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Yoga Anatomy: Thoracic Spine

The Thoracic Spine

Twelve Vertebrae of Your Upper Back Are Your Best Allies in Yoga.

Students of yoga can benefit from a deeper understanding of the inner workings of their anatomy.

Maintaining a safe yoga practice and a healthy spine is reliant upon a yoga student’s ability to observe the Yama “Ahimsa” within his or her own practice.

The Thoracic Spine

The center portion of the spinal column, the twelve thoracic vertebrae connect at T1 with the cervical spine and at T12 with the lumbar spine.

The Thoracic Curve is actually all that remains of the primary (kyphotic) curve that was present in infancy. It allows for balance and space for the ribcage and chest, and the flexibility of its wave provides for our spine’s ability to withstand shocks – such as those caused by running or jumping.

The thoracic portion of the spine has a total Range of Motion of 50 to 70 degrees, extending 20 to 30 degrees and flexing 30 to 40 degrees. (The difference is due to the limited space between the adjacent vertebrae, which narrows when the thoracic spine extends.) The thoracic spine can laterally flex 20 to 25 degrees and is oriented to allow it to rotate 35 degrees.

Thoracic Vertebrae

  • T1 – is the smallest of the Thoracic vertebrae, as this series of bones increases in size from the top of the column to the bottom. T1 is different from the others because it has an entire facet to support the first rib, and a partial facet to support the second rib in conjunction with T2.
  • T2 – T10 – Increasing in size as they near the lumbar spine, the Thoracic vertebrae support the ribcage each sharing the support of one rib above and one rib below the vertebrae. The spinous processes jut down to link into the “superior articular processes” at the tops of the vertebrae beneath – like the teeth of a zipper.
  • T11, T12 – the largest, bottommost pair of thoracic vertebrae do not include transverse processes to support the ribs. The spinous processes are shorter, and the overall structure is sturdier than other thoracic vertebrae. They are closer in size to the large lumbar vertebrae beneath them.

Protecting your Thoracic Spine during Yoga

In terms of flexibility, the smaller the vertebrae, the more flexible the area of the spine. The head can turn and pivot 180 degrees. The neck can bend, twist and roll in several directions.

Because it is between the pliable neck, and the virtually immobile lumbar spine, the thoracic spine endures most of what yoga students do, as far as flexibility is concerned. Backbends and twists are activities centered around the thoracic spine, and doing these incorrectly can put undue pressure on the middle back.

When twisting, remember that the lumbar spine is mostly incapable of axial rotation. When performing an arm-assisted twist such as Marichyasana (Marichi’s Pose – a seated spinal twist with one leg extended) or Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half King of the Fishes Pose – a seated spinal twist with crossed legs), remember that the arm is supposed to stabilize, not mobilize the pose. Over-twisting can strain the muscles and the joints around T11- T12.

Similarly, when twisting, recall that your neck is far more flexible than your thoracic area. Try to keep the neck soft and relaxed to avoid straining the connection at C7 and T1.