Want to decrease the discomfort that many hours in the studio can inflict on your body? It all starts with paying attention to your spine.
Working in Neutral Spine
Within one session or over the years, we can work our backs, limbs, and joints in positions that can cause stress and strain. Maintaining a neutral posture is important because if you respect the way your body is designed while performing your daily tasks, then you can minimize aches and pains. This article teaches you to maintain a neutral spine while performing your usual amount of work.
Your spine has three naturally shaped curves, as shown (1). In neutral position, while viewing your spine from the side, it has three curves, forming an S shape. In the S shape, your vertebrae and flexible intervertebral discs (2) are positioned to promote optimal blood flow and nerve function. In this position, the discs protect the spine bones by cushioning them, placing the least amount of stress on your body and using the least amount of energy to maintain a desired position.
It’s important to maintain a neutral spine while performing tasks, including lifting and carrying items, sitting down and standing up from a chair or the potter’s wheel, and while using hand tools on a table.
Figure 3A shows how a spine in neutral position looks. Notice that a pole or straight edge (here represented by a red bar) held against the spine touches in three places—the bottom of the skull, the rib cage, and the end of the spine—forming an S.
Non-neutral spine positions cause pressure, pain, and muscle strain. One type of non-neutral position occurs when the spine curves into a swayback position, with the pole touching only at the base of the neck and the bottom of the spine. This causes pressure and possible pain in your lower back.
Similarly, in a slumped position, the neck is forward and the pole touches the rib cage and possibly the bottom of the spine (3B). Whenever your neck is in a forward position, your blood and nerve flow are compromised and your upper back muscles have to work twice as hard to hold your head upright.
Exercises to Try
This exercise will help you get in touch with your own spine posture. Try it and see where you are right now. You will need a straight edge or pole (36–42 inches long), such as a broom.
1. Stand in your normal, relaxed posture, with your feet hip distance apart, toes pointing forward.
2. Hold the pole vertically behind you. Stabilize the pole with one hand on the bottom and one on top.
3. Place the top portion of the pole along the back of your head.
4. Line the pole down along your spine, so your tail bone touches the pole.
Does your body touch the pole in three places: back of head (skull), somewhere along the rib cage, and by your tail bone? When you do this, your spine is in the neutral S position, and has its three natural curves. Do you only touch at the top and bottom, in a swayback position?
Try it again, and see what you need to do so to get into an S position. Practicing yoga’s Mountain Pose can help.
To check your posture in Mountain Pose:
1. Stand tall, with your feet hip distance apart.
2. Slightly tuck your chin.
3. Gently roll your shoulders back and down.
4. Engage your abs and tuck your pelvis forward. Imagine connecting the lines of your hips to the center of your pelvis as a V. Is the V vertical or does it tilt? Bring it to vertical.
5. Measure your posture using the pole as described above.
Did that move you closer to a neutral S position?
Always bend at the hip joint and knees together, and not at the spine.
While holding the pole in place and maintaining your best version of a neutral S position (two or three points of connection with the pole), bend at your hip and knees. Practice bending your knees. How low can you bend your knees while maintaining a neutral spine?
Using arm rests to get in and out of a chair takes us out of spine neutrality and can sometimes hurt us. Notice the diameter of your arm. Now look at your thigh and its diameter. Thighs have much more muscle and are made to carry the weight of our bodies.
1. Stand in front of a chair holding the pole behind you, with your spine in neutral. Keep the bottom of the pole slightly above your tailbone.
2. Place your feet hip distance apart, with your toes facing forward.
3. Place the back of your lower leg against the front of the chair.
4. Set up your body in Mountain Pose: chin tucked, shoulders gently rolled back and down, pelvis forward. Maintain this posture throughout the exercise.
5. Bend forward at the hip joint while bending your knees, keeping the pole on your back in place.
6. Using your thigh muscles, mindfully lower yourself fully on the chair. Don’t plop down.
7. To get up, reverse it. Bend forward from the hip.
8. Keeping the pole in place, use your thigh muscles to rise out of the chair.
9. Put the pole down.
10. Notice: does that feel different from how you normally sit down?
11. Practice this exercise with and without the pole.
Everyday Posture and Comfort
Neutral spine may feel unnatural at first. It takes practice to make it a habit. Think about your daily tasks. How much do you curve your spine in unnatural ways to reach forward or work on a counter, studio table, or wheel? What can be done?
Some changes are important for everyone:
Perform Mountain Pose throughout your day. For example: while you are filling a glass of water, getting in and out of a chair, bending to pick something up, watching TV, waiting for your tea to steep, eating a meal, typing on your computer, and working at a counter or on a wheel.
Take regular three to four-minute breaks. Set a timer to beep every half hour. When it goes off, respect the beep, find a good stopping point with your work, get up, and move your body. Stretch, get some water, step outside, play with your kitty or puppy, and then go back to work.
You may also need to adjust your environment for your unique body, such as ensuring the screen on your computer is at eye level, raising or lowering a studio table or wheel height, or picking a different chair. Can you adjust your wheel, table, or chair to keep your spine neutral? For example, you can put blocks under your wheel to raise it so you can work in neutral spine. Remember Mountain Pose and hold neutral spine.
How else can you work with a neutral spine?
Assume the position, get creative with your environment, and enjoy your creative work in health and comfort.
the author Serafine Lilien, Master of Science, is both a ceramic artist and an ergonomist living in Portland, Oregon. To see more about her ergonomic work, visit www.ergoarts.net. To see her ceramic sculpture, find her on Instagram @lserafiner.