Here are a few of the reasons why everyone with any form of back pain should attempt yoga as a way to relieve the pain and address the issues for a healthy spine in the longer run:
1. Relaxation – the role of tension/stress in pain
Our days are busy and we tend to run from one point to the next in an attempt to meet competing demands. We often operate on autopilot just in getting everything done and often have very little knowledge or awareness of the tension that sits in our bodies. This tension may sit here for years without being released. It eventually manifests in pain – and very often in back pain specifically. Not even when we sleep do we relax fully and release tension. There is therefore a huge role for very purposeful relaxation in releasing tension in the body – and in so doing beginning to release the source of pain. Stress and tension in the body has a far reaching impact on health – but just bringing it to the spine we become aware of its role in the following:
Tension in the spine prevents movement and therefore causes stagnation in the spine. Muscles lock around the vertebrae (in a protective way) but it means the spine becomes rigid where flexibility is needed. It results in poor posture, a lack of nourishment to joints which needs compression and release to fill up on the good stuff and the constant holding on in the muscles eventually causes pain.
The lack of movement where movement is needed causes other parts of the body to compensate and work harder or in a different way to ensure what needs doing gets done regardless of the rigidity in the spine, and these compensations causes tension, fatigue and misalignments in other parts of the body. This in turn also causes pain.
Rigidity in the spine makes the spine vulnerable to sudden movements, shocks or jolts – which if this then occurs in normal day-to-day life, makes the spine more vulnerable to more serious injury. A spine that has space between the vertebrae, lubricated and nourished joints and has a good level of flexibility can withstand much more of what it may be exposed to on a daily basis.
Yoga incorporates purposeful relaxation and stress release and gives you and your body the break it so desperately needs. Even doing this for a few minutes a day during practice makes an unbelievable difference.
2. Strengthening vs Releasing Tension in Movement/Exercise
When people are given advice on exercising to relieve back pain, they are often told that the core needs to be strengthened. So they may well set out to the gym to do more strength training. However – it is really important to know that before any strength work is done in relieving back pain – tension has to be released. Otherwise you will end up building strength around tension – more likely in the wrong places too – leading to even more misalignment and ultimately more pain and injury.
It is so important to release tension first – and in a tension free spine begin to strengthen that place of space and natural movement – rather than strengthening what you don’t want and are trying to get rid of. Strength training is great in its own time. But never ever strengthen tension.
Yoga incorporates both releasing and strength based movements – in the right proportions to the correct parts of the body to ensure a safe release and purposeful building in strength.
3. Flexibility vs Stability
Different parts of the spine require different levels of stability and flexibility. The lower back is a stable part of the spine, requiring less flexibility and more strength for stability. However – a really stiff lower back is not what you want either. It creates huge issues in limiting movement and brings the pelvis and hips out of alignment. The Thoracic or Middle back requires much more flexibility and limited strength to fulfil its function. It is the area where most of the movement occurs and importantly – the space to breathe! The Cervical spine requires a good balance of stability and flexibility. It supports the head and nervous system and a stiff neck adversely affects both brain and body. You really need the neck to be free of tension.
So it is very important to with a varied yoga practice address the different elements of what the spine needs – releasing tension but then improving flexibility where needed and building strength where that will support the spine – in the right proportions and in the right places.
4. Impact of core, hips, shoulders and hamstrings in back pain
We often hear that core is a big issue in lower back pain. A weak core most definitely impacts the spine as it puts additional pressure on the spine in various movements and also simply in poor posture. A strong core supports the spine in all its activity, so it definitely is true that you need to have a strong core. But strengthening your ‘abs’ by doing crunches isn’t strengthening your core. Your core involves the entire centre of your body – front and back – and if you simply focus strength on the front part of the body (abs) you are again putting strain on your back as the back part of the core can’t hold itself up against the front. So proper core exercises incorporating both the front and back body is essential in maintaining spinal health.
The core strength that you build in Yoga is unequalled and builds a solid and protective base from which your spine can fulfil its functions without having to over-exert itself and hold the core up when it was never meant to do that. A strong core lightens the load on the spine.
Tight hips and hamstrings are also culprits in back pain – especially lower back pain. So opening the hips and bringing length to the hamstrings will give more mobility to the lower back – and release pain.
Tight shoulders also impacts pain in the back – especially upper back and neck pain. We carry so much tension in the shoulders and neck and poor posture, sedentary lifestyle and imbalances in how we work out causes slouching shoulders and pressure on the upper back and neck.
You can already begin to see that addressing back issues and achieving full spinal health requires more than a massage and adjustments in your back alone. All body parts are connected. You will not achieve ongoing spinal health if your hips and hamstrings etc aren’t being cared for too.
5. Metaphysical Causes of Back Pain
Back pain originates – on the surface – from an injury or an accident. On a metaphysical level we believe that back pain is just another way in which your body is trying to communicate other imbalances in your body that requires your attention. From and Elemental point of view (assuming the body is energy made up of the five elements – earth, water, air, fire, and space/ether) – any spinal issues or injuries point to an imbalance in the water element in the body. Water imbalances indicates difficulties in allowing time or space to become still, to reflect on and acquire knowledge of the true self. It’s an inability to truly connect with one’s own feelings and actually feeling quite overwhelmed by them – and so either withdrawing or becoming preoccupied. People with water imbalances try to please others and tend to follow (go with the flow) what others think and feel, rather than understanding the values of boundaries and feeling confident in one’s own potential as well as limitations. This plays out overcompensating behaviours such as someone being either being quite overwhelming, extravagant, authoritarian, driven and disciplined and often critical of self and others – to the opposite end of someone being withdrawn and apprehensive, lacking in will-power and self-esteem and harbouring lots of feelings of unfounded guilt.
There is real value in looking at back pain from a physical as well as metaphysical (emotional) point of view and it may well mean the difference between resolving the pain issue once and for all or having to live with some degree of pain until your body finds a different and possibly more powerful (painful) way of communicating imbalances and things that aren’t working well to you.
Yoga offers the space for the body to come into its own and learn and process the lessons – sometimes even on a subconscious level. There is eternal wisdom inside your body and with yoga – you’re not trying to get into poses – you’re trying to use poses to get into your body – use it to its full capacity and allow the wisdom in your body to do what it does best – heal itself.