Back Flexibility with Yoga
By Niki Vetten
As we get older our spines bend less, mostly because of the effects of gravity on the spinal discs, which begin to dehydrate and become compressed after 30, reducing the spaces between the facet joints in the vertebrae and limiting movement. Gravity and an upright human posture also causes some the spinal muscles found in children to be converted to more rigid and stable ligaments in adults. Child-gymnasts and young yogis are capable of much more extreme backbending than adults, but this lessens over time, as flexibility gives way to stability. Backbending at all ages is inseparable from core strength and flexibility in the hips and shoulders, if the core or hips are weak, all extension force is directed into the spine, and children are just as vulnerable as adults to spinal injuries.
Back pain problems are much more complex than disc injuries, please refer to Lower Back Pain: Some Yoga- Related Causes for an outline of the factors that create lower back pain.
The spine is stabilised by the numerous small muscles that surround the vertebrae and the larger Erector Spinae muscles, as well a thick layer of connective tissue, called the Thoracolumbar fascia. The Transverse Abdominis and Oblique Abdominal muscles are attatched directly to the spine via the Thoracolumbar Fascia and when they contract during movements, the fascial network is pulled tight and this supports the vertebrae.
Teachers usually tell students to pull the belly button toward the spine to teach them to make these connections but in fact, although there are four different abdominal muscles, the abdominals are all connected to each other and function as a unit, the only difference between them is in the types of movements that they can create. Focusing on isolating one muscle- the transverse Abdominis- will not necessarily improve spinal stability, nor alleviate back pain. Asanas which require core strength to perform, like arm-balancing, Navasana, or Tolasana are often better ways to learn to engage the abdominals, than crunch-style abdominal isolation exercise, which frequently causes neck and upper back problems.
Strengthening the body in lateral movement is often overlooked in yoga, most emphasis is on forward and backward movements, and it is the oblique abdominals that support backbending the most. Naturally, the back must also be strong and Salabhasana variations and Bhekasana work well. Practicing Vasistasana, Parvritta Navasana, Jathara Parivatarasana, Parsva Bakasana, Astavakrasana, Anantasana, Mandalasana and twisting in Sirsasana and Salamba Sarvangasana can be the key to Kapotasana, Vrschikasana and drop backs, although strong, flexible hips are also crucial for backbending- the Psoas muscle needs to lengthen in the lower back, but is unable to do this if the Gluteus Maximus is weak. Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana and Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana are useful here.
Reading sources: Ellenbecker, De Carlo, DeRosa, 2009, Effective Functional Progressions in Sport Rehabilitation Sharkey, 2008, The Concise Book of Neuromuscular Therapy
Author: Niki Vetten
Visit Niki’s Website: Yoga Anatomy for the Perplexed
Here are some of the other articles posted here by Nikki Vetten:
- Sacroiliac Joints and Yoga March 11, 2013 By Niki Vetten Sacroiliac problems are common in yoga – Chiropractors consider the Sacroiliac joint to be the most common cause of lower back pain, more prevalent than disc problems. The Sacroiliac joint is believed to act as a shock absorber between the legs and the spine and although its movements are very small, restrictions at ...
- Lower Back Pain and Alignment March 11, 2013 By Niki Vetten Another cause of lower back pain is found in the alignment of the left and right sides of the body, some bodies are structurally asymmetrical: one leg is shorter than the other, or the pelvic halves are different sizes, people can be born that way, or their structure can be altered by bone ...
- How Hip Problems Cause Knee Pain March 9, 2013 By Niki Vetten Pain felt at the outer or inner sides of the knees is often directly related to the hips and can have a variety of causes, which need to be assessed and treated by a specialist. As explained in Knee Injury and Pain in Yoga, the Gluteus Medius stabilises the pelvis in a horizontal plane ...
- Using hip muscles effectively in yoga practice – part 1: bridging and back bending March 7, 2014 By Niki Vetten Weak Gluteal muscles are very common amongst yoga students and teachers alike and cause Sacroiliac pain and dysfunction, lower back pain and hamstring injury. Causes and symptoms are covered in the article on yoga butt and this post looks at the effects of various hip movement cues taught in yoga. Different instructions are ...
- Neck Pain from the Hips March 12, 2013 By Niki Vetten Posture affects our necks negatively when there is anterior or posterior pelvic tilt because the spinal curves are altered and the head is carried in a forward position. The muscle at the front of the neck, the Sternocleidomastoideus (SCM) shortens and the shoulder girdle rounds and shifts forward, exaggerating the curvature of the ...