Teacher Speak: Flat Back

This column originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine in September 2015

As postural yoga teachers and students we employ a variety of words and phrases that wouldn’t make much sense in polite society. We overload their meaning and use so heavily that we create a hugely subjective muddle. Let’s reclaim an understanding of these words, use them consciously, and deepen their effect.

Anatomically Speaking

‘Flat back’ or ‘straight spine’instructions are often delivered, often vilified, and often misunderstood. As is commonly known, the spine has and will always have curves along the sacral, lumbar, thoracic, and cervical segments. The shape and balance of these curves differs slightly in each practitioner due to skeletal variation, muscular balance, and postural habits. When instructing towards a ‘flat back’ or ‘straight spine,’ teachers are generally asking you to engage a state of neutral and efficient equilibrium between the spinal curves. In practice, maintaining engaged equilibrium of the spinal curves has a role in active forward folding to strengthen and stretch the spine and efficiently release thigh and hip muscles. In seated and standing postures, ‘straight spine’ instruction may aid practitioners in visualising a supportive neutral alignment. Beyond neutral, ‘flat back’ can be taken more literally into axial extension, which modestly lengthens the spine and reduces its curves.

Spiritually Speaking

The emphasis on ‘flat back’ and ‘straight spine’ originates partially in postural instruction from early texts on meditation. It was taught that an erect and alert spine was conducive to one’s journey towards enlightenment. In the modern stew of yoga, these instructions have been co-opted into the preferred alignment of the shapes we now make. In general, most people breathe more naturally and feel anecdotally better when sitting upright or finding spinal equilibrium. Computer posture tends to round us down into an ever more compressed and depressed state. When spinal curves are not in balance, one can also feel persistent physical pain that interferes and blocks deeper exploration of asana and meditation. However, like all instructions it can become rigid from overuse. Work towards becoming upright and not uptight. ‘Flat back’ is not an accurate instruction, nor is it the only movement of the spine conducive to therapeutic or meditative work, but it can be a helpful visualisation to refine one’s asana and meditation practice. Be deliberate, skilful, and clear with this instruction to reassert its power and efficacy.