Taking Back Control with Yoga
When it comes to back pain, there are many sufferers and lots of ingredients – Let’s check out a few…
Back pain is one of the leading causes of absenteeism each year in the Australian workplace and places a huge burden on our economy. It is estimated that around 80% of the population will suffer from back pain at some point in their life and even the amount of young children and adolescents who suffer from back pain are on the rise. But why do so many suffer? Unfortunately, there are many ingredients that contribute towards chronic pain and if there is no obvious pathology or cause, sufferers may have to accept that lifestyle is a likely contributing factor. For example:
- Sitting for extended periods/computer work/I-anything..!
- Faulty movement patterns/asymmetry
- Structural issues
- Lack of exercise/lifestyle & weight
- Stress and tension/”core” stability – lack thereof or too much!
The Humble Chair & Constant Hip Flexion
The humble chair has changed people’s bodies, particularly in the Western World. These days it is common for the average person to own stiff hips and feel a general tightness in the groin area as well as the muscles at both the front and the back of the thighs. When you consider the fact that many of us are chained to a desk or are stuck in a car most of the day it is not really surprising. Add repetitive tasks, general posture, tiredness and a soft, comfy couch to the mix at the end of the day and we are talking a minimum of 10 hours or so per day in hip flexion. Over time, this may cause the muscles at the front of the body to get shorter and tighter meaning that when you stand up, you are left with an increased lumbar curvature which then thrusts the ribs and head forward. From here, the lower back may start to feel pinched and weak and the shoulders and the neck tight and stiff. Unfortunately, there is also no real ergonomic way to use things like I-Pods and particularly I-Pads which involve being hunched forward and micro-movements.
Faulty Movement Patterns/Asymmetry
We all have them. Our task-oriented, busy lives dictate that we get things done quickly and more often than not we move with momentum, not with awareness. Yoga can be a fantastic tool to learn how to break this habit because you are often directed to focus on how you move during a class. It then becomes easier to watch your movement patterns in other parts of your life. For example, we all tend to favour one side of our body more than the other. If I asked you to cross your legs you would favour a particular leg on top of the other. Ditto arms folded. In fact, why not TRY to fold your ams the other way and see how it just doesn’t feel right! Do you carry a handbag? Put a wallet in your pocket and then sit on it in the car? Play golf? soccer? hockey? Carry children or a baby in a sling? Use a mouse at your computer? There is much asymmetry in our lives and we must try to avoid it when we can and ensure that we stretch and move every part of our body safely and effectively in order to avoid long-term injury and chronic pain. Moving with momentum also means that we will generally move from where we have the most movement in our body (for example, our neck, head, shoulders, hips, and legs ) and so we often forget about the spine. But a healthy spine means that we should be able to move each and every vertebra independently – unlikely for most of the population. It is often the case too that, when people do try to stretch, the stretching is not very effective because there is little or no (isometric) resistance. Also, many do not think about stretching or moving from the spine; for example, in a typical yoga class, seated spinal twists may be taught. But, without a reminder, most participants will simply turn only their head to one side, while the rest of the spine stays still and locked.
Remember; couches & computers are not great for our overall posture!
Even from birth, it is unlikely that any of us are completely symmetrical so the best we can do is work is with what we have. Some may be born with (or end up with) a mild scoliosis and/or it may be that one side of our body always seems to be tighter. And, although it is not always the case, people with a heavier build are usually stronger but less flexible, while smaller-boned people may tend towards being weaker but more flexible. Therefore, while it might not feel natural for particular body types to work out of their comfort zone, it is imperative that a stiffer, stronger person make more effort to enhance their range of movement, while a smaller, more flexible person must constantly work at building strength. Of course, serious problems such as intense neuropathic pain from things like bulging disks should be thoroughly investigated before an exercise or stretch program is incorporated.
Lack of Exercise/Lifestyle & Weight
Our lives have probably never been so sedentary. And if anyone happened to watch the English Scientist, Dr Michael Mosely’s documentary “The Truth About Exercise”, you may remember that the research and experiments undertaken seemed to confirm that incidental exercise counted for more in terms of our general health than just bursts of activity (ie going to the gym) after sitting all day. The more we sit, the stiffer we get and the less likely it is that we will actually want to move. This lack of exercise may mean that we begin to put on weight and start to feel more unhealthy. As the the body softens, it is likely that we will become more fatigued. We may start to feel stiff and sore; our posture weakens and stress often begins to creep in.
Weight/Core Strength (too much or too little!) – Abdominal Tension
Over-tensing the abdomen is a big problem in our society and one that is quite possibly contributing to many health issues. As well as holding tension and stress in this area generally, we all seem to have become obsessed with the idea of core strength and tight, flat abs which may be to the detriment of our overall health. When the muscles around the navel area (rectus abs) are constantly tightened, the diaphragm becomes inhibited. This affects our ability to breathe properly and means the SNS (sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight) can become activated. Quite aside from the fact that this can lead to problems with digestion, increase the heart rate and raise blood pressure (among many other things), a constantly tight tummy can inhibit movement of the spine which is likely to lead to pain and stiffness in the back and hips. Exercises that strengthen and tone the tummy are one thing but don’t get confused: walking around with stiff, tight shoulders just causes stiff tight shoulders and perhaps a sore neck – it won’t make any of these muscle groups stronger! Ditto your abs! Relax and allow the belly to move as you breathe. Notice how radically your sense of well-being improves.
How Yoga and Yoga-Based Stretches Can Help
For many people, back problems became a thing of the past once they committed to a regular yoga practise. Because yoga is a way of life rather than something you “do” once or twice a week, it becomes easier to stay connected with and to the body and to learn how to self-heal or manage pain rather than constantly searching for answers from a medical perspective. Unfortunately, for the majority of back-pain sufferers, even when there is some actual pathology, aside from pain-killers, there is often little that can be done allopathically. And instead of opting for a holistic, life-long plan that unfolds and leads to transformation over time, much of the population instead spend thousands on a “quick fix” that often never eventuates or lasts very long. But if we really want to feel better, if we do not want to actually “become” the bad back, it is up to us to be pro-active and take control.
Managing back-pain means incorporating yoga poses and specific exercises that stretch & strengthen!
- Side stretches – every day, preferably more than once. Sitting also tightens the lats (side body muscles). These muscles connect lower, middle and upper back. Most people cannot lift their arms above their head and keep them straight.
- Incidental, easy circular movements with arms and legs – one-leg bicycles for example, alternate shoulder rotations where the whole spine moves side to side, forward and back.
- Chillax occasionally
- Sit on the floor against the couch as opposed to scrunched up in a ball on the couch.
- Swap things around – try using the mouse in the other hand for example. It really doesn’t take long…
- Stand up at work when you can. Lots of offices now incorporate stand-up desks. Ask!
- Stick to a regular program that includes yoga, stretching and relaxation techniques as well as regular tune-ups at the masseuse, and/or chiro or osteopath.
- Watch your diet – a diet rich in animal protein and carbs with little fruit/veg is considered acidic and can make the body feel very stiff.
- Remember that sometimes there are no definitive answers or quick fixes no matter what someone else tells you, so resolve to help yourself. It’s your body after all. Tune in!