Spinal problems account for much morbidity. By the time we are in our thirties, many of us already suffer from some spinal problems. In the younger people, these usually result from accidents and sports injuries. However, after 40, deformities and stiffness resulting from poor posture and lack of movements/exercise are the main problems seen. Nutritional deficiencies ( calcium, vitamin D, etc. ) and degenerative changes of ageing add to the toll as we grow older. Many women ( especially those with frequent pregnancies ) have osteopenia or even osteoporosis without knowing it. The incidence of vertebral fractures start rising from age 40 in women, about 10 years before menopause. Those with injuries in their younger days can expect problems to begin earlier, and to get worse with age.
The spine is a vital part of our skeleton, not only because it is the main pillar that supports the body, but also because the spinal cord is wholly encased in it, and there are hundreds of nerves that branch out from the cord to serve the various body parts.
Most of the spinal problems result from either fracture/collapse of the vertebrae and/or rupture or herniation of the intervertebral discs that act as cushions between the individual vertebral bones that make up the spinal column. These result in spinal deformity, reduced spinal mobility, and pressure effects on the nerves that get impinged. Functions modulated by the affected nerves will be altered. If the nerves serve the limbs, these may cause paraesthesia ( altered or abnormal sensations ), numbness, pain, reduced movements, weakness, muscle wasting and eventual paralysis in the affected limb.
Much of all this can be prevented if we take care of our posture at all times, especially during the long hours spent at the desk at work, and when lifting heavy objects. Most of us are too lazy even to stand up straight. In Japan, they have special classes to teach people how to stand and walk properly to ensure the spine is stretched at all times. These simple measures will do wonders for your spinal integrity.
At home and work, many of us are locked in unhealthy postures facing the computers or TV for hours. Often the upper spine is incorrectly bent ( causing kyphosis ) because the computer ( or desk ) is poorly positioned. At the same time, the lumbar spine is often incorrectly bent inwards ( lordosis ) due to incorrect sitting posture.
Some spines are bent sideways ( scoliosis ) and some have a combination of these deformities.
Lack of stretching and flexibility exercises cause stiffness over time and it is amazing how much of this flexibility we as adults have lost compared to when we were children. The acrobats and gymnasts are proofs that the flexibility and agility can be maintained throughout life.
In Chinese Medicinal theory, the spine has added significance because important qi channels are intimately related to the spine. From these channels qi is distributed to the meridians that supply the internal organs. Any disruption will affect qi flow and health.
SIMPLE QIGONG EXERCISES FOR THE SPINE
All Qigong exercises, by enhancing qi flow, will ultimately benefit the entire skeleton, including the spine. However, there are certain exercises you can do to help stretch the spinal column, while at the same time get the qi flowing healthily.
Qigong also helps optimize vital organ and glandular functions. Hormonal imbalance can lead to osteoporosis and other diseases which affect the joints and skeleton. Qigong has helped many people with such problems.
By modifying some common Qigong exercises, added benefits for the spine can be achieved in addition to the benefits originally intended for these exercises.
LIFTING THE SKY
This is a common Qigong exercise and there are several variations. Stand in the basic Qigong stance. Bring the arms to the front ( at Dantian level ) with palms facing up. Then slowly bring the hands upwards as you inhale. When the hands are at the sternum level, slowly turn the hands around until the palms now face upwards. Exhale as you do this manoeuvre. At all times keep the arms moving slowly upwards. With palms facing skywards, inhale again as you slowly stretch the arms fully, looking skywards in the process. When the arms are fully stretched, hold your breath ( about 5 seconds ) while you attempt to “lift the sky” by pushing your palms skywards, and really stretching your arms and your spine as well. The spinal stretching is more effective if you contract your abdominal muscles.
Next, relax ( release the tension in your arms and spine ) and exhale, while keeping the palms up. Inhale again, while you re-stretch the arms fully, then hold your breath while you stretch your spine again. Repeat the cycle 10 times. After the last stretching, bring the arms down slowly sideways, as you exhale, until you return to the original Qigong stance. Those with spinal problems should repeat this exercise at least 3 times daily – morning, afternoon and evening.
In another version, you start with the arms stretched down and palms facing downwards. Then slowly bring the palms slowly upwards and forwards in an arc until you reach the final “lifting the sky” position. The sky is “lifted” only by stretching the arms while the spine remains relaxed. The “lifting” is done only once and the entire routine is repeated the desired number of times.
This exercise is a good stretching and breathing exercise for everyone to start the day. It unblocks and improves qi flow through the important special channel ( Du channel ) that forms the posterior half of the microcosmic energy orbit. Internal organ meridians are then nourished by health qi giving excellent overall health. If you tighten your pelvic floor muscles as you stretch your spine, you will prevent ( and improve ) piles and ( very important for women ) uterovaginal prolapse.
CARRYING THE MOON
This is another classic exercise common to many Qigong styles. It is said to increase vitality and longevity. It is also good for the spine which is stretched and flexed. The kidneys are also invigorated.
From the basic Qigong stance, slowly bend down forwards as you exhale, until your head, trunk and arms hang loosely. Feel your spine flexing, vertebra by vertebra, as you bend. Next, as you inhale, slowly raise your trunk with your arms extended outwards. Stop when the spine is fully stretched and arched backwards, without losing your balance. Your face should be facing the sky. Now imagine your hands are holding the moon ( basketball-size ) directly above you. Exhale as you look at the “moon”. Inhale again and pause. Then exhale while you relax and return to the basic standing position, letting your arms drop down slowly sideways. Do at least 3 times.
There are other practical exercises that can be done at home or anywhere that are good for the spine. These will be taught in the next article. In the meantime, do try the above exercises and do take care of your posture at all times. You should also build your muscles with the power Qigong exercises. The muscles are very important to reduce the strains on your spine and joints.