Fundamentals of a Healthy Back (workshop lesson)

Back-lying, often knees bent, sometimes legs crossed, tilting. Clarifying our image of the "five curves" of the axial skeleton in action: the traditional three (lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine), plus the sacrum/tailbone and the skull. Learning to sense functions and efforts through all five curves, including breathing. See the Context tab if you wish to go on to the next lesson in the workshop.

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Recorded live in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class, this lesson is copyright Nick Strauss-Klein, for personal use only.

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It’s helpful to have a very secure place for the foot to stand when lying on the back, knees bent, legs crossed with thigh resting on top of thigh. Consider options to create more friction on your mat.

If you struggle for comfort in that position and its knee-tilting movements you might instead do Legs as Free as a Baby’s or The Hip Joints: Moving Proximal Around Distal first. Or lessons #1, #3, #6, and #8 in our Getting Oriented collection of short lessons also develop related learning and movements.

Near the end of this lesson I had a verbal slip I didn’t notice while teaching: I mention the “five lines” instead of the “five curves” of the spine. I meant the curves, which are the dominant image of the lesson.

Info sent afterward to attendees of the workshop where this lesson was recorded:

Fundamentals of a Healthy Back Workshop

Workshop goals:

  • To use our intelligence, curiosity, and sensitivity to build awareness of how we use our backs and spines, and how we might use them better.
  • Specifically, to improve the function of the spine as a whole including proper use from the pelvis, support from the musculature, and positioning of the head, in many different kinds of natural actions such as twisting, bending, and extending.
  • To question aspects of our cultural learning and typical support surfaces (furniture, car seats, etc.) which make healthy function of the spine difficult, so we can make better choices.
  • To improve our ability to learn from our own somatic experience generally: “Learning how to learn.”


Our spines are designed to support us in a mobile, dynamic way, centering around being long and approximately plumb with the force of gravity when we’re upright and at rest.

To be free, fully functional, and safer from injury, we are generally seeking for our spines an organization with:

  • a little pelvic anteversion (top of the pelvis tilted slightly forward)
  • a vertically-stacked (not hyperlordotic / sway-back) lumbar spine
  • an upright thoracic spine (not kyphotic / rounded at the chest)
  • and thus a lifted sternum, allowing the shoulders to fall freely behind us when at rest, and
  • a head positioned over the spine, not “pecked” forward.

All this results in a long, easy, dynamic-yet-stable, and very upright posture, ready for action. We want all “five curves” of the spine to get involved when we move (as an awareness tool I like to include the sacrum and skull in addition to the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical). We’re looking to distribute the effort and movement of any action performed throughout them, and to let them support each other in action.

I showed illustrations and spoke about one of my favorite books, 8 Steps to a Healthy Back, by Esther Gokhale, in support of “J-spine” thinking, as she calls it (as opposed to the classic “S-curve” spine). It’s not a Feldenkrais Method book, and I personally find the exercises a little ham-fisted (I’d like to see the whole thing rewritten with Feldenkrais lessons instead!), BUT the pictures, illustrations, anatomy explanations, and history are spectacular. She studied and photographed cultures around the world with little incidence of back pain and derived beautiful, efficient, and clear ideas about proper human spinal function. Really worth a look, if only to have lots of clear imagery in mind as you play with your own posture and function in and out of class.

Our chairs, couches, and car seats often by their very shape create terrible seated conditions for our spine. Among other problems, they force us to tilt our pelvis back and not actually have our sitbones under us.

What came next in the workshop?

See the Context tab.

This lesson is found in our Miscellaneous Lessons collection and our Deep Dive course called Breathing with Vitality.

It was taught at the beginning of a workshop and was followed by versions of these lessons:

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  1. Cathie Walstad on March 9, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    After the ‘MN Hunch Season’ is over, the easy going, very clear directions in following N.S.K. in slowly helping us to coordinate the movements with an amazing stretch, awareness and opening of the vertebrae to feel more flexible but controlled more, and feeling better alignment on my aging body and now can stand up straighter. Appreciate this so much after taking classes from N.S.K. many years ago at the JCC in St. Paul. Thank you!

    • Nick Strauss-Klein on April 23, 2018 at 8:33 am

      Especially after this difficult winter we Minnesotans are so glad to throw off our parkas and shivering hunches! Happy to help!

  2. cj on March 26, 2018 at 2:28 am

    That was a wonderful lesson Nick. It was really interesting to observe the relationship between the breath and the 5 curves.
    Thanks again

  3. Muriel Soriano on May 11, 2020 at 3:19 pm

    Thank you so much Nick! Foppy breath and tummy was an interesting exploration and loved the giraffe image (-:
    Feeling much taller and straighter.

  4. Sarah Merriam Pierce on November 17, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you Nick! This is a wonderful exploration of the spine and relationship with head and pelvis! So much food for thought. So warm wishes from Wales, GB 🙂

    • Nick Strauss-Klein on November 17, 2020 at 3:53 pm

      A little secret: I love this one too! I haven’t figured out a more prominent place for it in our collections, so I’m glad you ventured into our mysterious Miscellaneous Lessons and found it. Thanks for letting us know where you’re listening from – always fun to hear!

  5. Ileana Vogelaar on July 23, 2021 at 11:06 pm

    Wonderfull and thank you so much. Liked the 2 noses part….and rolling the head in opposite direction..
    Was it a ” Feldenkrais boot camp ” ?? You were getting ready for a second leson. LOL

    • Nick Strauss-Klein on July 27, 2021 at 7:30 am

      That’s right, it was the first lesson in a workshop pair. Click the Context tab for the next lesson!

  6. Essie on October 12, 2021 at 8:54 am

    I find this lesson very relaxing and soothing, but have two points of confusion:
    – knees tilting to one side – I’m doing a slight tilt, as tilting further causes confusion and discomfort. But when you suggest to *keep* the knees slightly tilted, and raise the head – how does one keep the knees tilted without having to strain the whole lower body? So far I can only tilt a bit and bring it right back, the idea of having to keep them tilted, even at a small angle, gives immediate strain and makes me think I’m doing something wrong! Maintaining the tilt recruits a lot of my muscles, even with friction under my foot.

    Second confusion – when bringing the head up (using arms, not neck muscles) – should I be squeezing my abdomen, like in a sit up? Or do I maintain perfectly calm abdomen / keep abs relaxed? The answer changes where the weight goes in my back.

    Thank you as always!

    • Nick Strauss-Klein on October 12, 2021 at 11:50 am

      For the second question, the abdominal muscles will be included and indeed do much of the work, but there’s no particular focus needed to squeeze them. As your head lightens and lifts, allow the weight and pressure to migrate down your chest and back. Allowing your abdomen to be included in the contractions will help you learn to press your back more fully into the ground to support lifting your head.

      First question: what happens if you lighten/lift your head with the legs crossed but not tilted? First see if you can find a way to do that comfortably (again, allowing the middle back, and maybe even lower back, to press the ground should help). Then see, if you tilt your knees an inch to the side, leave them there, and then lift your head, is there a comfortable way? There’s no need to tilt them any particular distance and we’re definitely not looking for strain. You’ll be learning even if you don’t tilt them at all, since the configuration of the hips and pelvis and lumbar is so different with the legs crossed.

  7. Jody Dixon on December 8, 2021 at 7:15 am

    I find every lesson I do so helpful for something in my body- so thank you for that! I’m trying to introduce a friend to Feldenkrais who is struggling with sciatic pain. Could you direct me to the best lesson among the non-donor resources to start for her?

    • Nick Strauss-Klein on December 8, 2021 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, and thanks for the referral. Please send her to Getting Oriented – that’s the best place for most folks to get familiar with the method, and many of those lessons can be very nice for sciatica. She can simply start from the beginning, but should skip any lesson she can’t make comfortable for herself.

  8. addi on January 7, 2023 at 11:02 pm

    I managed to do the whole enchilada(!!)(with some spontaneous movements ‘of my own’ here+there..
    felt like there were no curves at the end(!)
    was fun

  9. Sara on April 15, 2024 at 2:50 am

    After dancing yesterday and feeling a slight twinge in my left lower back, I chose this lesson to explore relief of that. Perfect choice it seems as now my spine feels looser than ever. I also love repeating these audio lessons and finding that different words stand out at different times bringing new insights. The recordings are a blessing indeed. Thank you Nick and team!

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