Spare Your Spine!

Updated: Jun 4, 2018

"The Lost Art of Hip Hinging," and how it can help you move more compassionately.

Has your back been bugging you? I recently read an article on NPR’s website about how Western culture has forgotten how to bend over. The article suggested that this cultural amnesia might be contributing to lower back pain. It claimed that most people in the West pick things up off the ground by first looking down, which immediately initiates unhealthy curving in the spine. Then we curl down “like a cashew” toward the ground, putting undue stress on the small muscles that stabilize our spines. In the rest of the world, and particularly in cultures where folks are still doing lots of physical work, like harvesting, this work is performed with a straight spine, through a motion dubbed ‘hip hinging.’

Hip hinging involves bending the knees, and folding at the hips to bend down while maintaining a straight back. The NPR article suggested that toddlers under 3 are natural hip-hingers, until they learn to cashew by observing their parents.

While there have not yet been any studies proving a relationship to back pain, the prevalence of this move across cultures, and among children, as well as biomechanics, suggest that it could be a more compassionate way of engaging the spine -- “spine-sparing,” as the article says.

When we cashew - that is, bend with our backs, we are bending through our spinal discs, which can degenerate or slip if subjected to a lifetime of undue stress. That’s because these intervertebral joints are not designed for a lot of movement - they’re more like cushions between the vertebrae. Our hips, on the other hand, are a ball and socket joint, which is made for movement, and well-designed to bear a large amount of muscle force. What’s more, when we hip-hinge, we call upon the large muscles in our legs to support us, rather than the tiny, stabilizing muscles along the spine. This isn’t just kind, it’s smart. So why don’t we all do it?

Well, for starters, Western culture is a largely sedentary one. If we do get any physical activity at all, it’s atomized. Many of us might hit the gym for an hour or two, but that’s after spend all day sitting at a desk or standing behind a retail counter. And while we might have excellent form when we’re doing squats at the gym, or in a pulling moves in yoga class, but we end up slumped over the rest of the time, like when we’re behind the wheel of a car, for example, or whenever else we’re not actively being in our bodies. For those of us who don’t do physical work, the disconnect from our bodies throughout most of the day is one factor - we’re not in our bodies, so we forget to look after them.

Another, related, factor suggested by the NPR is our epidemic of tight hamstrings. The hamstrings are a family of three muscles that run from your sitting bones to the backs of your knees, and then attach to the tops of your shins by tendons that wrap around to your front body. Sitting on our butts all day shortens our hammies, which are attached to our ischial tuberosities - our sitting bones, or the point bones in the bum. Short hamstrings then end up pulling these bones down, leading to rounding in the lower back and difficulty hinging at the hips with straight legs. (It can also cause lower back pain, so next time that region of your body is feeling achy, try stretching out your hamstrings and see if that brings any relief.)

So, how do we hip hinge?

I really liked the “fig leaf” method referred to in the article, so I’ll share it with you here. It was shared by Jean Couch of the Balance Centre in Palo Alto. Stand with your feet hip distance apart and more or less parallel. Now, pretend you’re Adam in the Bible. Where would you put your fig leaf? On your pubic bone! Stand up tall, with your hips stacked over your heels, your shoulders tacked over your hips. Pull in the lower belly slightly, bend your knees, and with your hand on your fig leaf, begin to bend at the hips, sending your fig leaf back and through behind you. Keep your spine long and lifted, pausing when you get parallel with the ground. Keep your shoulders rolling back and your legs strong so your knees don’t knock together. Bend your knees as much as you need to to keep your spine long. Let’s bury the strange and harmful myth that we need to straighten our legs to stretch our hamstrings!

Bonus: with your feet firmly planted into the ground and your core strong, stable and supportive, begin to energetically rotate your thigh bones inwards, in order to widen through your sitting bones. This is a very subtle movement but it can have a profound effect.

Hang out here for 30 seconds to a minute or so, allowing your muscles to become acquainted with this new configuration. Then come up the way you went down, tailbone and crown reaching away from each other. Come to stand.

This is how our brothers and sisters who work all day bend over, so I humbly defer to them. It can take a while to unlearn the cashew programming that we’ve been practicing and observing our whole lives, but if it spares our spines, then it is worth integrating into our movements whenever we remember. No time spent in our bodies is time wasted, and embodiment practices like yoga can help us identify and challenge habits that are not serving us. Like the cashew.

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