Most (all?) of us have experienced discomfort in the lower back at some point in our lives. Human bodies evolved from four-legged ancestors and our lower backs are weak points in our anatomy. Add to this the unnatural lifestyles that many of us endure (sitting for extended periods of time, lack of activity), weak core muscles, along with incorrect alignment when trying to lift a heavy object, and one has the “perfect storm” for back problems.
Thankfully, yoga offers many asanas and practices that can help keep our lower backs healthy and happy. Below are three of them – half pigeon pose, block under sacrum, and lower back bolster.
Half pigeon pose
You might be wondering why a hip stretch, half pigeon pose, is included as a pose to relieve the lower back. The piriformis, which often becomes quite tight in riders and other athletes, is stretched with this pose. The piriformis attaches to the sacrum. If the piriformis is very tight, it could pull the sacrum out of alignment, causing agonizing pain in the lower back. We want to keep this muscles strong and supple.
Nota Bene: if you have problems with your knees, it is best to practice “thread the needle” instead.
Block under sacrum
This pose offers delicious relief for a strained lower back by gently stretching the muscles along either side of the lower spine using traction and the pull of gravity. This allows more space between the vertebrae of the lower back – too much compression and tightness in the muscles of this area is one of the main causes of lower back pain. In addition, this pose allows the psoas muscles to stretch gently.
Blanket roll under the lower back
This pose, best done once the lower back has released a little using the block under the sacrum, allow the muscles in this part of the body to be supported and to relax. If your lower back is very tight, the blanket roll needs to be tiny, as the pose will feel much too painful – think of trying to bend a board over a cylinder. Give the body time to adjust.
Nota Bene: When coming off the bolster, engage your core muscles, tuck the tailbone under slightly, and move very slowly, otherwise the lower back could spasm back into its tight pattern. You have allowed the muscles to relax, so be gentle when asking them to engage again, as when rolling off the blanket.
There are many other ways to support a healthy lower back, including keeping the core strong, and using twists (future post!). One can begin gently with these fabulous three poses.
I often begin class by asking students to close their eyes and stand in their own dignity. That dignity begins by connecting with our own power, and that power emanates from the core, both literally and figuratively.
I shall focus on the literal core in this post, by which I mean not only the abdominals, but also the obliques and back muscles – the entire “cylinder” located more or less between the pelvic floor and the bottom ribs. As riders, we need to be able to maintain a “positive tension” in the core, engaging it as needed, yet not being so overpowered by it that we become rigid.
I shall focus on one of the most common poses you may encounter in yoga class, the plank, in this post. I’ll also examine the movement between the high and low plank pose, which is a common “vinyasa” (or deliberate step) between poses, sometimes referred to as chaturanga dandasana in Sanskrit (if one is to be precise, the term refers to the four-limbed staff pose, not the actual movement from high to low plank.) However, almost every yoga pose uses the core in some way, so simply practicing every day will make your core more toned.
Forearm plank pose: arm set-up is the same as for half-dog pose. Use a block between the hands, elbows under the shoulders, inner wrists pressing down. Shoulders remain over elbows, back of neck long. Lift bellybutton up to spine. Breathe! 🙂
High to low plank: Whether you place the knees on the ground or not, begin by holding high plank pose. Think about curling the tailbone under while at the same time lifting the inner thighs up – these actions cancel each other out and crate a very strong core. If you tend to hyper-extend your elbows, be sure to have a “secret” bend in the elbows. Shoulders over elbows over wrists.
Low plank: if – and only iff – you can hold the low plank for a couple of breaths without sagging your lower back or collapsing down, then keep the knees off the floor. If you cannot, please place the knees on the floor (see second photo below). In both cases, from high plank point your toes to push your body forward, shoulders traveling further forward than the fingers. Bend the elbows at a 90 degree angle. (Too often, practitioners keep the hands under the shoulders, thereby hunching the shoulders, and sometimes even causing “tennis elbow” from the strain on the over-bent elbows.) From low plank, one can lower down to the floor, or move forward to cobra or upward facing dog pose (these will be addressed in a future post).
May the power of your literal core help you move through your days with dignity, thereby helping you access your very inner core! 🙂