Should we have a J-shaped spine?
NPR aired this story back in June: “Lost Posture: Why Some Indigenous Cultures May Not Have Back Pain,”. It went viral (at least in the Facebook feeds of physical therapists, yoga teachers and the like).
The piece shares the perspective of Esther Gokhale, an acupuncturist who, after suffering severe back pain after spinal surgery, did her own “research”. Her conclusion, which she describes as based on simple observation of indigenous peoples around the world who (she claims) have near-absent rates of back pain: We should be aiming for a J-shaped spine rather than an S-Shaped spine.
Is she right?
Should we all be flattening our backs then pushing out our butts?
Esther gave a TEDx talk on the subject, which you can see here:
Yoga Anatomy Academy disagrees with much of this TEDx talk (though Esther G is so amicable!) and here’s a few of our Whys:
- There’s no dichotomy between “tucking your tailbone” and maintaining a lumbar curve – it’s not an either-or.
- Pronounced firm glutes or a bumpin’ backside are not the same as an anteriorly tilted pelvis — in fact, a toned backside is more likely a byproduct of muscular use, which is more likely to sustain the pelvis neutrally.
- You simply cannot pronounce the shape of a person’s spine by looking at pictures. Only x-rays would show the accurate angles of the spine and pelvis).
- Movement, how one moves, and whether one moves efficiently, matters significantly more than a snapshot of posture.
- Sitting is necessary at times, but not the answer. Though it is true that sitting well can be very relieving for the times that you need to sit, if you sit, seek a stacked spine, and only lean on something to reduce fatigue.
- An anteriorly tipped pelvis causes just as much back pain as a posteriorly tilted one (uhh. pregnancy anyone? beer bellies?), and with all our backbending, yogis more often have THIS problem (too much lumbar curve) because of that! In fact, an anteriorly tipped pelvis is statistically correlated with greater incidence of femoroacetabular impingement and hip labral tears. You don’t want to trade back pain for hip pain.
- More gadgets are not the answer — strengthening and re-patterning is, and there’s not a lot of room to make money off of that.
- (this is admittedly quite picky) “Anteverted” is a term used in medicine to refer to organs that have tipped forward in the sagittal plane or a femur bone rotated in the transverse plane. The correct terminology for the movement of the pelvis in the sagittal plane (front-back) is “anteriorly tilted” and “posteriorly tilted”.
Aside from being poorly evidenced scientifically, there is a layer of romanticising, over-simplifying and assumptions about indigenous humans.
What we DO like from this video is:
- The general advice to lower the front ribs, elongating the thoracolumbar junction (midback) in the back. This action won’t take away your lumbar or your thoracic curves, but it will make it easier for:
- Your core muscles to fire and protect your low back
- Your head to be centered over the rest of your spine
- Your shoulder blades to have access to their fullest range of motion possible, which will reduce glenohumeral impingement
- We also like that, even though Esther is recommending products that she sells (which — if you are making your living by selling something — it makes it difficult to change your mind about the basis for it), she admits that a simple towel can help. We have a different location for that towel, but that we’ll save for a different post a different day.
And our biggest message here at Yoga Anatomy Academy: you are perfect just as you are.
You may need to address your habitual postural patterns. That can be a process. But you don’t have to mourn the fact that you chose the wrong profession or were born in the wrong era or to wrong hemisphere or with an S-shaped Spine (which is normal BTW, all over the world!).
Your spine, with all its curves, deserves attention, curiosity, regular healthy movement and muscular stability.
We’d love to know your comments on this body controversy! What do you think about the J Shaped spine? Tell us below!