We all do yoga so we agree on the value of flexibility—of stretching and lengthening muscles.
We all feel better after lengthening taut hamstrings, releasing stiff quadratus lumborum (lower back) muscles, and loosening tight trapezius (upper back) muscles. But when it comes to lasting, sustainable, and life-changing healing of lower back pain, I would make the case that strength, not flexibility, is the highest virtue—and the most important predictor of success.
Our bodies are brilliantly designed to move—comfortably, easily, and constantly. But if there is an injury to the lower back, or if lower back muscles have gone into a spasm from a sudden movement or a random tweak, it is a viable concern that moving normally again may never happen.
For yoga folks, there’s an additional aspect to the emotional roller coaster that can come with a lower back injury. “I do so much stretching in yoga class, why isn’t my flexibility helping my lower back move, release, and heal?” Worse still, a yoga practice may actually exacerbate lower back pain. What’s wrong with this picture?
Make “Strong” and “Long” Partners in Our Practice
Here’s the story: stretching muscles doesn’t strengthen them and a long muscle isn’t necessarily a strong one.
In fact, over-stretching or putting too much energy into cultivating flexibility in our joints and length in our muscles can result in muscles that are “locked long”—chronically over-lengthened in a way that actually restricts the flow of blood into and out of that muscle. In a locked long muscle, toxins that can irritate tissues can’t be released and nutrients required to repair muscle tissue can’t be absorbed. The result of both of these blockages is pain.
And so we come to strength, which in my view is the real key to working with a lower back injury or any chronically tight area. And to prove that I’d never abandon muscular length as a yogic value and goal, I feel the need to say that when I say strong, I don’t mean that a muscle should be either tight or short.
Strong muscles have tone and flexibility so that when they are presented with the work of supporting our back, especially our lower back, well—you could say that they “have our back.”
But in our zeal to cultivate flexibility, are we giving strength short shrift? Take a moment to notice how much time is spent in poses that are mostly stretching, especially in a home practice. Can we tweak our practice so we devote an equal amount of time to strengthening our body, especially our spinal muscles and abs?
Bringing this balance to our practice creates a sense of equanimity that speaks not just to our outer body—it can foster the feeling of inner balance and peace that is at the very heart of yoga practice.
Cultivating Strength: Three Key Muscle Groups
Let’s get more specific about ways to cultivate strength for long-term lower back health. There are three major muscle groups that deserve our strength-building attention—the spinal muscles, hip flexors, and abdominal muscles. The work is to find movements that strengthen muscles without overly compressing the lower back and causing more pain.
Backbends are a good set of yoga poses to help strengthen the spinal muscles. Bridge, Locust, and Cobra Poses, and Wheel Pose for intermediate practitioners are excellent as long as they are practiced with mindfulness and the intention of creating space in the lower back while strengthening it. There are four main ways to cultivate this mindfulness in practice:
- Move the tailbone away from away from the lower back to help elongate it.
- Engage (but don’t grip) the “glutes” and bring the hips into neutral hip position by drawing the front hip bones up toward the waist.
- Create traction in the lower back by drawing the trunk forward (away from the waist) as you lift up into the pose.
- Only come up as high into any backbend as the lower back is comfortable! Remember, pain is a signal that the muscles are reaching their limit or have gone beyond it, and trying to push through pain is, at the least, counterproductive.
The purpose of building and maintaining toned hip flexors (largely the work of the deep hip, or psoas muscles) is that these muscles help support our lower back in its optimal alignment. If the lower back is properly aligned, it’s less vulnerable to injury either from being weak and flattened—or dangerously exaggerated beyond its natural, gentle curve.
Actions that strengthen the psoas muscles are those that lift the leg in a standing position, like when we take a marching step forward. In a reclining position, practice movements that lift the legs up or lift the trunk up into a sit-up position.
Great yoga poses for strengthening hip flexors include Leg Lifts, Chair Pose, and Extended Hand to Foot Pose.
Abdominal Core Muscles
Finally the importance of a strong abdominal core can’t be overemphasized. Together, the four layers of abdominal muscles act like flexible, woven layers of mesh that support our abdominal organs and lower back. They rotate the torso, help us bend forward and to the sides, and they help us come back to an upright position.
Toned abs help protect our lumbar disks by supporting and stabilizing the movements of our spine. So even if our mind might grumble at the thought of “ab work,” the payoff is huge—tremendous, lasting support for our whole trunk and lumbar spine.
Practice High and Low Plank Pose, Full Boat Pose and Half Boat Pose.
With these tips, we can quickly feel a difference in how easily we carry ourselves and how much safer our back body feels, even when our body is under stress. And our lower back in particular, surrounded and nurtured by our long and strong muscles, will certainly thank us!
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Assistant Editor: Melissa Horton/Editor: Bryonie Wise