Quadratus Lumborum and Mindful Back Health in Yoga
Low back pain is an increasing issue in our society dominated by poor posture, sedentary lifestyles, and chronic sitting patterns. The source of low back pain can vary, but a great deal of these muscular dysfunctions emanate from the quadratus lumborum muscles.
Most of us are quite familiar with the erector spinae muscles that travel from the hip crest/sacrum to various points up the vertebrae and ribs. These muscles function primarily as extensors of the back. Few people (including yoga teachers) are aware of the all-important quadratus lumborum muscles that are located deep toward the erector spinae.
The quadratus lumborum muscles sit on either side of the vertebrae. They originate on the iliac crest (hip bone) and insert on the transverse processes of the lumbar vertebrae and the 12th (last) rib.
When both sides contract, they extend the spine (and/or depress the ribcage from behind). When only one side contracts, the spine flexes laterally and/or elevates the ilium (hip) on that same side. In forced expiration, the quadratus lumborum will fix the 12 ribs.
When Back Pain Can Occur
Dysfunction and low back pain can settle into the quadratus lumborum under a few conditions:
- If the erector spinae are weak or inhibited (as they often are in chronic seated postures), the quadratus lumborum attempts to take up the slack and loading in back extension and spinal stabilization leading to overall muscle fatigue.
- If muscle imbalances build up across the pelvis (e.g., tight hip flexors), the lower vertebrae can shift into chronic excessive curvature (lordosis), which will shorten and weaken the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae.
- If poor posture and upper body muscle tension forms across the chest and shoulders, rounded-back posture (kyphosis) will pull the rib cage up and away from the hip crest. This places stress and drag on the quadratus lumborum and portions of the erector spinae.
- The deep gluteals (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) are responsible for hip abduction and pelvic stabilization in walking and other gait patterns. If these deep gluteal muscles are weak and inhibited, the quadratus lumborum and tensor fascia latae have to compensate to stabilize the pelvis.
- Some physical experts have also found that tight hip adductor muscles (groin) can inhibit (through reciprocal inhibition) the gluteus medius muscles. As mentioned above, the quadratus lumborum muscle may compensate for the gluteus medius muscle’s lack of activity and pelvic stabilization.
How to Keep Your Back Healthy with Yoga
Understanding that the dysfunction residing in the quadratus lumborum is often the result of dysfunction and tension imbalances coming from other muscles, here are some initial approaches to maintaining health of the quadratus lumborum:
- Develop a strategy to maintain fluid balance in upper and lower body posture patterns to avoid chronic hip flexor tightness, back extensor tension, and loss of natural vertebral curvature and pelvic placement
- Stretch the chest, front of the shoulders, hip flexors, groin, and lower back frequently
- Strengthen back extensors and overall core stabilizers
- Strengthen and stretch deep gluteals to unload unnecessary engagement of the quadratus lumborum
- Engage in proper therapeutic treatments when discomfort and pain develop
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Do These Yoga Poses for Back Pain
Here are some basic, accessible stretches readily prescribed to restore and maintain flexibility in the quadratus lumborum muscles:
When aiming to stretch the quadratus lumborum muscles and other lower back musculature, I would personally recommend avoid using forward bends like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Paschimottasana (Seated Two Leg Forward Bend) and other similar poses.
Due to the nature of intervertebral disc compression in spinal flexion, these types of forward bends would be better served to actually involve engagement of the back extensors and transverse abdomen in order to extend the spine, shift the ‘flexion’ into the hips, unload the lower vertebrae and protect against disc compression.
Yoga and Lymphatic Circulation
According to Live Science, “the lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials,” including a fluid that contains white blood cells that help fight infections. You are probably most familiar with the lymph nodes in the lymphatic system, but the lymphatic system travels through your body from your tonsils and adenoids to your spleen. There are lymph nodes located around vital organs like your heart and lungs and in your armpit and near your groin area.
This internal system produces the antibodies necessary to kill bad actors in your body and prevent an infection in one part of your body from spreading to another. If your lymphatic system stops working, fluids begin to build up in your body and several different conditions can occur, including infections, swollen glands, blockages, autoimmune disorders, certain types of cancer, and lymphedema. Since the lymphatic system travels through so many parts of your body, it is crucial that we keep it healthy.
Yoga and Lymphatic Circulation
As you may know, yoga is one of the best practices for strengthening the body and reducing stress. What you might not realize is the role yoga plays in increasing circulation throughout the body. Increasing circulation helps allow the lymphatic system to transport good stuff and filter out the bad, which means that any amount or type of yoga will improve your lymphatic system.
Think of the lymphatic system as a super highway that filters toxins and circulates antibodies throughout your body. This system is critical to getting you better when you are sick. Moreover, unlike the way blood travels through the body, the heart does not control the pumping of the lymphatic system. Instead, the system moves by muscular contractions. Even more reason to strengthen your muscles.
One aspect of yoga that has dramatic effects on the lymphatic system is pranayama. Pranayama is the practice of deep, controlled breathing. By practicing these deep breaths, you are able to better circulate good fluids throughout your body and remove bad toxins.
Routine Maintenance of the Lymphatic System
Yoga poses that invert the legs and allow gravity to act on the lymphatic channels are particularly helpful to keeping the system flowing and functioning optimally. In addition to these type of poses, any dynamic postures that build heat and keep the body moving are also beneficial. For these yoga postures to be the most productive, focus more on your breath than perfecting the postures. Below are some sample poses to get you started:
Downward Facing Dog Adho Mukha Svanasana
A classic pose, but did you know that it builds strength throughout the body and improves the functioning of your immune system? To attempt this pose, firmly plant your feet at the bottom of your mat, then place your hands at the top of your mat so that your body forms an upside V. If you are already under-the-weather when you try this, have a block nearby to rest your head.
Cat-Cow – Bitilasana
By far my favorite yoga pose, Cat-Cow gets everything flowing with only moderate effort. First, go into Tabletop pose (your hands and knees firmly planted on your mat, with your toes pointed behind you). Now arch your back like a cat, letting your gaze fall to the floor in between your outstretched hands. Next, curve your spine the other way your body forms a U the other way. Your head should face towards the ceiling. Do this at least two dozen times, then rest in Child’s Pose to finish.
Sun Salutations are a great way to build strength and increase circulation throughout the body.
Standing Forward Bend – Uttanasana
Gather two blocks before planting your feet firmly on the back of your mat. Spread your feet a little wider than hip-widths apart and then rest your head on top of the bricks. Stay here for several deep breaths.
Other Practices to Improve Lymphatic System
- Water, water and more water. Drinking plenty of fluids is far and away the best method for improving and maintaining all of the systems in your body.
- Go for a brisk walk. Keep your arms and legs moving and walk faster than normal. This will jumpstart your lymphatic system and get all the good stuff flowing.
- In addition to the restorative yoga and low-intensity positions, there are other types of yoga for when you are sick, including Yin Yoga specially tailored to the winter cold and flu season.
Poses for a Weak Lymphatic System
I’ll be honest, I am the worst when I’m sick. Rarely do I feel like anything more than sitting on the sofa and watching reruns, much less partaking in a full yoga session. But, if you are able to get yourself up and moving, there are some low-intensity postures that can help a cold run its course faster so you can get back to feeling like yourself again.
A cold or allergies means that your lymphatic system is blocked. In addition to whatever your doctor recommends, include these chest-opening yoga postures into your get-well-soon regime.
Start by dimming the lights in the room and have extra blankets and blocks nearby, as the last thing you want to do is over-exert yourself. Feel free to turn any of these poses into supported poses. These postures should be done more like restorative yoga.
Bridge Pose is a great chest opener, but if you are feeling under-the-weather try the Supported Bridge Pose – Setu Bandha Sarvangasana – it is much easier on achy joints. Lie down on your mat with your palms down. Bending your knees, pull your heels towards your fingertips. Then push down with your hands to lift your hips up, while you slide a brick lengthwise under your torso. Lastly, pull your shoulder blades in towards each other as much as possible. You should feel your chest opening. Close your eyes and relax while gravity does the work for you.
Bow Pose – Dhanurasana
Traditionally best for strengthening your abdomen, but also stimulates your thymus gland and rejuvenates the parts of the lymphatic system closest to your chest. Try this pose when you have a lot of post-nasal drip flowing into your chest. Begin face-down on your mat – extra blankets are suggested for this one. Separate your legs on the mat about hips-width. Take several deep breaths. Then, as your release your breath, grab hold of your ankles so that your body is shaped like an archer’s bow. Continue to lift your thighs off the mat until you exhale and lower yourself back down to the mat. Repeat two to three times.
Cobra Pose – Bhujangasana
Often part of Sun Salutations, Cobra Pose is another ideal chest opener. Lie face-down on your mat and take several deep breaths. Place your hands, fingers spread wide, on the mat under your shoulders. Press your body into your mat and as you inhale, begin to straighten your arms. You will rise off the mat, except your hands and the tops of your feet. Keep your body tightened. Bend your head back slightly so your gaze moves from in front of you towards the ceiling. Hold this for your full breath, then come back to your mat and exhale. Repeat for a minute.
Extended Triangle Pose – Utthita Trikonasana (as pictured above)
Spread your legs wide so you take up the entire mat lengthwise. Your left foot should be pointed towards the front of the room; your back or right foot turned perpendicular to your front foot. Keep your abdomen tucked in. Put your left hand on your left ankle and hold on. Then, twist your right arm towards the ceiling and hold for three deep breaths. Now switch arms and hold for another three breaths.
Legs Up the Wall – Viparita Karani
Last, but not least, this pose lets gravity do the work so you can relax. Move your mat up against the wall at place a blanket or two on top. Lie on top of the blankets with your bottom against the wall and your legs going up the wall. You should form an “L.” Stretch out your arms so your torso and arms form a “T.” Then, close your eyes and lie there for at least fifteen minutes. I don’t know about you, but – sick or not sick – I could do this one all day!