Nothing makes us feel older than having an “aching back,” and the stats don’t look good. 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their life. According to a report by the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University, back pain is the 6th most costly condition in the United States. Clearly having a healthy back is not as common as we would like it to be. Thankfully, one solution is relatively simple: yoga.
Why do we have back pain?
The biggest cause of back pain that I see as a Yoga instructor and Acupuncturist is poor posture. You can read more about that in my post “Mom Was Right, You Should Stand Up Straight!” Our bad posture while sitting, “computering,” and standing strains the muscles in our back and causes pain and discomfort. Over time the muscles weaken and we feel instability in our back. The skeleton loses muscular support and we have disc degeneration. While this degeneration is common as we age, it doesn’t have to cause pain, and only does so when we lose muscular support. Lastly, we don’t lead symmetrical lives. We are one-side dominant creatures, and all of this leads to having asymmetrical bodies. This can also cause back pain as one side of our back is working harder than the other, leading to one-sided tightness. This throws off our posture even more, leading to compensation and pain.
How Yoga can help
Yoga offers us many ways to help our back feel better on a regular basis. In a typical yoga class (especially the ones I teach), we cultivate core and whole body strength to support the back. Stretching and mobility exercises undo the tightness of poor posture. We learn how to stand up straight and bring awareness to our posture. Everything we do is bilateral (to both sides) which evens out our imbalances. And finally, yoga helps calm the mind. Let’s go a bit deeper into each of these topics:
1. Strength for a Healthy Back
When we practice yoga, we strengthen all parts of the body. The Vinyasa flow (Plank, Chaturanga, Upward Dog, and Downward Dog) alone is great for strengthening the back. Plank and Chaturanga strengthen the core muscles to support our posture, Upward Dog directly strengthens the muscles along the spine, and Downward Dog stretches the hamstrings which, when tight can contribute to lower back pain. Read more on the relationship between tight hamstrings and lower back pain here. Strengthening the whole body, especially the core, can bring support to the back and help it do what we need it to do every day. Yoga builds functional strength in the whole body.
2. Stretching and Mobility
Yoga might have a reputation for the extreme flexibility that some practitioners exhibit. This type of flexibility, while impressive, is not terribly useful as we age, nor is it required to practice yoga. A good yoga practice includes stretching your muscles to cultivate useful mobility in the joints. When we sit for long periods, our body gets tight, especially in the hips and hamstrings. As we tighten, we lose mobility and eventually we might find it difficult to do simple daily tasks, like putting on shoes. Practicing yoga regularly keeps the body moving, the joints “lubricated,” and keeps the tightness and stiffness at bay. All those “old age” symptoms like stiff joints and muscles become much less problematic with a regular yoga practice. And it doesn’t require you to put your foot behind your head or even touch your toes.
3. Improving Posture
Mountain Pose, a basic yoga pose, encourages a vertical posture. As I wrote about in “Mom Was Right…,” when you stand up or sit up straight, your muscles don’t have to work as hard against the effects of gravity. When we slouch, our muscles strain to hold us up. Practicing poses like Mountain Pose, can improve our posture by supporting and strengthening those muscles. We also have more awareness of what good posture is because we practice. You would never give a violin recital without first having practiced the violin. We practice good posture with yoga so that we have access to that awareness and sensation in our daily lives. We practice on the mat, so we can live vertically and stable off the mat.
4. Working Bilaterally
We don’t lead symmetrical lives, so how can we expect our body to be symmetrical? We are one-side dominant creatures, either left- or right-handed, so we live our lives leading with one side or the other. When was the last time you ate or brushed your teeth with the other hand? Whether you drive an automatic or manual car, we are doing different things with both sides of our body. Oftentimes we cross one leg over the other when we sit, but we never switch sides. We have lots of little physical habits that cause imbalances in our body, that we compensate for over the course of a lifetime. Years of compensation can lead to pain. Every yoga practice is symmetrical; every pose we do on one side, we do on the other. Through this practice we get to know our asymmetries and can work to even them out. While a few hours of yoga a week won’t undo a lifetime of imbalances, it definitely helps us feel better. The more we understand and bring awareness to our imbalances, the easier it is to work with them.
5. Mind/Body connection
Emotions are energy. When we feel something emotionally, be it anxiety, stress, grief, sadness, anger, etc, we often feel it somewhere in our body. If we don’t have “time” to feel it, we often store it somewhere; common storage receptacles are the neck and back (though there are others). Who hasn’t felt tight in the neck and upper back when stressed? One of the beautiful “side effects” of practicing yoga is a calm mind. We release stress from the body and mind when we move and breathe. That accumulation of physical tension melts away when we flow, stretch, and bring our minds into the present moment. Your future deadline doesn’t live in the present, nor does that argument you had 3 days ago. In the present moment, all we have is peace, calm, love, and gratitude. These emotions dissolve our stress, as does learning to be present. When we dissolve mental and emotional tension, we also release physical tension, and our body moves with more ease and less pain and stiffness.
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