The Skeletal system

I often find myself reflecting on the wonders of the skeletal system as I observe students moving in class. It was from my Ayurveda teacher, Dr. Vasant Lad, that I first glimpsed the complexity of this living organism.

It was a true revelation that led to a complete change in the way I carried out my asana practice and eventually to a far more holistic relationship with my body.

Ayurveda refers to the bone tissue of the body as Asthi Dhatu.

It is the densest tissue of the body. As such it is said to be predominantly composed of Earth element, with about fifteen percent Air element which gives it its porous quality, and five percent Water element.

The predominance of Earth element makes bone tissue rich in Earth minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc and it is essential to maintain a diet rich in minerals to nourish and maintain the bones.

Asthi Dhatu provides support and protection for the body and its vital organs. It gives shape and form and also in the auditory canal conducts sound waves that aid in hearing.

It helps in the elimination of toxic heavy metals by retaining them until they can be eliminated safely through the hair or nails.

Because of its dense quality it is said that bone tissue oscillates at a lower frequency and it is for this reason that we select a deeper sound when we begin and end the asana practices with the chanting of OM.

It is said that by looking at the nails we can determine the health of Asthi Dhatu. If the nails are brittle, then the bone tissue will also be so, whilst if the nails are strong then the bone tissue will tend to be strong.

Asthi Dhatu is said to be a crystallisation of our consciousness, carrying the seeds of our desires from past lives.

In spite of its dense quality, bone tissue is a living organic tissue that is sensitive to emotions and feelings which are often held and contained within. This is why some of the Yoga asana practices and other therapies that work on the structure of the body can be so intense as they release long held emotions.

Although we can all benefit from knowing a few anatomical facts about the skeletal system, it can never replace the instinctive wisdom we come to when we begin to experience our bones moving in asana practice.



The spine


The spine forms our structural core and is made up of thirty three bones or vertebrae of intricately adapted varying shapes. Each of these link together to create a unified whole which connects to the skull. Joining with the arms, legs, and chest via the shoulder girdle, pelvis and ribs, the spine houses the spinal cord which is the central coordinator responsible for linking all systems of the body to the brain.

Individually the joints between individual vertebrae are not very flexible but working together as a whole they offer a wide range of movements allowing us to arch backwards, bend forwards, twist round and stretch sideways. These movements are referred to in Yoga as the four essential forms of movement which combine with balance and inversion to form the variations of a balanced Yoga practice.

The vertebrae are shaped to meet the specific functions required in their immediate location.

The coccyx is made up of four fused vertebrae and is thought to be the remnants of a tail as found in most vertebrates. As such it has a stabilising quality and assists in balance but since humans no longer have a tail it simply provides a protective casing for the lower spine.

The sacrum is composed of five fused vertebrae and makes up the back wall of the pelvis and offers protection to the spinal cord.

Because the vertebrae in the coccyx and sacrum are fused together it is sometimes said that the spine is made up of twenty four vertebrae.

The five lumbar vertebrae are large and thick and designed to support the weight of the upper body and provide a centre of gravity offering stability in movement.

The twelve thoracic vertebrae are shaped to connect to the ribs which together support the muscles involved in breathing.

The intricately shaped cervical spine has seven vertebrae of which the top two (the atlas and the axis in descending order) connect with the skull and protect the spinal cord as it enters the spine. It is the cervical spine (neck) that offers such a varied range of movements to the head allowing us to nod and shake our heads.


The alignment and movement of the spine will influence alignment and movement in all the joints in the body similarly when joint movement is compromised the spine will adapt to compensate.

The anatomical shape of the adult spine contains four basic curvatures. The thoracic and sacral regions are concave anteriorly whilst the cervical and lumbar regions are concave posteriorly. These curves allow the spine to support the weight of the human body and act as shock absorbers offering protection from the effects of jarring,

The vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs which make up one fourth of the length of the spine. They are made up of fibro-cartilage with the outer edge being tough and strong whilst the centre of the disc is soft and gel-like. These discs have no blood supply of their own and have a sponge like absorbency which allows them to draw nourishment from adjacent tissue. The discs expand as they absorb fluid during rest periods increasing the length of the spine by as much as one inch overnight. Whilst holding the Yoga postures the fluid is squeezed back into the surrounding tissue to be replaced by fresh fluid when the spine is brought back to rest.

As the spinal cord travels down through the spine it branches out and exits via the intervertebral foramen (a hole between two vertebrae). At this point it is vulnerable to compression by bulging or herniated intervertebral discs.

Maintaining flexibility and strengthening the muscles that support the spine is vital in Yoga practice since located within the anatomical structure exists the subtle body containing the three main nadis or energy lines known as ida, pingala, and shushumna nadis. These three main nadis channel the subtle prana or life force through the spine and are intersected at different locations by the Chakras.


From the moment we are born and take our first breath in life, the spine starts its gentle cycle of movement curving and shortening on the inhalation, and lengthening on the exhalation. In Yoga this forms the basis for our breathing throughout the practices and determines what effect the movement has on the spine. When we understand this we begin to realize that by altering the breath, a movement will have a different outcome, and we begin to make choices based on our individual needs.


All Yoga practice is a voyage of self discovery, we need to observe our bodies in motion and pay attention to our inclinations to favour one side or to hold tension in specific places. We begin from a completely non judgemental perspective so that we can observe without passion and accept what we find so that we can make good choices for positive changes to arise.


The body operates through habit, we do not often think about how we stand or what happens when we move so it can come as a surprise when we first come to Yoga and realize that a long term unconscious habit has shaped the way we have developed in our bodies and may even have led us eventually into pain.


The health of the spine is at the heart of Yoga asana practice and when a problem arises it is important to seek the help of a qualified Yoga teacher or therapist rather than attempt to work alone.

It is not uncommon for osteopaths and chiropractors to work with and refer patients to qualified Yoga teachers in helping the spine back to balance.


I have found that many students who come with back pain rarely leave their Yoga lessons once they begin to notice the improvements, and become life long practitioners. I myself came to Yoga with a mild scoliosis that was causing concern; thirty years on I have managed to live relatively pain free and maintained a reasonable level of flexibility in my spine.


There are many different causes of back pain. When back pain strikes we should seek professional help and in order to do that we need to know where to look. Here are a few helpful hints. Whether you choose to use medication or not should be based on your own informed decision. We are responsible for finding the treatment that suits our needs for this moment regardless of the judgements of others. Whatever you choose, once you feel that you are managing the condition, have a look around for a good Yoga teacher in your area. The British Wheel of Yoga UK can help you find a teacher in United Kingdom, other professional organisations will represent qualified Yoga teachers in other countries but you will still need to find out if that teacher is right for you. Does that teacher fully understand your problem? It may be helpful to try a one to one lesson which will be tailored to your specific needs before joining a general class. Either way, a couple of lessons will be sufficient to know if you are in the right class.



Causes of Back Pain.

Muscle strain or weakness, degenerative disc disease, and arthritis are just some of the problems that affect the mobility and health of the spine.

Post menopausal women may experience a reduction in their levels of bone density, or osteoporosis.

It is vital to maintain a healthy diet rich in calcium and other minerals from the onset of menopause. Oils rich in Omega 3, 6, and 9 are also thought to be helpful in maintaining bone health and phyto estrogens derived from plants such as the soya bean can help maintain levels of friendly estrogens which support healthy bone tissue.

If you are concerned about the levels of bone density but are unsure as to whether you should ask for a bone density test from your GP you might consider a bone resorption test which is simply a matter of taking a urine sample for testing. This test measures bone turnover and bone loss. It looks at collagen molecules called pyridinium crosslinks and deoxypyridinoline that are found only in bone and cartilage. These molecules are released only during collagen breakdown in bone and cartilage. It may be worth asking your health care practitioner if this test could be helpful for you before going for the more expensive scan.


Arthritis is a term used to describe inflammation in the joints. I am aware that many students have concerns around arthritis and we will be discussing this condition in more depth in future as well as including management techniques in our lessons.


Copper or magnetic bracelets are thought by many to be helpful in reducing the pain in bones and joints. I am not sure what effect they may have and I am aware that recent research suggests that they have no effect on pain. So I am curious to find out what you think. If anyone has worn a copper or magnetic bracelet and would like to share their experience, I would love to hear from you. Since bone tissue is rich in minerals perhaps there may be some link relating to copper. Magnetism is a force which affects the subtle body and would need thorough research involving physicists who understand such phenomena. I am rarely convinced by scientific research since the results seem to be constantly changing depending on the perspective and scientific background of the researchers. However I respect their opinions and choose to keep an open mind about these things. It would be extremely arrogant to think that we have reached a full understanding of the workings of the universe, even though there are some wonderful advancements happening out there.


Rosehips: GOPO (glycoside of mono and diglycerol) is a component of rosehips which was discovered to have a pain relieving effect by sufferers of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. Apparently GOPO works by inhibiting white blood cells from accumulating in the joints. The latest trial published in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology in 2005 showed that 82% of patients reported a reduction in pain after three weeks of active treatment. Apparently 40% of patients reduced their consumption of paracetamol. It is also reported to have a positive effect on general health with patients reporting improvements in the quality of sleep and improved mood and energy levels. I was introduced to this by one of my students who is currently trying it out so I hope to be able to share her experience with you. It appears that this may be worth further investigation.