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January 25, 2014

Yoga & The Lower Back: From Pressure to Power. ~ Joan Arnold

There are common forms of misuse I see in yoga classes I take and those I teach.

The suggestions below arise from my observations and solutions for avoiding injury, to help us get the most out of our yoga practice.

Ah, winter.

A time of year when the shoulders involuntarily hunch against the cold, the muscles take their time to warm up and the temptation to linger in an overheated apartment overwhelms the urge to get outside—to the gym, for a run in the park or to a yoga class. Meeting the challenge of cold weather, the body demands that we take time to warm up, pumping blood to the muscles so they become less brittle, more supple and ready to go.

When it’s cold, that’s especially important for the lower back.

Yoga offers a wonderfully wide vocabulary of poses to help us maintain flexibility and strength in the spine and torso. In a balanced practice, we move through a range far fuller than we would in daily life. Bending forward—flexing—helps us stretch muscles that shorten while we sit, stand, walk or run and it releases tight zones at the back of the legs; the hamstrings. Arching the spine—extension—lengthens the torso’s front and strengthens the back muscles; the short and long fibers that travel from the base of the skull to the tail.

When we add twists and side bends and subtle combinations of all these, we explore the beauty—and the challenge—of yoga.

Though the practice of asana can solve back problems, it can also hurt. Back pain can afflict yogis of any level. Some beginners have injured themselves and abandoned the practice altogether. There are adepts who–without realizing it—put undue pressure on the lower back. Understanding the spine’s structure and applying some sensible movement principles can bring a sense of ease within challenge as well as a powerful, balanced torso.

More than Stretching

Yoga is associated with flexibility. Since many of us have tight muscles from long days of sitting, yoga can be a welcome respite. However, when an area is troubled or injured, students often tell me, “I just need to stretch.”

That urge is only one part of the picture.

Working, then stretching, offers more balance to the back muscles. Though we may be averse to extending the spine when we’ve hurt our back, when done well, spinal extensions are crucial to keeping the back toned and ready for action. A good instructor can help us understand how to do that with clarity.

The Dynamic Center

The key to the back’s ideal function is distribution of effort. 

We move courtesy of the muscles, a complex web of fibers that engage and release in each action. If we think we are supported by outside muscles, like bricks holding up a building, consider this: the muscles that support us to stand and sit well are smaller and closer to the spine. Called the multifidus, they kick in when the more visible outside muscles—designed for larger gestures as we move through space—don’t work overtime.

Studies have shown, to protect the spine from injury, the multifidus muscles activate before any motion. 

If the outside shell of muscle is tense, the inner muscles fail to engage, making the spine more compressed and more vulnerable. Before we begin a pose, our spine can enliven to prepare for our next move.  When sitting for meditation or pranayama, we energize this lively center with the ongoing pulse of the breath.

The Alexander Technique, a fundamental body management method, offers this idea: If we free the neck and allow the head to poise lightly, the whole spine releases and lengthens in a reflex natural to the body.

At the waist—the lumbar spine—the vertebrae are at their thickest and most substantial. Rather than compressing, the lower back can expand. When we sit or move with a clear fold at the hip joint, the lumbar spine functions as it should: as a center of weight. When we add an arch, a curve or a twist, we have the firm bony support we need.

The lumbar spine—the waist—is a power center, meant to conduct energy.

We can overuse our lower backs, because it can bend, creating pain or injury. Many yoga students press down into the lower back in a lunge or warrior pose, even leaning back so that the rib cage dips behind the pelvis. This sends the front of the pelvis down toward the leg. Instead, we can guide the whole pelvis upward. It’s fine to add a spinal extension—opening the upper body into an arch. It works better when that upward flow is the cherry on top, expanding through the upper back, distributing the effort rather than repeatedly pressing down onto the lumbar vertebrae.

Rather than a place of compression or pain, the lower back becomes what it’s meant to be: a powerful core, a river of nerve impulses, spinal fluid, of breath, of energy.

The Whole Torso—Top to Bottom

Identifying the top and bottom of the spine promotes distribution of effort through the whole torso.  To locate the top, put your index fingers on each side of your head behind the lower jaw under your ear. This is where the head meets the spine.

At the bottom, where the pelvis meets the legs, are the hip joints. The hip joint is a ball and socket with that big head of the upper leg—the femur—fitting deeply and neatly into the socket of the pelvis; the acetabulum.

The hip joints support our weight in stillness and, as we shift among poses, the thighbone folds, twists and opens. Its spherical design gives us a varied range of motion. You’ll feel the hip joints by putting the sides of your hands at the top of each leg.

Moving at these two joints will lessen the lower back’s overwork. Without holding the back stiffly, neither pushing nor pulling, you can envision space between the ears and, from deep within the torso, allow the spine its natural, gentle lengthening.

Getting the lumbar spine and hip joint to function according to their job descriptions helps us protect and enhance the lower back’s safe functioning so that we can curve and arch with ease.

Lift Your Heart, Let It Soften

Another common habit that puts pressure on the lower back is lifting the front of the spine—the part we can see—and shortening the back; the part we can’t. Counseled to “open the heart” in class, I’ve seen many a yogi walk out of the studio holding that same posture.

Any braced position is trouble, and this one puts pressure on your hardworking lower back.

When it’s over, let that lovely lifted heart soften in the front to let the full dimension of the back open. There’s a lot of lung tissue back there. When you see where the lungs are, you’ll want to let your breath fill all that available territory—a clearer, more reliable internal support.

A Center of Power

Every power move—a karate punch, a soccer kick, a baseball swing—is driven by a whip, a strong twist through the waist. Rather than a place of weakness, the lumbar spine becomes a center of power. When we stand in balance over our feet or sit well on the sit bones, the effort is distributed through the bodies of those thick, supportive vertebrae.

As we walk and breathe easily, the ribs are free and a twist in the waist propels us forward. The swing of the ribs and this natural twisting motion offers an ongoing massage for the lumbar spine and the internal organs. Yogic master BKS Iyengar expressed the contribution of twists to overall health as “squeezing and soaking.”

Similar to squeezing out a cloth to soak it with fresh water, the wring of a twist squeezes out the organs’ toxins.  As we return, our organs are refreshed with new blood, lymph, oxygen.

The lower back is but one stop on the sequence of vertebrae from top to bottom. We can pause before moving, envision a light poise of the head and let the whole spine release into length to free it from overwork. This awakens our lively, flowing center. Then, from deep within the torso, we are supported in stillness or poised for action.

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 Assistant Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photos: author provided/elephant journal archive

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