Poor alignment, weak muscles, muscle tension, and stress are the four main causes of back pain. Intelligent yoga practice addresses all four causes of back pain because it is not just a physical practice that works with your muscles, ligaments, joints, and bones but it is also a mind-body practice that reduces stress. Most people with mild to moderate pain find relief a proper yoga practice once they begin to move and align their body properly. If your spine is healthy and pain-free, yoga can also help you keep it that way! The key is having the right knowledge and expert instruction. I want to share some powerful information and yoga tips with you now to keep your spine feeling fantastic. I will give you:
#1 Knowledge and awareness are KING
You cannot heal what you are not aware of or what you do not acknowledge. Noticing that your low back is at risk of further injury is #1. In the early stages of misalignment, the pain is often mild and intermittent, and therefore relatively easy to manage. They key word here is: manage, that does not mean heal.
Common ways of managing these flare-ups are anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen, or by doing less of the pain triggering activity. For example, you may not go hiking or cycling as often as you used to. To manage the lower back pain you may buy a new ergonomic chair, get shoe inserts or place a lumbar pillow to support your spine. Sound familiar? Spending hundreds of dollars on external objects designed to align your body from the outside-in may help, but they will likely not help heal the root of the problem. Crossing off the things you love from your activity list is not a great option for most of you either. You need to understand how your spine became misaligned, what is keeping it that way, and how you can make positive changes to shift your spine toward optimal alignment.
#2 Listen to your body on a daily basis
Your body is constantly sending you messages about how aligned or misaligned you are during daily activities such as sitting, standing, lifting and resting. Awareness is key and here is the knowledge. The early warning signs that your spine is in need of attention and care are below.
Early Warning Signs your Spine is at Risk:
#3 Notice what is contributing to pain in your low back pain
The biggest cause of slowly progressing, intermittent type of back pain that gets worse over 5 to 10 years is poor posture in both seated and standing positions. Poor posture can result from immobility, tension, and lack of awareness. A common trigger while seated is slouching. This reverses the spinal curves by rounding the shoulders forward, tipping the pelvis back, and reversing the lumbar curve. Rounding the spine places extra stress on the vertebrae and spinal discs. Compare that to the upright posture shown on the right where the lower pine can maintain its healthy natural inward curve.
In general, sitting is one of the most challenging positions for the spine because by positioning alone it puts three times as much pressure on your vertebra and discs than standing. Have you ever noticed that your low back aches after a long and uninterrupted period of sitting? When you combine sitting with slouching that is double the stress on your spine, not to mention the hips. Eventually, the lumbar discs protrude posteriorly from the pressure on the vertebrae. Your discs act as natural shock absorbers and protect your spine from compression they can remain healthy when we maintain a natural curve in our spine while we sit and stand.
Small tasks we do every day like lifting and carrying objects also trigger low back pain, especially when performed out of alignment. It is not just heavy objects that pose a risk, it is the repetitive lifting and carrying of purses, backpacks, grocery bags, children, and laundry to name a few that can make minor tweaks to the spine through the day. The normal curves of the spine become misaligned while holding a large bag. To compensate for the load of the bag the right shoulder drops, the lumbar curve pushes out to the left and the sacrum compresses on the right. This poor alignment held for repetitively over a long period of time will eventually cause pain. Make the positive change by carrying a smaller bag, distribute the weight evenly on both sides, alternating sides you carry objects, change bags to a cross the chest strap or backpack, or set your bag down while you stand. Then on the movement side of things, do alignment based yoga to strengthen, stretch and gain good alignment.
#4 Learn good body mechanics and proper body alignment
Healthy spinal curves are designed to have a sleek S-shape from front to back that allows for proper articulation of the vertebra while preserving the shock absorbing qualities of the spinal discs. In the C-shape configuration, the shoulders round forward, the chest collapses, the pelvis tilts back, and the low back rounds. When the bones are out of alignment for a long period of time your muscles compensate in an attempt to correct the alignment. Unknowingly, we continue to do the triggering action in the same habitual way (like the infamous slouching when we sit). Eventually, this causes an imbalance in the muscles that fixates the bones in poor alignment. This creates rigidity and immobility (think hunched over an old person walking with a cane and you get the picture). Over time, certain muscle groups become overused and therefore chronically tight, while other muscle groups become weak from lack of use. The end result of improper use of your body for a long period of time is compression or torsion in the vertebrae of the spine, pinched nerves, bulging discs, and an overall decrease in function and stability of your spine.
Why does it feel uncomfortable to stand or sit up straight? Even with knowledge of proper posture and the best of intentions, the habit of slumping and collapsing the spine can sneak back in quickly. In fact, it may even feel good to slump and completely unnatural to stand or sit up straight. You know the term “use it or lose it”, it applies here. If you have not been exercising the muscles that hold you up and support good alignment it will feel awkward and even tiring to stand or sit straight for more than a few minutes. The muscles that have been overworking are chronically tight and need to stretch. The tense muscles will not fully let go until the weak muscles get stronger and take some of the work load off the over-working muscles. This is why yoga is such a powerful tool in healing and preventing back pain.
What is good standing alignment? The ideal posture has correct alignment while standing versus five common misalignment postures. Do any of these look familiar? Good alignment is when you can draw an imaginary line along the side of your body from the ear opening down to the outer edge of your shoulder, outer hip, side of your knee, and ankle bone. A common misalignment in the low back is too much curve (sway back) or too little curve (flat back). You can see how all of the misalignments change the natural S-shaped spine into a different shape and it effects the vertebrae and supporting tissue all the way up to your head. Luckily, yoga can teach you the principles of good alignment and provide you with powerful yoga poses that you can do daily to help gain and maintain the mobility and health of your spine.
#5 Do alignment-based yoga
It is never too late to improve mobility and health in your spine with yoga, and the sooner the better. Yoga aligns your bones and encourages proper use of muscles that support upright posture and alignment. Yoga poses to build strength in weak muscles and flexibility in over taxed muscles. Through the balanced action of muscles over time the spine will become more supported and at ease in an upright position effortlessly maintain the natural spinal curves. You may notice an energy boost to standing and sitting tall as it just feels and looks better than slouching. It is important to adapt postures that feel too strong for you. Go slow, take your time and do a more mild version of the pose if necessary.
Low Back Sequence
Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine. Your body is your best teacher, modify or skip postures that do not feel beneficial to you. Seek out a qualified yoga therapist for expert guidance.
YOUR DAILY YOGA ROUTINE
Perform the top 10 yoga postures daily. I recommend doing 10 repetitions of the cat-cow pose. The following nine postures I recommend holding each pose for 30-45 seconds and adding repetitions as needed. This sequence should take you 30 minutes or less. If performed daily with good instruction and alignment this can help to heal back pain over time. If pain persists seek the advice of a doctor.
Listen and trust your body. Therapeutic yoga pose applied correctly and engaged properly should relieve or at minimum decrease pain right away. If pain increases, come out of the pose and rest. If this continues to occur then find a different type of yoga or select a different yoga teacher. If you are in acute pain and have inflammation, I recommend that you wait a few days until the swelling subsides before doing any exercise or yoga. If you have concerns check with your doctor.
Caution: Not all yoga is therapeutic. I have worked with hundreds and over the years some clients have told me that they have were injured in yoga. It is true that yoga is done improperly or without good quality instruction can put your spine at risk and cause damage to vertebrae, discs, muscles, and ligaments. Experienced yoga teachers that are trained in alignment-based yoga will know how to support you in keeping the integrity of the spines natural curves while you practice. If you are prone to injury or want to learn how yoga can keep your spine aligned both on and off the mat then alignment-based yoga is the safest and effective practice for you.
There are many other postures in my yoga tool bag, but this is an excellent start! I offer private sessions, public classes, and workshops that use alignment techniques to keep your spine healthy, mobile and strong. Enjoy the journey toward optimal alignment and a fantastic spine!
Sienna Smith is owner of Yoga Mountain Studio, a Certified Yoga Therapist with IYTA, and senior Yoga Alliance teacher (E-RYT500). Teaching in the bay area for 16 years, she has studied extensively with Gary Kraftsow, John Friend, Manuso Manos, Georg Feuerstein, Maritza, Lama Palden and Chinnamasta Stiles. Her classes, workshops and trainings are opportunities for learning and practice of an intellegent healing system of alignment-based yoga rooted in the Krishnamacharya tradition. As a Yoga Journal contributor she created an Office Yoga video and published Desk Yoga in 2011. She appears in the publication regularly and is featured in Gary Krafstow’s top-selling Yoga for the Low Back DVD. She has two children, two cats, loves green tea and has a passion for the harmonium.
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