengthening the curves (5 or 4!), this is such a fascinating question. Is it possible to lengthen the spine while still keeping the natural curves? My approach is that if someone comes to an Alexander lesson with exaggerated curves in the spine, then the lengthening that comes with stopping unnecessary muscle tension is a GOOD THING. But what about the person who comes in with a spine that is already far too straight? What would happen if I told them they should lengthen? This is why I don’t teach lengthening in my lessons. I teach stopping the unnecessary muscle activity. That way the student returns to their natural, best-designed state without ever having to worry about which direction they “should” be going. In the same way, I don’t teach back and up or forward and up – I teach the student to stop the wrong thing from happening. I hope this helps you with your experimenting.

  2. Geetha.d says:

    Thanks karen,
    for your kind information.

  3. Geetha.d says:

    Hi karen,
    i agreed with your words.
    FM always used to say ‘more or less tension is not beneficial’ .

    We can notice every where these words in his books.
    I think the more or less tension of parts as a whole misdirecting the body?

    In a sitting position we can direct the tension at sitting bones but not more or less on legs,neck etc…?

    While standing we can use the feet tension,pelvis knees tension.

    I think MUSCLE TENSION is a major part to get the direction of the whole body while directing.

    I think the required amount of tension is necessary for to prevent the locking of the joints which makes disturbance of the direction of the body.

    Thanks for your belief, that MUSCLE TENSION makes difference while doing different activities.

    How you explain this muscle tension?

    • Hi Geetha,
      Alexander does talk about the need for a certain level of constant tension, particularly in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, when he says “For relaxation really means a due tension of the parts of the muscular system intended by nature to be constantly more or less tensed, together with a relaxation of those parts intended by nature to be more or less relaxed” (p.25 IRDEAT edition). I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Don Weed’s book ‘What You Think Is What You Get’? He talks about something he calls the “Motion Needs Equation”. If you’ve not seen it before, I think you’ll find it interesting. What he says is:-
      1. For every movement, some muscles will have to be fired (contracted) to power the movement; some muscles will have to be fired to create the stability required to perform the movement; and some muscles will have to be fired to provide mid-course corrections for fine-tuning the movement.
      2. For each of these actions, there is a minimum amount of effort required to meet the needs of the motion and task involved.
      3. Any effort greater than this is unnecessary and wasteful. Therefore, these three kinds of actions should be performed with the least amount of effort required.
      4. Much more importantly, all of the other muscles – the ones not involved in these three kinds of actions – serve purposes that are not required for the performance of the given motion and hence should be turned off.

      What You Think is What You Get Don Weed
      ITM Publications, 2004 p.54

      Hope you enjoy this extract!

  4. Geetha.d says:

    Hi karen, thanks for your wonderful information.

    Fm told some where,
    ‘iam not interested what iam doing with myself,
    but, iam interested in what you are doing with your self’.

    But, we are going towards our poise , what we had at our childhood .

    Fm technique helps for the satisfactory breath. I think the ribs structure(rib cage or thorax) mechanical disadvantage is the main factor for the unsatisfactory breath.

    But unfortunately we cant keep this ribs structure directly in a mechanical advantage position.
    Here, the alexander technique comes into play for making them to move naturally.

    I think This ribcage anotamical structure body mapping is quite complex for the reasoning of back(torso) lengthening and widening.

    Fm told,
    ‘my old tendency to lift the chest increased when i keep the head forward and up’.
    And he told,
    ‘ i must put the head forward and up in such a way prevented the lifting of the chest simultaneously brought about widening of the back’ .

    Do you have any information what is lifting of the chest in his case OR generally?

  5. Jagadish.nv says:

    Hi karen,
    pls see the picture you posted.

    There are more number of tertebrae.
    Is this picture wrong?

  6. Jagadish.nv says:

    Hi karen,
    pls see the picture you posted.

    There are more number of vertebrae while counting.
    Is this picture wrong?

  7. Jagadish.nv says:

    Hi karen,
    iam happy now writing this.
    Straight or curved!
    What a wonderful question?

    Walter once told getting out of chair, is a movement and
    how we STEER and drive the movement makes the poise.

    What is right , what is wrong.

    Conscious of what is right and what is wrong, and steering towards right and wishing and hoping right , while giving importance to wrong is great!!

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