80% of us will have back pain at some point in our lives. How do you get to be that lucky 20%? Or at least keep the pain minimal and have a quick and complete recovery if you do succumb to an aching back? Eating right, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are all good ways to keep your connective tissue healthy but what more can you do to protect your spine?
Try adding yoga to your weekly routine. Yoga is a great complement to cardiovascular workouts like running, biking, hiking or swimming. Those activities are all great for your heart and lungs and are wonderful ways to improve circulation, regulate blood sugar, and metabolize fatty acids but they also make your muscles tight. Cardiovascular activities require repetition of small movements of the arms, legs and torso. Athletes have notoriously tight hip flexors, hamstrings, even tight abdominal muscles, all of which can contribute to back problems. Yoga will help to improve flexibility of these muscles. It also helps reduce stiffness of the joints and to restore full mobility of the hips and spine.
Another benefit of yoga is that it can strengthen muscles that do not get used during our every day, forward-moving activities. It can bring attention to muscles you didn’t even know you had. The yogis of yore realized that the core muscles, (including the transversus abdominis, the pelvic floor muscles and the longus coli in the neck), are critical to our well-being long before the phyisos from Australia published papers demonstrating their correlation to back and neck pain. The yogis called these core areas, “bandhas” and taught that they were locks for the energy that flows through our centers. Doing planks and balance poses, performing warrior postures with perfect alignment are all wonderful ways to strengthen your core and keep your spine strong.
Go With the Flow
Cardiovascular activities that raise the heart rate enough to make you sweat shift blood flow away from the center of the body in order to pump more blood to the large muscles of the legs. Yoga shifts the blood flow back toward the center. Stretching exercises make a difference. Many yoga postures allow blood and lymph to flow more easily to the spine and can bring nutrients toward and waste products away from the cells that make up the lower back muscles, ligaments, cartilage, fascia, and intervertebral disks.
Many people have breathing patterns that are not really normal. They may be shallow breathers, chest breathers or may fail to use their diaphragm at all. This can contribute to undue stress and stiffness of the ribcage, the shoulder girdle and the spine. A good yoga lesson will include breathing techniques that optimize use of the diaphragm while reducing unnecessary tension in other muscles that attach to the ribcage. Learning to breath properly has all kinds of benefits, not the least of which is prevention of musculoskeletal pain in the torso.
Don’t Skip the Savasana!
Healthy, busy, goal-oriented people may be tempted to skip out on Savasana, or copse pose. This is when you simply lie on your back at the end of class. But this pose, along with other restorative postures are an essential part of a yoga practice. Restorative postures enhance the blood flow effects described above. And they teach you how to relax. The benefits of such conscious relaxation include decreased markers of stress such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure, better digestion, and improved sleep. Restorative yoga postures are especially useful if one is feeling run down, after a high-intensity workout or competition, during a woman’s menstrual period or during periods of high stress from work or school.
Find a teacher in your area who covers all the basics of yoga for athletes. Classes should emphasize healthy range of motion of the spine in all directions: flexion and extension as well as rotation and side bending. It should teach mindfulness of posture and breathing patterns and it should teach core muscle strength and relaxation. The class should allow ample time to hold postures in order to really learn the alignment and to maximize muscle endurance and flexibility. If you prefer to try yoga out in the comfort and privacy of your own home, there are many podcasts and DVDs that offer good instruction for beginners. Try Gaiam.com for an array of DVDs from highly qualified teachers.
More information about yoga and back pain, restorative yoga, breathing practices and various yoga postures can be found on my blog, The Pragmatic Yogi.
by guest blogger Lisa B. Minn, Physical Therapist/Yoga Instructor