Extension has been on my mind quite a bit this summer. Once I started feeling the physical effects of lifestyle changes, anxieties, unemployment fears, etc. my patterns of rounding my shoulders and gripping various areas of my body (i.e. chest closing) showed up pretty quickly. It is not natural yet to me to keep my spine long,h ead and neck free through all the different activities of my day and life. It is clearest when practicing and teaching dedicated movement time or when I am in the studio. It is hardest for me to make these movement choices when I am at home doing life activities such as parenting in challenging moments or cleaning. For some reason, I expect that I can relax in my misuse. Ha! The folly of misperceptions happening right there. I have learned it is better to rest briefly and redirect movement into the healthy patterns we know from these gorgeous practices.
Let’s define “extension.” Extension is the action of moving through our body in two directions. The first direction is to move through the core and into the hips with symmetrical distribution and into the legs, ankles, feet. It feels like rooting into the ground for some. This creates a stable base for the spine to lengthen upward from. I like to use the languaging of a healthy, long spine, with its natural curves and arches being able to lift energetically and effortlessly through the body. Extension exercises feel like back exercises.
After I took a Kathy Ross Nash spine corrector review workshop this summer and humbly realized I had less of this motion in my body available; I began to look differently at our client’s spines as well. Teachers, why do we always try to work on shoulders without addressing the areas the shoulders connect onto? Translation, if your chest is closed and shoulders round then take a look at the curvature of the spine under that first. Well, after 6 solid weeks of working little bits on the barrels just yesterday I graduated from the baby one and moved up to the middle one. Progress! What I have relearned from the barrel work is that sometimes we need more challenges. If we can make a healthy long spine pretty well, then we need to go about building more range of motion to improve our reserve. Remember the start of this post? We are challenged in our life activities to make healthy movement choices. It’s just part of living. If I can build a reserve (think of it as a healthy bank account – each workout being a deposit), then I can better respond when I need to make withdrawals from the account.
Extension is something our body needs. If your chest is closed and you cannot access the extension movement in your upper back, then adding it in with more consistency will offer balance to the rest of you. For me, after these exercises, I experience that I can be upright again.
Thoracic extension is a key in being effortlessly upright. To understand how to do this for yourself in the practices, we need to understand some facts about the overall design of spine and learn what part we are talking about in this post. The whole spine is composed of cervical , thoracic, lumbar and sacral areas. Each of these sections plays a synergistic role to one another. For example, a collapsing pattern in the lumbar shows up as lack of thoracic movement squished and a neck pattern as well. Check out these common patterns.
There are many different reasons why a pattern begins or exists. Please refer to our Interference article to explore more.
Today we are focusing our conversation around the thoracic area. Take a good look at the photo and find these landmarks for yourself- clavicle or collarbones, lower ribs (the ones at your back) and then the ribs in the front body that go all the way around to the back. Next, take a look at a photo of yourself in a profile foot to head to see the direction of your spine. Compare and contrast the photos. Don’t criticize yourself but look objectively. Here is a closer peek at the area I find cries out for attention. The blue part especially.
This area of the spine provides a contrasting arch to the above and below areas to make for a complete structure that is buoyant and shock absorbent.You are designed to be effortlessly upright and balanced for walking, sitting, running , playing and working your unique ways of choice.
The thoracic spine includes areas of our body that are vital. Our heart, lungs, and top diaphragm are housed within this area. Simply put, the nerves in this area are feeding into essentials we need to activate and decompress. Not to mention providing balance to our back- or control of our arms. It’s kind of crucial that this area moves well and can gain its own part of freedom in the moving body.
I have many clients that have tight chests or even sunken chests and ribs. Rounded shoulders are a problem in our culture and can be a signal to do some back strengthening in order to prevent back problems. If I have this structural pattern, I would have difficulty breathing as that space is compromised. I might not recognize it as difficulty breathing as the body thinks it is the status quo. After a good body session and these specific exercises, the depth of the breath and ability to expand the breath does change. This area of the body houses the heart too. I wonder, is being restricted in the movement here an equivalent to not being able to open your heart? This sounds directly like an emotional consequence. I am just being curious here but that is an exploration for another time.
Now we can identify what it looks like and some of the movement problems it poses. The pulled forward chest with sunken ribs and overstretched weak upper spine, or the opposite. The overly contracting midback and upper back with a lack of muscular tone and connection in the front. Check out the pattern drawings again.
What are we going to do about it in our exercise practices? We can restore the spine through movement – documented in our clients daily in our studio. We need to establish the internal support of the body; teach the body how to create length in the spine and release (width) of the back. We begin by releasing tensions around the neck and teaching how to access the base of the body (feet to hips). As the body roots into the feet, legs and organizes within the hips, the midbody learns to support in order to allow the head joint to free up and the spine to move upward naturally. The shoulders and arms connecting within and around the back open the chest.
Once stability and connection to the center are established so it’s tangible to the client- not words -then we need to begin coaxing the spine to regain mobility in natural directions. This is where my favorite part comes in- those gorgeous extensions, side bending/arching/ spirals/rotations/flexing exercises. In short, a happy balanced spine capable of moving in all directions. This skill allows the T spine to regain its strength, circulation moving to that area, and increased ability to expand the breath.
Here are some examples of exercises that ask for more agility/ motion in that part of the spine. How many do you recognize or use in your workout?
- Short Spine Massage or any rolling type of back massage
- Down stretch on Reformer
- Anything with body tall and upright
- Barrels- Arm arcs, reaches almost any barrel work, back stretches
- Push through exercises on Caddy/ Tower
- All spinal motions in GYROKINESIS® class
- The arm pattern series in GYROKINESIS® class
- Chest expansion
- Pulling straps
- Side movements- Mermaids, arcs bends, Single-arm series on the chair
We could really go on and on with this. If this strikes a chord with you and chest openers or back exercises are difficult then don’t give up. We can restore the spine and put the motion in areas that have not seen it for years. Bit by bit, day by day we can change. It makes all the difference in the world to be moving in ways you need to and not simply the ways we like to. Try out our homework videos to try some of these motions.