Relaxing the Back with Neutral Spine

Neutral spine is the first thing that I teach when I see a new student which is why it is the first lesson in the Pilates Essentials series. Neutral spine is a relaxed spine that is allowed to come back to its natural curvature. Our spines are designed with several curves in it. There is the curve of the neck (cervical spine) toward the front of the body. The curve of the mid back (thoracic spine) toward the back of the body, and the curve of the spine at the low back (lumbar spine) toward the front of the body. The curves help the spine act like a spring to take the impact of walking and moving in everyday life. Unfortunately, modern day life and the constant weight of gravity often makes these curves over exaggerated. This is why we must work from neutral as much as possible during Pilates. If we exercise with the back in neutral, it will become stronger in the position allowing you to maintain it for longer and longer periods in everyday life. Working in neutral improves joint health, decreases low back pain and can help make your taller through lengthening the spine.

As I said previously, I often start my first lesson with a new student by introducing neutral spine. I do this through the breath practice in the video. I highly recommend participating in the breath practice with closed eyes and an open mind, even if it's not your usual cup of tea. I start with the breath for several reasons. It helps relax the mind, allowing a moment of centering. It relaxes the spine, allowing the back to begin to relax into neutral, this particular breath can even provide a mild stretch for a tight low back. Finally, breath is an important part of the Pilates Principles. Joe Pilates wrote in his guide to Pilates, Return to Life, that "Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it." I honor Joe by beginning a student's Pilates journey with the breath and touch base with breath periodically throughout my teaching.

Boney Landmarks Used To Find a Neutral Spine
The breath pattern I use is one way to find neutral, but sometimes our bodies have learned to function outside of neutral to compensate for old injuries, or due to habits in our everyday life, like driving and couch sitting, which can make finding neutral through the breath difficult. Do not despair! There are several bony landmarks to help us guarantee that we have found neutral.

Back Body Boney Landmarks
The occipital ridge - The place just behind the eyeballs should be heavy on the floor, creating a long neck.
The ribcage - The entire ribcage should be heavy and relaxed into the earth without the shoulders curling forward. Don't force this. Relaxation and ease in the ribcage will come over time, allowing the ribcage to melt into the earth with a little help from gravity.
The sacrum - The sacrum is several fused vertebrae at the base of the spine. It feels like a large flat disc at the base of the spine just above the tailbone. The sacrum should feel flat and evenly weighted. There should be a small lift at the low back just above the sacrum, at the lumbar spine.

Boney Landmarks of The Pelvis
Place your palms on the spine at the front of the hips. It feels flat, or possibly a little pokey and is a part of the pelvis found just above where the leg meets the hip at the front of the body. Bring your fingers to your pubic bone. Your hands should now be forming the shape of a triangle on your pubic bone. Your palms and fingers should be level.

Neutral, Imprinted or Supported?
Pilates uses neutral spine in many, but not all exercises. If you fully extend the legs and move them away from the body, the spine should be imprinted. An imprinted spine is when the entire spine is heavy on the mat with no space above the sacrum at the lumbar spine. The spine may also be imprinted if there are any low back injuries.
If you are trying to transition from an imprinted spine to a neutral spine, you may want to use supported neutral. Supported neutral can also be used for low back issues that do not allow for the lumbar to deeply curve as is required during an imprinted spine. A supported neutral is when the back is supported in a neutral position using the help of a small towel or foam prop at the lumbar spine. When using supported neutral the low back should feel relaxed into the support without feeling as if it is pushing the low back up.

Beginner Exercises That Challenge Neutral Spine

Dying Bug

Small Single Leg Circles

Windshield Wiper Legs

Reformer - Footwork, Feet in Straps, Supine Arms

Intermediate Exercises That Challenge Neutral Spine

Hip Circles

Large Single Leg Circles

Reformer - Single Leg Footwork, Knee Stretch Series, Coordination