Got low back pain? Try these three slow and subtle yoga strategies from Tias Little to get more relief out of each practice.
In 1997 when I took my first yoga class, the notion of touching my toes with straight legs seemed a distant fantasy. Ten years later I was upside down, inside out, arm balancing, and, a specialty, deeply backbending. It felt great. I felt alive and strong in my body. My friend called yoga the fountain of youth, and I felt like walking evidence of this. Yet, my backbends were more a product of heredity than mastery, and I embraced my “skill” egoically, going deeper and deeper.
Fast forward to 2015 and my yoga feels a bit like the folly of youth. Deep in my low back, for several months now, lurks a stabbing reminder of my manifest impermanence: This body will not last forever. I stumble out of bed in the mornings like a retired linebacker.
It’s not just yoga, to be sure. I spend long hours at a desk. Stress and anxiety are familiar companions. And if the internet ad-streams are any indication, I am an aging demographic. That’s a heck of a recipe for the back pain I’m experiencing. At least Tias Little thinks so. And that’s why I, with much anticipation (and a little fear!), spent the day in Little’s The Sacred Sacrum, Kundalini, and Healing the Low Back intensive at Yoga Journal LIVE! Colorado in Estes Park. Here are three guiding principles I picked up for working with low back pain.
3 Ways To Work With Low Back Pain
1. Try downsized movements for more fluid mechanics.
Aging is a slow process of dehydration that can show up as arthritic tendency in the joints and lack of good metabolic flow through the organs, Little said at the top of the class. “Much of the aim of yoga is to hydrate the tissues, especially the lower back, and we’re going to do that by focusing our energy on—and performing micromovements in—our low back and sacrum.”
We spent the better part of the next two hours on our backs performing gentle movements. Now, a couple weeks later, I’ve experienced only a fraction of my usual low back pain. My go-to gross movements (forward folds that traction my low back, figure-four forward folds to stretch my hips) feel great indeed, but have only a momentary effect. Little’s prescribed micromovements have—so far—had a dramatic lasting effect.
“It’s good to do big movements and small movements,” Little told me. “Some somatic therapists suggest it’s the small movements that really open up the whole arena of the nervous system, because the slow and soft and small movements allow the brain to track what’s happening.” Try these three micromovements:
Alternating leg extensions
Lie on your back with legs straight, hands behind head, flex your feet and gently extend one heel away. Hold for a few breaths and release. Repeat on the same side several times before moving to the other side. Then, repeat each side, adding a gentle side stretch by sliding the same-side elbow on the floor away from your heels as you reach your heel away from your head. These sliding and gliding movements, says Little, “help to release the myelin sheathing around the nerve and open up the nerve track, the blood vessels—called the neurovascular bundles—and enable release in the connective tissues.”
Stay on your back, hands behind head, and bend your knees. Move into inverted Cat-Cows, by gently tucking your pelvis and pressing the lumbar spine into the floor. Hold for a few breaths, then slowly rock the pelvis into lordosis, arching your back, for another few breaths. Repeat several times keeping sacrum and shoulders on the floor. This supported floorwork unwinds tension from the joint spaces and connective tissues, lubricating and mobilizing the structures.
Still on your back with your knees bent, extend a straight leg up toward the ceiling. Use a strap and set the leg perpendicular to the floor. To protect your low back, keep your lower leg knee bent and draw your straight leg out to the side, supporting the leg onto a bolster or block for Supta Padangustasana. Stay for 1–3 minutes before coming up to center and repeating on the other side. Afterward loop the belt around both feet with legs lifted upward and perpendicular to the floor. Hold the belt with your hands and push your heels up into the belt for Supta Dandasana. Hold for 1–3 minutes in order to bring blood flow into your sacral region and help stabilize your low back. Then lie on your back to rest.
2. Start listening to the body.
Little speaks about building somatic intelligence, or in his acronym, SATYA: Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga Attunement. To achieve this, it’s important to be both actor and witness and deeply observe what’s happening in your body as you practice. “Generally people tend to bypass the observation part, preferring the action and rigorously going for it,” he says. “But it’s the observing and sensing that are so critical to developing awareness in yoga, and then that supports the meditative practice.” Try it:
Track sensation and take mental notes.
Move slowly through your asana. “The key is to gain a felt sense of each pose, rather than have the objective be to simply get further. When the body reveals tightness or pain, pay attention,” Little says. And as you do so, be open to a moment by moment negotiation of what is needed. He compares it to playing an instrument. You can’t just go through the motions, you must also listen to your output. In yoga it’s identifying, Little says, “when I need to flex more, rotate more, soften or activate more.”
Find Tadasana everywhere.
"Tadasana is the blueprint,” Little says, “balancing right to left, front to back, top to base—and even diagonal patterns.” Finding this in nearly everything we do maintains the lower spine’s natural shape. This is true throughout our asana practice in almost all of the poses, he says, “except for backbends where you’re going to get more lordosis or forward bends when it’s going to round.”
3. Dial it back to 80 percent.
“People try pretty radical stuff,” Little says, “and unless the spine and the sacrum are in the right position, that can cause chronic instability and pain.” In addition to preparation and observation Little calls upon self-discipline to find the appropriate pace in yoga practice. “In group classes students rely on the group energy and momentum. It’s easy to override the body from the top down,” Little says. The brain moves quickly, but the organs, fascia and other tissues, not so much—especially as we age. Working from the ground up and slowing to body-tissue pace, he says, is really powerful.
Further, less is more when it comes to active stretching and lengthening. Little recommends giving it about 80%. “In the Buddhist tradition it's called ‘right effort’ and it’s very hard for people to find because they think more is better." But the internal arts, like yoga or qi gong, are not “to the max,” practices, he says. “At 80%, the body can really accommodate the stretch, whereas 100% brings hardness and excess tension into the connective tissues and nerves.”
Returning to the instrument metaphor, Little adds, “It’s rarely about full volume air emitted into the trombone.” That’s true in life, too, he says. “The attitude of ‘the harder I push the more progress I’m going to make’ is not always true.” There’s a lot to be accomplished by slowing down and paying attention. Try it:
Slow down and stay awhile.
In vinyasa, be careful in transitions and hold poses longer. “A minute to two minutes will start really changing the fascial plains, shifting the joint space,” Little says. Gently moving in and out of the same pose can have a similar effect. In either case, avoid rushing off to the next shape.