Last winter, I forced Dr. Stuart McGill to go to lunch with me. If you don’t know Stu, he is a professor at the University of Waterloo who specializes in spine biomechanics research. With over 30 years of research under his belt, practically every type of musculoskeletal rehabilitative specialist knows his name. He has also personal trained U.F.C. fighters and many other world-class athletes. And, I’d give his moustache a perfect 10.
My primary intent was to have him pin point specific yoga postures and their relative safety level to our often overlooked, low backs.
Now for starters, let it be known that the full Ashtanga primary series has us forward fold in 24 different postures (this is not including Surya A and B). When we hunch forward and curve our backs into a ‘C shape’, this is called spinal flexion. Repetitive spinal flexion, especially under tension from external loads, can lead to aggravating back pain, and if it continues long enough –– a herniated disk.
Now, spinal flexion in moderation is not a problem. However, Stu had me look around at everyone’s postures inside the Timmie’s we were at that afternoon. Flexed spines, everywhere. Not one person had even a reasonably-okay posture.
This might have not been a problem for Vamana Rishi centuries ago, however, nowadays, where our nine-to–fives and horrible chairs do crap to our backs, flexing our spines even more than we do already at yoga class is probably not in our best interest.
So how do we get around this? It’s actually pretty simple. But this is when you’ll have to disobey most of your traditional Ashtanga yoga teachers.
- Hinge forward from your hips, not your spine.
- Bend your knees.
- Lay your belly onto your thighs.
For seated forward folds, you also have an option to keep your legs straight but at the same time make sure that your heart is always shinin’ forward. Also, do not be caught up with touching your toes.
Notice the curves in the lumbar spine in the first image on the left. For a happier back, modify such like the image on the right.
If it’s one thing Stu wanted me to take home, it was to treat the spine like the wire of a coat hanger; if you bend it back and forth enough times – something’s going to give. With being said, next time you forward fold, please be mindful of your beloved backs.
Kimberley is a Ashtanga-based yoga teacher, certified personal trainer, running coach, avid mountain climber and dancer. She is a researcher at heart with a background in Kinesiology via the University of Waterloo, and studies a variety of topics regarding health and wellness. Read her writings on science and spirituality on Echo My Oms.