Here we take the journey into relieving lower back pain, remember that a journey is an ongoing path, not a quick fix, it's an exploration into the known and the unknown.
Our spine and hips allow freedom of movement for the whole body, the pelvis in particular bears the body weight, mobility of the legs, strength through the core and flexibility through the spine. I have often given the visualisation of the pelvis as a plant pot, the stem of the plant is the spine, as we allow the 'pot' to roll around the spine can follow, if the plant pot it still the stem can settle in rigidity. Another nice visualisation (I love this one) is water within a bucket, notice the movement of the water as you move the bucket, this is a lovely representation of the bodies movement and mobility. Do you feel as though your body has fluidity or do you feel it is in need of a good oil?!
When I mention working with the lower back do you have a little hesitation? It's very normal for us ALL to feel lower back pain at some point in our lives and yet again yoga can really help ease tension, discomfort and even pain. Lower back pain is actually the reason I started practicing yoga!
To help release tension within the lower back we need to consider the natural range of movement the spine has and also acknowledge if some of these have been hindered due to habitual patterns. The body adapts to our daily motions and even emotional tension.
If we take a look at the lower back and the centre of the body we need to have a balance of strength and flexibility in ALL areas. If one is off balance something else will be compromised, it's important we connect to our core strength rather than relying on the arms to pick something up. If the core is weak the lower back will suffer (and your internal organs). If the hamstrings, hips and lower back muscles are tight this will create rigidity within the alignment of the pelvis (that fluidity I mentioned above). Increasing range of movement & flexibility in the hips increases the range of movement for the lower back, it releases tension within the muscles that surround and support the pelvis which are directly linked to the movements of the spine.
Relieving lower back pain consists of strengthening the trunk (core) of the body and exploring flexibility, when we think of the core we very often think of the front of the body...a six pack to be precise. Just an important reminder, having a six pack does not represent STRENGTH, they may just show up due to low body fat!! Here's a little guidance of the muscles that can help improve those aches and pains... you didn't just think it was your lower back did you?!
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a back muscle that extends your trunk. It helps you stand up straight after bending over.
Rectus abdominis. When you bend forward, you use an abdominal muscle called the rectus abdominis. These are the well known 'six pack' muscles. They can look great but are not the be all and end all...these are superficial muscles (a layer closer to the surface).. its whats inside that counts... see below.
Transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominis are deep muscles which wrap around the front and side of your trunk, these stabilize your pelvis the thoracic spine and support the lower back and internal organs. These are the ones we want to relearn how to use as very often the superficial muscles can do all the work and the muscles underneath get forgotten about, this doesn't just go for the core it is common for the upper back muscles too!
Obliques. Your internal oblique and external oblique let you rotate, side bend and bend your trunk. They also relay information to the Quadratus lumborum which also helps to stabilise the spine and pelvis.
The psoas muscles are the only muscles that connect your spine to your legs! Incredible! They attach from the thoracic vertebrae to the lumbar spine and then move through to the front of the pelvis and attach to the femors. They do so much work for our day to day movement, from walking, to sitting and getting up, bending over, getting up stairs, hugging the knees to chest. Not only are they important to the structure of the body they have a huge connection to the breath. When we are stressed our breath becomes shallow or even held, this has a direct impact on the psoas, with prolonged periods of stress, your psoas is constantly contracted.. imagine how that will affect your lower back. (I feel another blog coming on!).
Having tight/weak butt muscles can wreak havoc on lower back discomfort, having strong glutes aids in every movement for the lower body, think of the trunk of a tree, strong roots, a strong internal core... you get the picture. The glutes provide support for the pelvis, your posture, movements for the legs and are related to all of the muscles above, if you have weak or even inactive buttock muscles the lower back has no support, tight butt muscles can inhibit movement and trigger other areas to become tight = pain.
Now you have a little more understanding of the different muscles that could hinder your lower back it really isn't as simple as what we thought it might be. So next time your practicing Yoga really start to take note of where feels tight, where feels strong and where feels weak.. it really will open up a whole new world of how you can heal yourself!
Let's get the body moving and enjoy the postures that will either strengthen or stretch all of the muscles listed above, all in all if you practice them all you will help to relieve lower back pain. Trust the process, find your pace and enjoy the journey.
Core engagement - Finding your strength
How do we build a connection to our core? When we exercise or do ANY movement within our day our core muscles are automatically activated, it is over time and with our habitual patterns that things can go a little astray. We have all heard the saying 'use it or lose it' and the same can go for our muscle strength, or flexibility and range of movement. Our natural breathing process is linked to our core engagement and somewhere along the way with our daily stress levels being through the roof we have all forgot how to breathe, and when the breath is compromised everything else follows.
The core we 'visually' notice is composed of the Rectus Abdominis and external obliques, but deeper are the muscles we may have lost touch with and these are the ones that need to wake up to support the spine, after all... they are much close to it! The Transversus Abdominis also known as TVA is a band or corset like muscle deeper to the centre of the body. This is the GAME CHANGER!! This is the area we want to target within our Yoga or Pilates practices, or any exercise for that matter, we don't want to rely on the outer layer (six pack muscles) to do the work, we have to think about supporting the body from the centre and by centre I mean internally.
Find a comfortable position, you can do this anywhere, standing, seated or lying down.
Take a few moments resting and noticing your natural breath.
Rest the hands on the belly and take an inhalation.
As you exhale SLOWLY, draw the belly in towards the spine.
This is an action that draws up and in from the lower abdominals.
The pelvic floor can be included in this drawing in action but it will be triggered from the TVA.
Notice any sensation in the lower back? When you contract through the front of the body it also contracts the muscles in the back (a good sign!)
Be mindful to hug the lower ribs in and down, imagine the natural curvature of the spine, we want to build strength within the muscles that support it!
Be mindful it's not a sucking in action as if you were to breathe deeply into the chest (more on that next time). Take gentle breaths into the chest and lungs while you keep your core drawn in and held. This may take some getting used to and I hope will completely change your perspective on how you do postures, next time you're in your plank position do you have your core engaged or are your arms and legs doing all the work and the torso is just hanging out in between. The more you incorporate this simple technique into your practice you will notice a VERY big difference!
Cat & Cow Pose - Spinal mobility
Starting in a table top position, align wrists under the shoulders and knees underneath the hips. Allow the body to feel supported by the arms and legs, as you inhale lift the head and tail bone, the belly softens to the floor. As you exhale round through the spine, chin to chest, reach tail bone to the floor and draw the belly in. Every inhalation enjoy a stretch and opening through the front body and as you exhale round and contract through the front. This is a beautiful exercise to mobilise the spine and great any time of day, take your time.. x10 slow and control movements... use your breath to initiate the movement.
Seated Pigeon Pose - Stretch that butt!
Find a chair and sit with both feet on the floor, bring the right ankle on top of the left knee. This will create a triangle shape between the groin and backs on the knees. You may already feel a significant sensation in the outer right hip and butt cheek, this is a good sign as its where we want to release! If you feel you can move a little deeper into the pose you can lean forwards, be mindful that you are in control of the depth, the sensation, you are breathing and calm! If it feels to intense within a chair try the reclined variation as you can then explore the angles in which the foot and knee are to the chest. x5-10 deep breaths, or 2 minutes.
A seated pigeon is just one of the variations, you can also explore the pose reclined (Even with a foot on the wall) and the full variation with the body laying on top of the 'right' leg.
Child's pose - Opening the hips and lower back
Child's pose opens the hips and stretches around the lower back and glutes, it's also a lovely restorative posture that can aid in rest and relaxation for the mind. Starting in your tabletop position guide the knees to the width of the mat, big toes touch. On an exhalation take your time to guide the pelvis towards the heels, this is a slow and heavy movement that doesn't need to be forced. Allow the body to rest and connect to your breath, the belly can relax and it's always nice to use props here to support the chest!!
Not sure how to use props? Find out more here: https://www.wildloveyoga.com/post/yoga-props
Low Lunge - Stretching the psoas
Low lunge is a great stretch for lengthening the front of the thigh and up into the mid belly, take a look back at the write up about the psoas, by stretching through the front of the pelvis we can ease tightness within the lower back and create more freedom of movement. Go easy with finding a happy medium here, and remember the balance between strength and flexibility.
1. Starting in table top, step your right foot forward between the hands. The hands can stay on the floor and remember your props to aid in height! We don't NEED to force the body lower, the body will move lower as it gains flexibility.
2. With the right foot between the hands bring the left knee down to the floor.
3. To move deeper (if you feel comfortable to do so) elevate the upper body and rest the hands on the right thigh/knee.
4. To understand the concept of stabilising while stretching we can lift out of the pose (see second photo) by lifting up we can tweak the hips and align the pelvis. Lift up and out of the ribs, hug the core in and tuck the tailbone down. This can help stretch the front of the left hip more as the pelvis becomes 'neutral', if you look at the first photo as I sink down it actually pulls my pelvis into a forward tilt. For me personally this causes my lower back to compress = pain.
5. Don't forget to repeat the other side! x10 deep breaths, explore