Poor Posture and Pressure on your Spine
Freddie Mercury was right: we’re under pressure. Nothing can be truer when it comes to your spine. It’s because of simple physics: the pressure or load on your back increases as you move away from a neutral posture. Here are the numbers: Standing straight puts 100mm of pressure on the intervertebral discs of your spine; add a forward bend while flexing or rounding your back and you’ve more than double the pressure, or 220mm. Can you see now why reaching your toes in Uttanasana or any standing forward bend before you’re ready isn’t worth the potential harm to your back?
What poor posture means to the ongoing health of your back?
Over time, poor posture causes the discs between the vertebrae to wear down and lose their ability to cushion and act as shock absorbers. The discs are pushed out towards the back from their normal position which causes bulging or herniated discs. These bulging and worn out discs can cause a more serious problem by increasing the pressure on the spinal nerves and the spinal cord itself. The result is pain in the legs, including sciatica, arms, shoulders, and neck, and problems with muscle innervations, movement patterns and the sensation of temperature, pressure and pain.
These same problems can be worsened when sitting, believe it or not. Sitting, in contrast to standing, actually increases the intradiscal load compared to standing; spinal pressure “sits’ around 140mm pressure. If you slouch (I’m talking to you desk slouchers!), spinal pressure increases to 190mm; add some weight and you’ve put a whopping 275 pounds of pressure on your spine. This is why in certain methods of yoga like Iyengar students learn standing poses before sitting ones as a general rule as they’re considered more advanced.
Sitting for long periods of time can definitely cause back pain or worsen an existing back problem. Sitting is a static posture that increases stress on the entire back, shoulders, arms, and legs, and especially the muscles of the spine. Slouching overstretches spinal ligaments and surrounding structures of the spine and nerves, blood supply is interrupted and the back muscles are overstretched.
If you’re not a yogi yet but find yourself slouching or sitting for long periods of time during the day, your yoga can be as simple as doing the following:
Getting up periodically to stand up and take the pressure off your spine
Sit back into your chair so your back is supported. In yoga postures, ground evenly into your support and allow your spine to straighten up
Use a lumbar roll between your lumbar or lower back and your chair. To judge the proper size of the roll, sit back in your chair, place your forearm behind your lower back between it and your chair and lean back. Your forearm is approximately the size of a lumbar roll. This works when driving too.
Move! Joints don’t have much blood flow. Joints get nutrition in and waste out by physical movement. Move freely in your chair instead of sitting still for hours at a time.
For you yogis, body awareness is key to minimizing the pressure on your back. I’m not saying never practice a forward bend or a seated pose but rather know how to practice them safely. Even a seemingly friendly pose like Savasana can do harm. Sure, while lying down you’re at the lowest end of the spinal load spectrum at 25mm. As a teacher, I ask my students to roll to the side before sitting up not simply to avoid feeling dizzy and lightheaded but also to reduce the pressures on the spine. For the record, resting on your side applies 75mm pressure on your back, which is quite a bit less than pulling yourself straight up from lying flat on your back.
So, the take home message is: do the work in other poses which don’t load the spine first to lengthen your leg muscles and hamstrings, and strengthen your back before you throw yourself into a forward bend. Realize which types of poses are right for you. Gentle flexion of the spine isn’t for everybody and that’s ok. Once your body is ready, you’ll be reaping the benefits of practicing Uttanasana instead of causing harm to our back.
Open Your Pelvis: Deep Straddle, Front Splits in Yoga
I grew up in the 1980s in the U.S.A. and one of my first fitness memories was of the “Thigh Master”. This invention was sold as toning the thighs and giving a sleek looking leg to the user. The exercise had the result of tightening the inner thigh muscles. Without much technical instruction the do-it-yourself home workout junkie would just squeeze the inner thighs muscles, including the Adductors, Gracilis and Pectineus. When I started practicing yoga the one area of serious tightness that I found on my body was my inner thighs. When your inner thighs are tight and over worked it can restrict healthy inward and outward rotation of the hip joint. In the yoga practice we rely on a healthy range of motion in the hip joint to practice most of the postures. Yoga practitioners who find their inner thighs a little tight need to take the time to understand how to soften and release this tender area in order to practice safely.
The thighs form the gateway to the pelvis and opening the muscles along the thighs takes patience, humility and good alignment. Between the hamstrings, the quadriceps and the inner thigh muscles, the upper legs create a solid protection for the pelvis. In yoga you practice how to let go of all unnecessary protection so that the body can relax. In essence flexibility is about laying down the armor of the body so its natural state of peace and harmony can be revealed. That’s easier said than done.
When I first started attempting to deepen my front splits I realized that my inner thighs were blocking the pathway. This is a sensitive area to work with in the body that cannot be rushed. In the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series many students who are eager to open their inner thighs in postures like Upavistha and Supta Konasana end up creating injury out of their enthusiasm. As a teacher I strongly encourage students not to push themselves too hard while in these postures. Eager students will sometimes grab hold of their feet and attempt to force their torso down to the floor between their thighs. But without waiting for the body to relax and release its protection, the tightness around the thighs cannot release and they only end up making their body tighter. In the worst-case scenario that I have witnessed, a student injures their hamstring or inner thigh attachment around the sitting bones while attempting to go deeper. This can all be avoided if you work patiently, surrender the go and apply healthy alignment principles while working the yoga postures.
In the yoga practice, we cannot control when the body will release and open. All we can do is show up each day and practice while letting go of the need to get any particular result. The openings and transformations that happen through yoga practice occur because we surrender ourselves to the divine and in that grace we experience our natural freedom. There is no way to rush that process. But I know first hand how frustrating it can be to turn up every day on your mat and not feel like there is any improvement. When I work with front splits I get impatient and want to hurry along the tedious journey of softening an area of tightness. If you are also working on front splits this video will help you find a safe path to opening the inner thighs.