Oh, it’s just a little ache in the back. After days of denial or hope of retreat, the growing pain is ignored until the alarming symptoms deaden any hope of return to life-as-usual. Popping pills, missing work, feeling agitated and losing sleep is a familiar routine for millions each year! As you sit with an uncomfortable tilt in the doctor's reception room chair, you ponder what went wrong. Could the pain in your back have been thwarted? “WHY DON’T COBRAS GET BACK PAIN?” Understanding the answer to that question can lead you to a pain-free future!
Being out of shape, stressed, weak, sedentary, misaligned and/or conducting a physically imbalanced activity (golf, sitting at a desk with head facing downward, tennis, using a computer with a mouse in one hand…) creates a ticking time bomb for pain in the spine and related structures. Yoga brings flexibility, strength and toning, increased mental focus and decreased levels of stress. It also flushes and detoxifies the body by gently wringing out the muscles and organs. According to Annals of Internal Medicine, yoga may be a superior form of exercise for overcoming back pain. As a chiropractor and yoga teacher, I agree!
Back pain has different causes that range from postural distortions, injuries and disc problems to more uncommon issues involving an organ. It is important to consult with your doctor of chiropractic or other health care professional prior to starting an exercise program if back pain or other concerns exist, or you are pregnant. Yoga is one of the safest forms of exercise for those without pain, who seek a better quality of life and the prevention of spinal problems.
Types of yoga vary from restorative, gentle forms to styles that challenge even the most athletic people. All forms of yoga aid in the prevention of spinal conditions. The more mellow practices are preferred for people with a history of back complaints, arthritis or who have not exercised regularly. A good rule of thumb is to start with a gentle class before moving on to a more vigorous practice. It is best to start with a class taught by a qualified instructor.
Guidelines for practicing yoga postures:
- Wear comfortable clothing that does not restrict your movement.
- Use a mat or rug for floor exercises.
- Keep your movements long, slow and gentle.
- Allow your breath to keep flowing. Breathe through your nose only.
- If you can, inhale when you lengthen or extend. Exhale when you curl or fold your body.
- Listen to your body's signals. If it signals pain, ease up or come out of the pose. Stay in the range of "sweet challenge": that's where you make progress towards flexibility and strength.
- Exercise regularly. It's best to do it daily and at the same time each day.
- Perform your yoga program with an empty stomach (2 hours or longer after eating).
Below are a few of my favorite postures, or asana, for the health of the spinal system. If any pain is felt or any concerns exist, please discontinue you practice and seek expert advice.
The Cat - Cow Stretches (Marjaryasana – Bitilasana)
- Start with your palms under your shoulders and the knees directly under the hips.
- Cat- Exhaling, contract your abdominal muscles (gently draw your navel towards the spine), tuck your pelvis (point the tip of the tailbone towards your face), and flex your neck to gaze towards your pelvic region, allowing your back to arch.
- Cow- Inhaling, release the abdominal muscles as you lift the sitting bones (pointing the tip of the tailbone towards the ceiling), lift and extend the head, and allow the spine arch down.
- Alternating between the Cat and the Cow with the movement of the breath, perform these two movements 5-10 times.
The Cobra (Bhujangasana)
- Lie face down, legs straight together with the tops of your feet on the ground. Place your hands under your shoulders with your fingers pointing forward and your elbows pointing backward, with the forearms gently touching the rib cage.
- Inhale as you touch your forehead, nose and then chin to the floor. Without further arching your neck, use your back muscles to lift your upper body from the floor as high as possible with the abdomen still contacting the mat.
- Breathe normally through your nose as you hold the pose for 1-5 flowing breaths.
- Exhale as you slowly lower back to the ground and touch with the chin, nose and then forehead.
- Repeat 3-5 times.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose/Seated Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
- Sit upright with legs out in front of you in an “L” shape.
- With a bent knee, place your foot next to the straight-leg knee (start with inside placement and, if both sit bones can remain on the mat, advance to outside of the knee placement).
- Place the bent-knee side hand close to the pelvis (fingers pointing away). Keep the spine erect as you twist from the tailbone upward toward the bent knee side. Complete the movement by twisting the neck and gazing behind with the eyes.
- Twist with the spine and do not use the arms to pull you further into the pose. Lengthen the spine upward as you inhale. Keep the shoulders down and level.
- Hold for 5-10 flowing breaths each way.
Optional: Sit on a small pillow or folded bath towel. This helps prevent the lower back from losing its natural curve during the pose.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
- Kneel on the floor and sit back on your heels with the big toes touching (a pillow may be placed between your buttocks and legs). The knees may be separated to the edge of the mat or remain touching in the center.
- Exhale with a straight spine and lay your torso down between or on top of your thighs.
- Reach downward with your tailbone while lengthening towards the front of the mat through your spine.
- Reach your arms out in front of you through the finger tips, stack two fists on top each other and rest your forehead on them, or make a diamond formation by pointing your elbows outward while touching the index fingers with palms on the mat.
- Child’s Pose is a resting asana one may perform for 30 seconds to several minutes while breathing.
- Carefully and slowly come out with an inhalation. Use the arms to assist, if necessary.
With just minutes each day, a yoga practice will provide tremendous benefits including a healthier, more resilient and stronger spine. Painful breakdowns may be avoided or more rapidly overcome. Yoga can benefit people of all shapes, ages and ability. Today is the best time to start improving your life! After all, would you like to have the spine of an out-of-shape, desk-jockey who relies on pain pills to just to put his or her shoes on in the morning, or that of a COBRA?
Sherman, K. Annals of Internal Medicine. Dec. 20, 2005; vol. 143:849-856. News release, Group Health Cooperative Center for Health Studies. Summaries for Patients, Annals of Internal Medicine.