When I first discovered yoga, I practiced very earnestly, and with the best of intentions pushed myself farther and farther. I’d experienced low back pain for as long as I could remember, so it didn’t phase me when I pushed into upward facing dog (trying my best to follow every alignment cue!) and felt a twinge in my lumbar spine. I assumed that either this would go away with more practice, or it was just my lot to experience some level of back pain in that type of pose. It never occurred to me to take that pose out of my practice (temporarily or permanently), or to research different ways of doing the pose. I’ve come a long way since then! My practice looks very different than it did in those days. Now I’m more comfortable with experimentation, or with tossing poses that don’t work for me! Over the years, I’ve come across, and developed, some “actions” that have transformed my yoga practice.
I call the following tips “actions” for lack of a better term. They are tweaks, little adjustments and/or refinements. These are not intended to be corrections to fix faulty cues or alignments, they are just suggestions, investigations; experiments. As you play along, pay attention to what is happening in your body and make choices that enhance your practice.
3 ACTIONS THAT TRANSFORMED MY PRACTICE
BREATHING (drawing the low belly back and up)
Learning how to breathe is the most important thing I’ve learned in yoga.
You might be wondering how I managed to stay alive for over 30 years before I learned to breathe, and if so, welcome! you are my kind of people! But seriously, we can breathe consciously or unconsciously. In fact, we do both daily. What I want to talk about is conscious breathing.
This is a bit of a twist on the traditional yogic breath and one that I use, and teach, to not only expand and deepen the breath, but to engage the core (from the pelvic floor diaphragm up to the breathing diaphragm) in various degrees.
The easiest way to feel this breath is to do it while lying supine (I like to lie with my legs up the wall, or in a chair). But, of course you can do it sitting, as well.
Place your right thumb on your navel and let your pinky point towards your pubic bone. Where your hand is resting is what I will call your “low belly.” Keep your hand resting gently for the first few rounds.
As you inhale, draw your breath in and down, as though you can follow it’s path through your chest, through your ribs, and into your belly. Notice the lift of your hand. *You may find it it’s easier to imagine breathing into your palm to expand the belly.
As you exhale, draw your breath back up and out; following the path from the belly, through the ribs, through the chest and out the nostrils. Notice the lowering of your hand.
Begin to deepen the breath and play a bit with filling the ribs versus filling the belly. As you inhale let your breath come in through your nose and into your chest, then feel it expanding your rib cage (in all 4 directions - front and back ribs away from center, side ribs out towards your arms), then feel your belly expanding with what breath is left. Next inhale, draw the breath in through the chest and ribs and let the belly expand as much as possible, feeling your lower back even press a little closer to the floor if you’re lying down.
Now start to include the engagement of the core to exaggerate this breathing pattern.
As you exhale, pull your low belly back towards your spine, then draw it up towards your head, as though you are gently pulling it back and up into the safety of the rib cage. You should notice the engagement of your abdominal muscles.
Play around with how strong this action is. Barely engage to gently draw your low belly back and up, just helping the breath move up and out. Then strongly pull back and up and notice how much bigger that engagement got!
On the inhale, let go of the engagement. As your breath moves down, let it release the tension you created, so that at the bottom of your exhale your core is relaxed and your belly is extended, then draw back and up as you exhale. Notice this pattern of engaging and relaxing. This alone, is an amazing breath to practice in your office chair, in the car, or lying in bed.
Let’s play with one more option. Exhale and pull the low belly back and up, creating a strong engagement of the core. Keep that engagement as much as possible on the inhale and try to breathe on top of the engagement. Inhale into the chest and ribs, keeping the low belly strong. This is what you might want to choose while working on any pose (or everyday movement) where you want to create support for the low back - boat pose, moving into triangle pose, most ab work, lifting heavy objects, etc.
3. NEUTRAL PELVIS
I could talk for days about the importance of the pelvis, especially where it relates to back pain, but for now I’ll limit myself to helping you notice pelvic tilt and finding neutral.
Sit on the edge of a hard chair, or on a yoga block. Find your “sit bones” and feel them pressing into the chair or block.
Roll to the front side of your sit bones. It will probably feel like your tailbone is pointing out behind you and your low back arches a bit. You are now in forward pelvic tilt!
Roll to the back of your sit bones. It may feel like your back is rounding and your tailbone is now at least trying to point forward. You are now in backward pelvic tilt!
Now come to center. No forward tilt, no backward tilt, you are in neutral!
An even better way to work on this is to use a yoga block between your upper thighs in mountain pose.
Come to standing with a yoga block between your upper thighs. Giving it a light squeeze with your inner thighs, stand up tall.
Squeeze the block and start to roll the inner thighs back - the block will start to push behind you. You may notice your low back arching and your butt pointing backwards. You are now in forward pelvic tilt!
Squeeze the block and start to roll the inner thighs forward - the block will start to push forward as well. You may notice some rounding in your low back and your tailbone pointing towards the front. You are in backward pelvic tilt!
Squeezing the block, let it move back and forth, from forward to backward tilt. Somewhere in between is neutral! This spot will look a little bit different in everyone, so find your center, your neutral. Then squeeze straight into this position. You should feel your spine tall, your feet pressing into the ground. Now go to your breath. Inhale in and down, exhale up and out, pulling your low belly back and up.
Now that you’ve found neutral, what do you do with this information? Make sure that your pelvis is in neutral when standing in mountain pose, and try to get as close to it as you can in poses like lunge, Warrior 2, Chair, and when you are standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in front of your computer. Use a forward pelvic tilt in forward folds and a backward pelvic tilt in backbends. Don’t worry, this will start to make more sense when we use this action in the practice.
2. ENGAGE YOUR GLUTES AND HAMSTRINGS (AS WELL AS YOUR QUADS) IN SPINAL EXTENSION
You may or may not be aware of the whole “glute controversy” in yoga circles. I don’t want to rehash anything here, if you really want to take a side, Google it and weigh in. I’m just going to tell you what I’ve found to be most helpful for my low back in poses like cobra, up dog, camel, bow, etc. When you are backbending like this, you are in spinal extension, therefore you should engage your extensor muscles. This is not an anatomy lesson, simply a quick demonstration of actions, so I won’t go into detail here (this is an area of fascination for me so you can be sure we will get into the nitty gritty at some point in the future).
Lie prone with your legs either together or hip distance apart. Your hands won’t be used, so they can rest under your shoulders.
Press your pubic bone into the floor (you are technically trying to find a small backward pelvic tilt). Press the tops of your feet into the floor. Now lift your kneecaps as though you are trying to pull them up towards your navel (this will probably lift them off the ground as well as your quadriceps, the fronts of your thighs, engage).
Engage your gluteal muscles. This will involve a little bit of finesse. Squeeze both butt cheeks, but if you over squeeze you will feel your heels turning in towards each other. If this happens don’t squeeze so hard!
With the glutes engaged, imagine a heavy weight on the backs of your calves and ankles that you are trying to lift against, but you can’t because it’s too heavy. This is where things get interesting because you are cueing your body to engage both the fronts and the backs of your legs. So you are pressing the tops of your feet down into floor at the same time you are (unsuccessfully) trying to lift your heels off the floor.
Because of the way this feels in my own body, I usually refer to this as finding your “super strong legs.”
Keep this super strong activation in your legs as you begin to lift your upper body away from the floor. Imagine you are being lifted from the back - as though someone is gently grasping your spine, right in between your shoulder blades and pulling you up and back. Don’t press your hands into the floor just yet! Lift as high as you can and hold it for a couple of breaths.
To come into cobra or up dog, find your “super strong legs,” lift your upper body as high as you can, only then begin to press your palms down into floor and (without actually moving) drag the heels of your hands back towards your hips. Start to lift higher, continuing to use the action in your legs and upper back to power your cobra or even updog. If you choose upward facing dog, don’t let go of those super strong legs at the top of the pose!
This may be the most important piece of advice I’ve gotten. It’s also been the hardest to follow. It’s not an “action” per se, but it’s been a crucial element in my practice.
4. ONLY MOVE IN PAIN FREE RANGES
Seriously. If it hurts, even a little bit, stop it. Don’t go there. You won’t relieve pain by pushing through pain. You won’t relieve pain by staying in pain. You are more likely to relieve pain by moving and working in pain free zones.
If you are in cobra and your low back feels tweaky or achy or naggy, then lower down to the point where it stops. This is your cobra! Work on it here. Get stronger in your leg actions, in your upper back actions, then over time you MIGHT find that you lift a little higher without pain. Great. That’s your new cobra. If on Monday you push into cobra and it feels great but on Tuesday it bothers you a bit, then lower it down until it doesn’t hurt anymore. On Wednesday, be careful as you push in the pose, investigating where it is today.
If you feel great during a yoga class, but notice that later that day or the next day that your body, low back or otherwise, feels off - stiff, achy, catchy - then next practice, go smaller! Be gentler with your body. Notice your breath more. Move with integrity! We have bought into the philosophy that bigger is better; go big or go home; one more round; just keep pushing! I want to introduce the idea that this does NOT apply to your yoga practice (it probably shouldn’t apply to most areas of your life, but I’ll keep the sermon focused!). Smaller is better. Slower is better. This doesn’t equal easier, don’t be confused! Let me say it again: Smaller is Better! Small poses that you fully explore and understand to the best of your current ability. This is where transformation happens. Truly.
Now that you’ve practiced the actions on their own, let’s put them into a yoga practice and see how they work! For this practice we will use a yoga block or two. If you don’t have yoga blocks, no worries! Everything can be done without props.
- If you don’t have a block, simply squeeze your inner thighs in towards each other instead of squeezing a block. You could also use a folded up towel or a pillow.
- This video is yours forever, you may practice along with the below video from this page, or you can click here to download the practice to your computer, or click here to stream the practice to your favorite device.