Yoga & Back Maintenance

Recently my social media feeds were flooded with articles about a Boston-based study that investigated the benefits of yoga for chronic back pain. Any time I come across articles like this I get a little anxious. I will happily go on for hours about the benefits of yoga, but I am also eager to tell everyone that not all yoga practices are created equal. I get nervous that someone with extreme back pain will only read the little blurb on their Facebook feed and be compelled to sign up for a membership at the closest yoga studio assuming it'll fix their back pain. Not all yoga is for everyone. I do, however, believe that everyone can benefit from some type of yoga. It's just a matter of asking questions and taking the time to explore the options. 

If you've ever taken my Vinyasa class you know there's a flow, but I find a lot of value in holding and breaking down postures. I often struggle when developing my class content. I'm constantly asking myself, "Is there enough flow for it to be considered Vinyasa?" I've come to terms with the fact that my emphasis on alignment and holding postures will probably turn off a lot of flow junkies, especially with the class I'm currently teaching. 

For about a month my classes have been all about twists. I know not everyone loves twists and I usually expect students to leave class a little crabby after twisting their guts for an hour, but I've been amazed by the feedback I've received after this class. At least a handful of students have approached me after class about lower back and hip pain that is no longer present after taking this specific class on a regular basis. When I developed the class I was just hoping I could give my students tools to stay calm in Parivrtta Trikonasana and prep them for Parsva Bakasana, so this whole low back pain alleviation thing was unexpected. But it makes sense! To prep for the big twists I've had students do some outer hip and thigh opening postures. They're super simple, but they're apparently offering some students a little relief from their back pain.

So, friends, I think these postures could benefit many of you. Here's three postures that I've incorporated into my twisting focused classes that could potentially minimize some back discomfort:

Parivrtta Supta Padangustasna--Revolved Reclined Hand to Foot

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My regular students typically walk into the studio and without me prompting them ask, "A block and a strap?" They know me so well! I LOVE laying on my back and stretching my legs with a strap. It's something that took me some time to incorporate into the classes I teach since I'm worried it breaks the flow of practice, but turns out the voices in my head that are saying, "You're killing the vibe with this strap stuff. No one likes this!" are actually wrong. For the most part, it seems like students are totally into the subtle intensity that can arise in this posture.

This revolved variation of Reclined Hand to Foot is a super small twist. Cross your lifted leg over your body just enough until you feel your hip of the elevated leg start to lift. Once the hip lifts you can stop the twist and just keep the leg at a slight angle across your body. To amp up the intensity grab your lifted thigh and externally rotate the thigh. Hello, IT band! You really can't stretch your IT band in the way we think of stretching other parts of the body, but you can get into the attachment points. For most of us the IT band area is very tight and can cause discomfort in the hips and lower back. I thoroughly enjoy the sounds students make in this posture. It looks innocent, but it can be potent.

Gomukhasana Variation--Sidebending Cow Face Pose

Here we have one of my favorite hip openers with a lovely side body stretch. If Gomukhasana doesn't work for your body, specifically your knees, simply cross your shins. The lean to the side allows for you to stretch your side body and really get into your outer hip. If you push your weight-bearing hand down and slightly out into your mat you'll get even deeper into your side body and outer hip. Of course skipping the sidebend and just folding forward over the knees allows the lower back to widen and can feel pretty magical. 

Twisted Supine Pigeon/Grab-Your-Ankle-Asana

This hybrid posture turns Supine Half Pigeon into a twist and then things get really interesting when you add resistance. Begin in Supine Pigeon with your right ankle crossed over your left thigh. With your legs in that general shape, drop your legs to the left and scoot your pelvis to the right so that you're more centered. If your top knee allows it, gently nudge your top knee toward the front of your mat. To make things more interesting, grab your right ankle with your left hand. Nothing is going to actually move, but attempt to lift your foot and use your hand to push the foot down. Again, students make very interesting sounds in this posture. For most students the intensity is in the right outer hip and thigh. I sometimes feel this in what I believe is my Quadratus Lumborum, a muscle that is often considered a back muscle but actually makes up the deepest part of the abdominal wall. Keep breathing and continue to play with the  resistance of lifting the foot, but pushing it down. 

I *KNOCK ON WOOD* have never actually dealt with chronic back pain. A large percentage of my students come to me with various back issues and for the longest time I struggled with how to help them. However, through my own practice and lots of time studying anatomy I realized that addressing the hips can help a lot of students with back pain. The hips and spine have such a close, almost symbiotic relationship. The two will effect each other. I am not saying this is a cure for back pain. Yoga is not a replacement for medication, a doctor, or physical therapist, but with the right guidance and the right postures yoga can help some people with back pain. 

Give them a shot, yogis! Integrate them into your regular practice. How do they feel? Remember that consistency is key. Trying these out once and never revisiting them probably won't make a difference, but a few minutes a day could be just what you need.