Most of us don’t pay much attention to it. It’s at the back of the body, of course, so it’s easy to miss. Oh sure, I hear about low back pain and car seats with lumbar support. I hear about neck issues and headaches. But mid-back? The central span of spine often goes unnoticed.
Do a little posture and movement observation, however, in yourself and in the people around you and you will see that most of us have both a rounded and immobile mid-back. It’s a scourge of slouching.
Given both our anatomy and our culture, it’s not surprising. The thoracic spine has a natural outward curve to balance the natural inward curve of the lumbar (low back) and cervical (neck) spine. What’s more, the ribs attach along the 12 vertebra of the thoracic spine. The bony cage, including the flat length of sternum bone, tends toward immobility by its very design. Add that to our cultural norm of forward-orientation over screens and steering wheels, grocery carts and baby carriages, and the result is that in many of us the whole mid-section of spine has an exaggerated rounding. [For a great article on this, check out this piece in Yoga Journal.]
Even as a movement instructor, I forget that the slump of my shoulders comes less there and more from my mid-back. But as a yogi, I know the intensity and power that come from strengthening the over-stretched, weakened muscles in the thoracic spine and lengthening the shortened, tight muscles in the front body. After a few backbends, I’m usually flat on my mat with my heart gasping, “Whoa.”
Even though (and perhaps because) it is challenging for most of us to strengthen the mid-back and stretch the front body, it’s well worth the effort: for body, for breath, and for heart.
The brilliant design of the human body is based on interconnection and balance. When habit and misuse create disconnection and imbalance, the body does its best to compensate. So when I spend too many hours with my head hovering over my keyboard, the small muscles in my neck will do their best to hold up my heavy noggin. When I spend too many parties standing around in high heels, my low back will do what it can to keep me upright. But there is a cost to compensation. There is a price for not using the body as it was designed.
If you have low back pain or headaches, it might seem counter-intuitive to look to your thoracic spine. But strengthening your mid-back and opening your front body brings back the natural balance of the spine. And the more balance and alignment, the less strain and the less pain.
Since the thoracic spine is directly connected to the rib cage, its strength and mobility is also directly connected to your breath. If the mid-back is solid and immobile or if the front ribs are collapsed forward, the breath has nowhere to move.
It’s a reciprocal relationship: the more I strengthen and mobilize my thoracic spine, the deeper I can breathe. And the more I breathe deeply (especially into the back and side ribs), the stronger and more supple my back will be.
If my mid-back is stuck and slumped, so is my heart. A slouched posture can seem protected and safe but that’s an illusion. Just as a slouch is a weak physical posture, it’s also a weak emotional one.
A strong back cracks open the heart.
By focusing attention on physical movement in the thoracic spine, the energy of kindness, compassion, and love get moving, too. Back bending can feel vulnerable, exposed, even scary but these movements also unleash energy and freedom. Feel the connection between a physically strong back and relaxed chest and the emotional ability to walk through the world with love.
In Tuesday’s Art in Action post, I’ll share some ways to strengthen the thoracic spine for the benefit of body, breath and heart. In the meantime, simply paying attention to your mid-back goes a long way toward more ease and energy in all realms.