Lower back pain is one of the leading reasons for people to seek medical advice. That’s not surprising, given that 80 percent of the population will experience lower back pain at some stage in their life. If you fall within this large majority of people, you’ll have an appreciation of the importance of working to maintain a healthy spine.
For those of you who aren’t in that 80 percent, sorry, but the news is not as rosy as you may think. While you may be walking around happily pain-free, the somewhat surprising news is that, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (as well as other similar studies with similar results), there is a 64 percent chance that you are actually carrying some level of intervertebral disc abnormality, and a 38 percent chance that more than one disc is damaged.
The study involved carrying out MRI scans on 98 people aged 20 to 80 years, and assessing the health of the discs in their lower backs. Only 36 percent of those people showed healthy discs throughout the area examined (and it wasn’t just younger people or those who were more active).
Together, this information means that about 94 percent of us will suffer from lower back pain at some stage, or have existing disc damage without even realising it.
As you may already know, lower back pain can really hamper your day-to-day functionality and your enjoyment of life, including your sports. Whatever level of ‘athlete’ you consider yourself to be, there is good reason to give special care and attention to your spine on a daily basis. What do you do each day to take care of your spine?
Yoga and the spine
Your spine has vital importance to your overall physical, mental and emotional health, including the functioning of your nervous system and organs.
Yoga is a mind-body and breath practice that is very aware of the importance of the spine, and can be truly beneficial for spinal health. Every yoga pose includes awareness of what your spine is doing, and a balanced practice will help you keep a balance, mobile and healthy spine.
Six simple moves
Your spine has six basics movements – bending forwards and back, twisting left and right, and curving side to side. It’s important to practise all these moves regularly, as your intervertebral discs rely on being compressed and released to help nourish them with fresh nutrients and oxygen, and to remove metabolic waste products.
The old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is very relevant. You can think of your discs as being like a kitchen sponge. Without use and movement and having fresh fluids squeezed through them, they will get dry and stiff, and become weakened, reducing your mobility and compromising your overall wellbeing.
The following yoga sequence shows you how to take your spine through its six basic movements, and will help keep it supple and healthy. As you go through these moves, try to focus on moving and lengthening the whole spine, and avoid ‘collapsing’ weakly into the areas that move most easily.
Note: If you do have issues with your spine already, check with your appropriate health professional before working with these poses (especially forward rounding of the lumber spine if you have posterior disc herniation).
Six moves of the spine:
Flexion & Extension (forward and back bending): Cat and cow poses
Cat pose and cow pose are linked with the breath. Move into cat pose (forward rounding) on an exhalation, and cow pose (back extension) on an inhalation. Move gently and fluidly between the poses.
To avoid ‘dumping down’ into your lower back, focus on lengthening the front of the spine and activating the core, broadening the collar bones and drawing the shoulder blades closer together.
Press into the ground with straight arms and broaden across the back of the shoulders. Draw the belly up towards the spine. Work on creating more space between the back of each vertebra down the length of your spine.
Twists are excellent for gently and evenly compressing your spinal discs. Work on a gentle, rhythmic movement with each breath.
Sit up on a bolster or block, and lengthen your spine. Inhale your arms up. As you exhale, float your arms down and turn to the left, placing your right hand onto your left leg, and taking your left arm behind you.
Focus on lifting tall with each inhalation. On each exhalation work on deepening the twist. Look for movement throughout your thoracic spine (upper back). This is the section of your back that is designed to twist. Be here for eight breaths, then change sides.
Sit tall through the crown of your head, gazing out at eye level.
Do not ‘bend’ the spine down to reach the floor, or allow your gaze to drop down.
Sitting up tall on a bolster or block, inhale your right arm up. Exhale and lean ‘up and over’ to the left. Try to not simply collapse into the left side. Reach energetically up through your fingertips. Keep aware of each breath and creating an even side stretch for your whole spine.
Be here for eight breaths. Release and sit in neutral, noting the space you have created down one side, before changing sides.
Practise these regularly and well to contribute to your spine health, so you can enjoy the activities with a strong healthy back.