The Anatomy of Directing: Spine & Back


Part of the Da Vinci Project, this series of posts will clarify anatomical points for the purposes of functional mechanics and directing.  If you have questions about directing, check out this post, or the book Neurodynamics: The Art of Mindfulness in Action.

Part 1: The Spine and Back

The spine is the central bony support for the body and is made up of 24 moveable vertebrae, plus the sacral region and coccyx. Most of us are aware of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar curves of the spine (the articulated vertebrae that make up the bendable parts of the spine), but we sometimes forget that, where it attaches to the pelvis at its bottom end, the spine forms a fourth curve.

SpineWhat this means in practical terms is that the spine and back do not end at the lumbar or waist region but include the entire bottom end of the sacrum and pelvis, which therefore function not as part of the legs but as the bottom end of the back and trunk. As a first step in understanding the anatomy of directing, then, we must take into account the full length of the back and trunk, which includes the lower portion of the spine and pelvis.

One useful way of exploring this is to go into vertical stance (standing) and, in this position, to direct the head and pelvis away from each other. Within moments, you will be able to kinesthetically sense the entire length of your back from your neck right down to your sacrum, experiencing how your back as a whole lengthens and how this length includes your pelvic and sacral region.

Another way to experience this is by leaning against a wall and then bending your knees into a position called “Vertical Monkey”. Here’s how to do it:

Vertical monkey with your back against the wall Vertical Monkey against wall

  1. Find a flat section of wall that you can use to lean on, and stand with your back to the wall, heels 3 inches from wall, and your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Fall gently back against the wall, but in such a way that both your pelvis and your upper back are in contact with the wall. Your head should not be in contact with the wall. Let the wall support you so that you are lengthening in your legs and are not tightening in the buttocks, thighs, behind your knees, and your ankles.
  3. Allow your knees to release forward so that you go into the vertical monkey stance, keeping both your upper back and pelvis in contact with the wall. With both the contact with the wall and your knees going away, see if you can you feel the length of your back. The object is not to flatten your back or spine against the wall but simply to use the contact points of your shoulders and pelvis against the wall to increase your awareness of where your back is and its full length.

Notice that, in this position, the pelvis clearly functions as part of the back (as opposed to let’s say, the legs). Being clear on this helps us to clarify how long the back really is, and to correct our inaccurate kinesthetic conception of these anatomical parts.

Another way to identify the back’s true length is to include the pelvis in your conception of the trunk. Figure 7-6 PPSince the pelvis is connected with the spine and functions as part of the trunk, our sit bones (the bony points we balance on when sitting at the edge of a chair) become the bottom end of the back and trunk. We are not normally aware of our sit bones when standing, but when we sit, the sit bones become our “feet” and, as such, function as the bottom end of the trunk. When we think about it this way, it becomes very clear that the back and trunk extend right down to the bottom end of the pelvis.

If the pelvis is part of the back, then the bottom end of the pelvis, or sit bones, are the bottom end of your back. The following exercise, which is a variation on the vertical monkey stance, will help to make this clear.

Vertical monkey with sit bones contacting a table surface

  1. Stand with your back to a table whose height is no higher than the top of your legs. Place your feet about shoulder width apart in preparation to go into monkey. Be aware of your feet on the ground and, without lifting your chest, come up to your full stature.
  2. Think of releasing the knees forward into a bend so that your upper body lowers in space, maintaining its upright position; let your pelvis come back slightly as your whole body shifts back slightly onto your heels, ensuring even balance on the front and back of your feet.
  3. With your trunk lowered in space, your sit bones should be very nearly, if not actually, in contact with the table. Notice how, in this position, your sit bones clearly function as the bottom end of your back and trunk. In this position, you should be able to very clearly feel the entire length of the back, and have a kinesthetic sense of the length of the back right down to the sacrum, which gives a clear sense of how long the back really is.