As we age, ligaments and tendons shorten. The range of motion of particular joints decrease. Discs lose their ability to absorb shock, muscles weaken and bones loose mass. To add to these inherent biological weaknesses, we have lifestyles where we spend too much time sitting – in cars, at desks, and in front of televisions or computers and our back muscles weaken. If we have bad posture or slouch, this makes matters worse. The lower back is especially prone to disc herniation and disc degeneration problems. It’s the junction between the pelvis and the spine and bears much of the weight.
Yoga postures lengthen connective tissues, expand range of motion, improve posture and protect against back injury. Michael Wood, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Connecticut and director of the Sports Performance Group in Boston states that many of his clients have had great success keeping their backs pain free with yoga.
Here are some basic anatomical and movement principles to guide your path to a healthy back and assist you with a yoga practice:
1. Focus on your breathing as you do the poses. Breathing is the link between the body and the mind and can establish your focus on healing your body with positive imagery and presence. Breathing influences circulation and posture. When we hold our breath, we hold on to tension. Quiet, introspective breathing alters the sympathetic/parasympathetic nerve signal balance to the arteries and veins, allowing increased circulation to tissues whose vessels are constricted during times of stress.
2. Maintain spinal curves. The spinal column is a series of curves defined by the shape of the vertebrae and the shape of the intervertebral discs and supporting ligaments. The thoracic (upper back) and sacral (pelvic) convex curves are the first curves to develop in utero. Later in crawling and standing the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) concave curvatures develop in response to children’s ability to lift their heads and later to stand. These curves need to be neutral – each curve neither too pronounced nor too flat – to absorb shock and facilitate the full range of motion throughout the spinal column.
3. Keep the spine moving. The spine needs movement to lubricate the joints and provide nutrition to the spongy discs between the vertebrae. During movement, the discs go through a process called imbibition where they soak up nutrients like a sponge when squeezed. To feed and lubricate the discs properly, it is necessary to reverse the curvatures for brief periods of time which yoga postures do. Trouble occurs when the curves become imbalanced or reversed by habitual poor posture, through injury or too many repetitions of one movement.
4. Balance flexibility and strength. Building strength is crucial but flexibility is equally as important. Without a doubt, yoga is one of the best ways to increase flexibility. Having strong yet flexible muscles is perhaps the most important principle in back care. Remember a tight muscle is not necessarily a strong one. In beginning a yoga practice, it is important to first lengthen muscles that have contracted. For the back this is crucial to stretch back muscles to help lengthen the spine and create more space for the vertebrae and discs.
Principles of Back Care
Eighty percent of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives. Back injuries send more people to the doctor than any other ailment except the common cold. Pain can simply come from lifting something heavy from the trunk of your car or leaning over while gardening.
You don’t have to take back pain lying down. As a matter of fact, doctors are now recommending you do just the opposite. You have the power to reduce the chance of back pain occurring in the first place and recurring if you have a chronic condition or old injury. “I’d say that more than half of back injuries can be prevented” says Michael Hisey, M.D. a spine surgeon at the Texas Back Institute in Plano, Texas. “A back maintenance exercise program is key to keeping people out of trouble.
Why is yoga such a good solution for back ailments?
Abdominal strengthening is commonly prescribed for back health. However, researchers are discovering that abdominal strength alone is not enough to protect the back from injury. And simply strengthening the lower back does not provide the complete solution to total back health. Researchers are now discovering that the best approach to back care is to incorporate a wide range of strength building and flexibility regimes such as yoga into your fitness plan.
In the past physical therapists, trainers and exercise physiologists have focused on building core strength. The body’s core is basically the lower part of the trunk, the abdomen, lower back and front of the hips. A recent study by Scott Nadler, D.O. at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, showed that athletes were just as likely to develop low-back pain with core training as those who did not participate in the training. Nadler explains that the study did not suggest abandoning core strengthening, but found that it just might not be sufficient. To protect the back from injury, we should do more than just the traditional core-strengthening exercises.
Unlike traditional back exercises which isolate parts of the body to be stretched or strengthened, yoga postures are whole body movements. They are designed to integrate and benefit the entire body. Back problems involve the whole body. Many factors may contribute to a bad back – tight muscles and/or weak muscles, poor posture, obesity, emotional stress, and lack of a full range of movement in the peripheral joints (shoulders and hips). No back problem can be isolated from the rest of the body.
Because of this interdependence, back problems respond well to the whole body movements that yoga offers. This whole body yoga experience affects not only the spine but corrects musculoskeletal imbalances anywhere in the body. As you focus on the balancing of different body parts, a natural alignment comes to the entire body and your posture improves from a place of inner awareness and integration.
After muscles have released their tightness, the emphasis can be re-directed to strengthening weak muscles. Due to our sedentary life style, there are tendencies of certain muscles in our body to be weak and others to be tight. With regards to the lower back, there are several muscle groups that we must pay special attention to if we’re going to relieve lower back pain.
Tight hamstrings can cause back pain since they insert in the buttocks and pull the pelvis out of alignment. Also tight hip flexors (iliopsoas and quadriceps) in the front of the thigh can cause lower back pain since the iliopsoas attaches to the lumbar vertebrae and can also be a contributor to back tightness. It is important to release tightness from other back muscles such as the quadrates lumborum in the lower back and erector spinae muscles along the spine. The piriformis muscle, a hip rotator located deep in the buttocks must be stretched to relieve sciatica.
Strengthening back muscles is crucial to balance the range of motion and to support the body for better posture. In addition, strengthening the leg muscles is important, particularly the quadriceps, hamstring and abductor muscles. When the legs are strong, the back muscles don’t have to function as the main support for the body. This can decrease tightness in the back and creates a more balanced body.
The following poses or asanas have a wonderful ability to work several areas at the same time. While doing an asana, you may be stretching several muscles while strengthening others. Stay in the pose long enough to gain the benefits. It takes a minimum of twenty seconds for muscles to start to lengthen.
It’s never too late to start doing yoga. Remember: “Don’t let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do!” You don’t have to do advanced yoga poses to get benefits. The simplest poses are sometimes the most effective for back care. Remember to breathe as you do this sequence of poses and take note that being consistent is the key to maintaining a healthy back and preventing future back pain.