A colleague of mine recently made the observation that you never hear your friends and family telling you how great their back feels. In fact, it is usually the opposite sentiment if they mention the back part of the body at all. And yet, as my last post pointed out, yoga is proven to provide relief for chronic back pain of many kinds. The sensation of well-being for a formerly in-pain student is likely a main reason people return to yoga class week after week.
It’s common to see among new yoga students chest-fallen spines, tucked pelvises, and forward-jutting heads. Called kyphosis, lumbar lordosis, and Head Forward Syndrome respectively, these postures are often either the source of back pain or the result of pain due to postural compensations you make to avoid pain. Meanwhile, we know that improving your posture helps to counteract the consequences of aging and gravity on the spine, such as diminished stature, decreased lung capacity, and even decreased abdominal cavity size, which can contribute to sluggish bowels and constipation, urinary frequency, and stress incontinence. Yowser! If you didn’t have a reason to stand more erect, you do now! And for students of all ages, good posture improves balance, lung function, general circulation to all of the body parts, and encourages normal spine architecture.
One way to assess posture is to look at the plumb line, the imaginary line that reveals your center of gravity and that passes through key anatomical landmarks. Looking at someone from the side (or yourself in a photo), start the line at the center opening of the ear, and draw directly down to the side of foot and see what other areas of the body this line bisects. Ideally the line goes through the center point of your upper arm bone (the head of the humerus), the boney point or your upper leg bone near the hip joint (the greater trochanter), the center of the side knee joint (front to back center point) and the boney point of your outer ankle (the lateral malleolus). Many people new to yoga, however, have points that fall in front of or behind the plumb line. Don’t get discouraged if that’s you; you can change this gradually with regular yoga practice.
One way to start working on getting back to center is to stand with your back, including your shoulder blades and butt, resting gently against a wall, but with your heels 4-6 inches away from it. If you have already determined that you have a forward head position, don’t attempt to rest it on the wall at this time. Your yoga practice will begin to correct this situation gradually. If you notice that your upper thoracic (in the region of your ribs) spine is on the wall, but not your shoulder blades, you may have kyphosis. You can work on this by consciously widening your collarbones on the front upper chest away from the breastbone, noticing if the shoulder blades respond by starting to make contact with the wall behind you. If you notice that the low back and spine are flat on the wall, you may have lost the natural lumbar curve that typically leaves a small space between just your low back and the wall. Try bending the knees slightly and tipping the pelvis forward and down a little bit. Does the space in the lower back suddenly appear? If it does, can you maintain the space while simultaneously strongly straightening the legs by pushing down into the floor with the entire foot and gently lengthening up the spine toward the crown of your head?
Even if you’re not able to get to the center line, you’re moving in that direction while learning some valuable feedback about your body: Does this exercise cause actual pain in the back or just intense sensation that resolves quickly when you release the posture? After trying this for a few minutes against the wall, try it away from the wall. Experienced yogis will recognize this as one of the foundational standing yoga poses, Tadasana. When doing it away from the wall, use the memory of the wall contact to help you find a more upright posture on your own.
Another way to play with posture is to lay on your back with your feet pressing into a wall. This will help you create the same effort used in the legs when standing. While maintaining the pressure through the feet, notice the shape of the spine and where you make contact with the floor. If the shoulder blades don’t rest on the floor but the upper spine does, try inhaling the arms up toward the ceiling and then overhead down to the floor (don’t insist they make it all the way to the ground). Exhale them back down to the sides of the body. Repeat this about 6 times. Then reassess the upper back and shoulder blade position.
If the low back is flat on the floor when you begin, with no evidence of the natural lumbar arch, keep one foot pressed into the wall while exhaling and bringing the other knee into the chest and using the hands to squeeze it carefully toward the body. Inhale the leg back to its starting position and do the same on with the other leg. Repeat side to side 6 times. See if this liberates the lumbar spine a bit.
Armed with the information about your own body, you may begin to recognize potential posture-related cases of some of your own back pain. And hopefully, these exercises have already eased some of that sensation. It’s sometimes said that all other yoga poses grow out of Mountain Pose, so in my next post, I’ll highlight some other poses that have unique value for low-back pain. Until then, stand tall, y’all!