HOW TO FIND NEUTRAL SPINE:
Learning how to stand correctly is the first stage of finding Neutral Spine to do Pilates safely and effectively.When a beginner starts in my class I am constantly assessing them throughout the class to make sure they are safe. I start off by making sure that they are standing correctly. Most people think that their hips are wider than they are and when I say stand 'hip distance apart'- they place their feet miles apart! To find out where your hips are in relation to your feet is to place your hands on your hips (just below the curve of the hip bone) and line up the feet with your hands, look down, if necessary.
THE PILATES SET UP:
I ask the class to rock backwards and forwards on their feet to find the three points - toes, soles of the feet and the heels. Once the feet are in the right position the person already feels more stable and balanced and they start to look and feel more confident.
The ankles are next and should be facing the toes and not rolling inwards or outwards, next the knees which should be inline with the ankles and toes, not flexed but straight.
Next is the hips and pelvis and this is where Neutral Spine should be identified and practiced. I usually ask beginners to rock their pelvis backwards and forwards until they can feel their hips just underneath their spine - neither too forward nor too backward. Often this can feel awkward, sometimes uncomfortable as new habits are being formed. It can take real effort to stop the hips drifting back to the old patterns.
As can be seen from the picture below there are many different positions of the pelvis and hips which can lead to misalignment of the spine, pain and injury.
It can take many years for this to happen and can take months doing Pilates exercises for the small muscles to start working their magic to re-balance the pelvis and hips.
With time, practice and effort, the natural curve of the spine can and will return.
Next is the ribs which should be over the hips with the core (Pilates Powerhouse) engaged to maintain the hips in position, then the shoulders and shoulder girdle should be in line with the ribs, hips, knees and ankles. Finally, the chin should be slightly forward with the eyes looking straight ahead.
The spine starts at the top of the head and moves down through the body creating a natural 'S' shape towards the Sacrum - near the hips. It is a wonder of natural engineering - perfectly designed to support the body. The first curve starts at the neck - curving towards the front of the body and is called the Cervical spine which supports the shoulder girdle. Next is the Thoracic spine and this curves outwards towards the back of the body and protects the chest and respiratory organs. This is followed by the Lumbar spine - the largest and thickest part of the spine - and this curves inwards and protects the internal organs. The Lumbar spine does a lot of work twisting sideways and flexing backwards and forwards. Finally, is the Sacrum that supports the hips and pelvis and this curves inwards, tucking under the hips.
The danger area for most back suffers can be the lower back and hips (sacrum).
NEUTRAL SPINE WHEN LYING ON A MAT
Once the position of the spine and hips are learnt standing up, next is to find neutral spine during Pilates exercises. This is very important to prevent injuries to the spine.
FINDING THE CORRECT NEUTRAL SPINE POSITION:
I ask the class to start sitting at the end of their mats and roll down one vertebrae (the bones in the spine) at time until they are lying flat on their backs. The legs are brought up towards the bottom, hip distance apart.
As in the standing position, the class to rock their hips backwards and forwards with their fingers on their hips, they should feel their back pressing into the mat and coming back away, with a small gap. Next, the class thread their hands under the small of their backs to feel a gap and press their backs against their hands. As the first picture shows, the pelvis is tipping backwards towards the spine. The small muscles in the stomach (Transverse Abdominus) are now working hard to stabilise the hips to keep them upright.
Next, the class take their hands away and still keeping the small gap (the Lordotic Curve), lift up their back, arch their spine, switch off the lower stomach muscles to the abdominals and raise their ribs, as shown in picture 2.
Finally the class then drop their hips and pelvis slightly to find a place where the back is not on the floor but not arching too much to dome the stomach as shown in picture 3. This is Neutral Spine obeying the natural curvature of the lower thoracic and lumbar spine.
PROBLEMS WITH FINDING NEUTRAL SPINE DURING PILATES EXERCISES:
At first, beginners find doing the Pilates breathing correctly with Pilates exercises as well as keeping neutral spine going all of the time difficult and frustrating. As the lower stomach muscles become stronger it become automatic to maintain the hips and spine in the correct position.
Sometimes beginners arch their backs too much causing rib cage rises up - creating a 'chicken carcass appearance' to the ribs so remember to push the rib cage into the back but still keep the gap between the lower ribs and the hips.
Sometimes beginners bring up their shoulders towards the ears, cave in their chests in and bring their neck to their chest which causes the lower back to push into the mat. This is solved by keeping the chest open, shoulders down and keeping the chin up.
Both cause lower back pain because the spine is being arched too far forward with the ribs extended or too far backwards towards the mat.