Yoga for Back Care
By Felicia Tomasko
The health of our back significantly impacts our well being, and this becomes all too clear if we ever experience aches and pains. Unfortunately, back problems have become nearly epidemic. Adding a few simple yoga poses to a daily routine can have a profound effect on the flexibility and strength of our spine. According to Rita Trieger, author of Yoga Heals Your Back: 10-Minute Routines that End Back and Neck Pain (Fair Winds Press, 2005), yoga is a useful tool for dealing with back problems. Trieger says that yoga “brings balance back to the body as it teaches us to breathe more deeply, and to consciously connect the body, the mind, and the breath.”
By focusing attention on your breath, you connect breath and body, and release accumulated tension. Combining expansion of the breath with yoga poses increases mobility and articulation of your spine, maintains suppleness, promotes strength, and develops a healthy back. For these effects, it is important to build strength of your body’s core muscles. These are the muscles of the spine and the abdominal area, often mentioned in yoga, Pilates, and other forms of movement.
To build a strong and healthy back, it may not be enough merely to practice some poses on the mat. “What do you do with the other hours of the day?” asks physical therapist and yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater, author of 30 Essential Yoga Poses for Beginning Students and their Teachers (Rodmell Press, 2003). Throughout your day, think about how you are using your back. For instance, are you slouching with sagging abdominal muscles, or are you lifting and lengthening the spine and using the abdominal muscles to support your back? The seemingly small habits we repeat during the day can have a profound cumulative effect.
If you already have back problems, consult with your primary health care provider before adopting any exercise program. When attending classes, Lasater cautions people to choose a yoga teacher carefully—find someone with experience.
While practicing for back care, focus on linking breath and movement and maintaining stability in your core and low back. Extend your spine, relax your shoulders, and curl your tailbone under to lengthen your low back. Consistency is important in promoting a healthy spine and a balanced back. Be mindful of your strengths and limitations, and avoid overdoing any practice. After completing some poses, settle in savasana, a lying-down relaxation pose, to breathe, integrate the experience, and allow your muscles to unwind and let go.
Backbends are particularly beneficial for building strength in the muscles along the spine. Cobra can benefit beginners through advanced yoga practitioners.
Lie face down on the mat and actively stretch your legs behind you. Tilt your tailbone down so your low back becomes long and the front of your pelvis, or pubic bone, becomes glued to the floor. Place your hands just in front of your shoulders, and as you inhale, extend your spine forward and peel it off of the mat so your upper body extends up. Keep your elbows tucked in and shoulders down. Your neck remains long and face relaxed. Only come up to the height that you can comfortably maintain without tension in your low back. Stay in the pose for a few breaths, and release on an exhalation, extending your spine forward as you return to the mat.Variations: Try flying cobra by lowering your upper body to the level where you can comfortably lift your hands (without creating low back tension).
Beginning as in cobra, lying face down, your arms can either be stretched out down the sides of your body, or tucked underneath your body with your hands beneath your thighs. Again, lengthen your low back by tucking your tailbone under; then moving on an inhalation, extend and lift your legs behind you. Protect your low back by only lifting your legs as high as it is comfortable for you. You may find that your strength in this pose increases over time. Release the pose by exhaling and lowering your legs.Variations: Other variations of locust include lifting one leg at a time, repetitiously lifting and lowering the legs, lifting both the arms and the legs simultaneously, or lifting alternating arms and legs.
3. Reclining twist
Twists stretch the muscles along both sides of the spine to maintain suppleness and flexibility.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and draw your knees into your chest. Extend your arms out from your shoulders. Drop both knees down to the right side of your body, and turn your gaze to follow your legs so that your neck remains soft and your spine extending. Breathe deeply, and feel your spine extend and stretch. Inhale, and roll onto your back; exhale, and twist to the other side.Variations: Reclining twists can also be done with one leg crossed over the other (as shown above), with both legs straight, or with one leg bent and one leg straight.
4. Child’s pose
Child’s pose is a gentle forward fold that stretches the muscles along either side of the spine. It is also an ideal pose in which you can focus attention on the breath.
Start on your hands and knees with your knees wider than your hips and your feet either touching or close together. Slide your hips back toward your heels and extend your arms forward. As you breathe in the pose, feel the breath slide down the back of your body and use your breath to release tension held in the muscles alongside your spine. To come out of the pose, walk your hands back to your body and return onto your hands and knees.Variations: Variations of this pose include letting the arms relax along either side of the body or keeping the knees closer together. You can also reach into a side stretch in the pose by extending both arms first to one side of the body and then to the other.