The Top Five Tips for a Healthy Back in Our Yoga Practice

We don’t think twice about a healthy back – when it’s healthy. In fact unless you’ve suffered from back pain at some point in your life, or someone you love has suffered, you’re probably not reading this right now. It isn’t until we wake up one morning unable to tie our shoe laces that we realize the importance of a healthy spine. As Joni Mitchell once said “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Well good news Yogis, yoga can be an amazing tool to keep our back healthy when we are mindful of how we move.

The Spine: A Tour

The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae (spinal bones) that stack one on top of the next making a connection with the bone above and the bone below. These connections are actually little joints and enable us to move by gliding in various motions. Each section of the spine has different characteristics and movement abilities based on the shape of the vertebrae in that section. The neck or cervical spine has the most mobility with full freedom of movement in flexion, extension, twisting, and side bending.

The mid back or thoracic spine is limited in side bending because the rib cage attaches here, and due to the position of the joints it is also limited in forward and back bending but has lots of freedom in rotation. Similarly, the low back or lumbar spine is limited in rotation because of the position of the joints, but has freedom in flexion, extension, and side bending. The sacrum and coccyx that are commonly referred to as the tail bone, are formed by fused vertebrae and move as one unit in flexion and extension.

The curves of the spine also contribute to how we move. The neck and lower back have lordosis, a curve frontward, and the mid back and tailbone have kyphosis, a curve backward. With the exception of the first and second vertebrae of the neck, between each vertebra is a spinal disc. This disc acts as a shock absorber and a pivot point for movement. As we bend forward, the disc moves backwards, as we back bend the disc moves forward. Overnight the discs inflate with water, becoming stiffer. As the day progresses the water gets squeezed out and we actually become shorter over the course of the day.

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Keeping Your Back Happy: The Top 5 Tips

1. Respect the Curve

The curves in our spine maximize the architectural stability. Deviate from the curve (without intention) and we make ourselves vulnerable to injury. Obviously in back bends we are reversing our curves with intention, but the majority of forward bends actually occur from the hips and less from the lower back and rarely involve the neck. Twists are another motion that it is important to maintain the neutral curves of the spine. In fact the combination of flexion of the lumbar spine with rotation is the number one way to injure our discs.

2. Use Your Bandhas / Core

Bandhas are the traditional energy locks most commonly used in an Ashtanga style practice. It just so happens that the bandhas correspond with very important core muscles in the pelvis, abdomen, and neck. Mula bandha is achieved by drawing up the muscles of the pelvic floor, as if we were stopping the flow of urine. This action has been shown to stabilize the sacroiliac joint (sacrum meeting the pelvis) especially in women.

Uddiyana bandha requires us to draw the belly button in and up, flattening the lower abdomen which activates the transverse abdominis muscle that stabilizes the lumbar spine. Finally, Jalandara bandha can be practiced by tucking the chin almost energetically (barely visible) to lengthen the back of the skull and contracts the deep core muscles of the neck which has been shown to eliminate neck pain when practiced regularly.

3. Move Slow in the Morning

The first 30 minutes of our day are the stiffest for our spine. It has mostly been immobile overnight, and the discs have gotten full with water. If you enjoy a morning practice, wake up early to give your spine time to naturally warm up and begin with slow cat cows to increase circulation and gradual motion in the spine. Save your forward bends for further into your practice when you are warmed up.

4. Walk the Middle Path

The Fourth Noble Truth in Buddhism is as follows,

Those who follow the Middle Path which avoid the extreme of indulging one's desires and opposite extreme of torturing one's mind and body unreasonably, will find happiness, peace of mind and Enlightenment.

We don’t have to be a Buddhist to see the sensibility in this philosophy when it comes to our bodies. Being mindful of our edges in all ranges of motion in the spine, can keep us away from injury. Balancing our practice with a combination of forward bends, back bends, and twists brings symmetry to our bodies.

5. Move it or Lose it

Off our yoga mats it is important to move our spine throughout the day. For example, if you are at a computer for the majority of the day it is helpful to take regular mini stretch breaks. This can be as simple as standing up, reaching for the sky and sitting back down. The joints in the spine get nourishment from motion as old stagnant fluid is flushed out and new nourishing fluid is flushed in.

Practicing yoga is a great step towards achieving a healthy and happy back. If we observe these five tips we can avoid injury, stay mobile as we age, and always have our shoe laces tied with ease.

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