Asana Practice: Free Your Low Back

by Djuna on December 2, 2015

This session is popular as the low back has become synonymous with pain in our culture.  We investigate how weakened abdominal muscles, hamstring strain, and imbalanced movement patterns lead to dysfunction. The class includes therapeutic movements and postures to unwind and realign the spine, cultivating the awareness necessary to free your low back.

There are a myriad of causes of low back pain, and many researchers believe that much of the discomfort experienced is due to stress and emotional holding rather than physical ailment. We are a highly driven culture and a habit of overdoing can be mapped onto our yoga practice, creating further tension. For guidance in practice we can turn to yoga sutra 2.47 from the Sadhana Pada, the section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on yogic practice:

Prayatna shaitilya ananta samapattibhyam
“By relaxation of effort in the pose one merges with the infinite.”

This sutra (along with the previous sutra 2.46) encourages the practitioner to find a balance between sthira- steady and focused effort, and sukha- a sense of ease.

In the 8 fold path of the Buddha dharma this is described as Right Effort or Balanced Effort; an attitude of non-striving which allows the body and breath to open and relax. Instead of 100% effort, use 80% effort in your asana practice, reserving the other 20% for ease in your breath and an internal relaxation. The breath is our best guide in becoming mindful of when we are pushing beyond our capacity, causing stress and contraction. When the breath is ragged or withheld we are actually creating a stress response in yoga practice which can lead to low back pain. In tracking the breath and internal sensations throughout your practice your will build “somatic intelligence”- the ability to feel internal sensations and subtle movements key to healthy alignment in asana and safe practice.

The following quote by Sheng Yen a Chinese Buddhist scholar and teacher captures this gentleness in practice:
“Be soft in your practice, think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in it’s course. It will go on its way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight, it will take you there.”

The structure of this workshop reflects this: a balance between gentle unwinding movements practiced supine and therapeutic asanas. In Free Your Low Back we point to a few possible muscular imbalances that could cause low back discomfort and practice movements and postures to mitigate them.

Because the feet are our foundation in standing, walking, and running, if the arches of your feet are collapsed all structures above (including your knees, hips, and lower spine) will mis-align. Learning to lift your arches is a key component to relieving strain patterns in the spine.

If your hamstrings are tight on one leg, it can pull that side of your pelvis downward, creating a habitual side bend in your lumbar spine. Alternatively, if your hamstrings are weak your pelvis will tip forward causing excessive lumbar lordosis (a deepened lumbar curve) and possible compression. Below is an image of the hamstrings. Notice their attachment to the sits bones (ischial tuberosities) and visualize how unilateral restriction could cause lumbar imbalance.

The quadratus lumborum is a square shaped muscle that originates on the crest of the pelvis and attaches to the lowest rib. Like the hamstrings, the QL is a paired muscle, one on each side of the spine. If one QL is shortened it will pull your pelvis upward, side bending and possibly rotating your spine.

 

The psoas is your main postural muscle and has many functions and effects on your total body. To put it simply, if your psoas is tight, weak, twisted, or shortened unilaterally, it can cause compression of your lumbar discs and spinal nerves. In addition, the psoas is partially responsible for maintaining the correct distance between the vertebrae and if supple and strong assures length in your lumbar spine. Due to excessive sitting, the psoas is often restricted.

We practiced several rocking and gliding movements performed supine to bring hydration and release to the lumbar area. These movements included arching and lengthening the lumbar and cervical spines, gentle repetitive twisting actions to relieve spinal in-congruencies, and movements designed to release the outer hip and lateral leg, which can also be a culprit in lumbar discomfort.
We followed these gentle movements with an asana sequence designed to release the outer hips and lateral leg, lengthen the hamstrings unilaterally, balance the sacrum and pelvis, and stretch both sides of the spine evenly. We also practiced poses to traction the lower spine, bringing greater buoyancy in the spinal discs and relieve nerve compression.

Asana sequence:

Please note that all poses should be learned with an experienced teacher and this sequence may not be beneficial for all practitioners. If you are pregnant or have specific health concerns, consult an experienced teacher or leave a question for me in the comments section, to find out whether the poses are safe and beneficial for you.

Supta Padangusthasana (supine hand to foot pose) – this pose is one of the best for releasing lumbar strain and safely stretching the hamstrings. It can also be done with a strap over the head of the thigh of the vertical leg and looped over the heel of the down leg. This releases the thighbone away from the pelvis. Also, moving the top leg across the torso opens the outer hips and IT bands, and can release strain in the back muscles.

Supta Dandasana and Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (supine staff pose)this sequence is one of the best and safest ways to strengthen the lumbar, psoas, and deep core muscles when practiced with “balanced effort”.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)- we practiced this pose in partners. One person takes the pose, their partner loops a strap over the tops of their thighs and pulls straight back. This effectively creates traction in the lumbar, releasing strain.

Tadasana (mountain pose)- Stand with a block between your feet, touching the inner bases of your big toes and your inner heels. Draw your inner ankles away from the block to lift the arches of your feet. Notice how lifting your arches brings wakefulness to your inner legs, core muscles, and allows for a softening or release of the neck and shoulders.

Trikonasana (triangle pose)- triangle works the body unilaterally, creating even length on the both sides of the spine and accessing the psoas. Triangle also strengthens the legs for spinal support.

Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch)- This pose stretches the hamstrings unilaterally, releases the outer hips, gluteal muscles, and iliotibial bands (IT bands). It also stretches the quadratus lumborum unilaterally.

Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle pose)- this pose brings congruency to the spine and strengthens the legs.

Eka Pada Virasana (one legged virasana) at the wall- kneel with your back to the wall and come into a low lunge with your back shin and top of your foot on the wall. Draw your tail bone down and stretch your spine upwards. Hold for equal time on both sides. This poses is a deep unilateral release of the psoas and all the hip flexors.

Eka Pada Salabasana (one legged locust pose)-pictured with both legs lifted, we worked with just one leg lifted for greater ease and ability to track the contractions in the hamstrings and low back. This pose strengthens the entire back body for better posture and lumbar strength.

Janu Sirsanana (head to knee pose)- this pose is amazing for releasing strain in the sacro-iliac area. It also stretches the quadratus lumborum unilaterally.

Jathara Parivarttanasana (supine twist) – this supine twist encourages congruency in the spine and suppleness in the spinal discs.

Viparita Karani (inverted lake pose) excellent for bringing blood flow into the spinal discs and relieving stress for improved breathing and relaxation.

Savasana (corpse pose)- with the calves on a chair. Rest is essential for balancing the stresses of living and can be the antidote to lumbar pain. Positioning the legs in this way creates gentle release of the lumbar discs.

 

 

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For Yoga Teachers: The Art of Sequencing

by Djuna on June 4, 2015

Sequencing a yoga class is an art form. I have spent the last 12 years teaching and practicing yoga daily. I still find the process of sequencing to be challenging, creative, and one that brings me deeper into the mystery of yoga. I am reminded that I will never know everything about yoga, nor is that the point. Instead, I remain in the creative process of yoga, using practice and teaching as the microcosm of all of life.

Gather their attention…
The first and last 5 minutes of your class make a deep impression on your students. Bookend your sequences with poses that support awareness and inner contemplation to ground students and plant the seeds of the inner limbs of yoga: pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Examples are: virasana, sukhasana, siddhasana, savasana, or supta baddha konasana. 

Tune their ears…
Begin your sequences with sound; a chant, poem, or simply the sound of OM. This will tune their ears to your voice and the inner sound of their breath.

Respond to their needs…
Speak to the needs of the class; have your outlined sequence prepared and then adapt it to meet the energetics of the particular group. As students arrive at the studio, check in with each of them and incorporate their responses into your theme for the class. Combine the structure of a carefully pre-considered sequence with improvisation and creativity to keep your teaching alive and present.

Educate: “to draw out from within”…
Sequences should be educational; encouraging your students to become more curious and attentive to their breath and inner sensations. This way your teaching will support their ongoing process of svadhyaya. Use technique to keep your students safe as well as to harness their minds.

From the ground up…
Sequence your poses and your cues from the ground up. For standing poses begin with the feet and lower legs, inversions with the hands, elbows, or forearms, and seated poses the sitting bones. Bring their awareness to whatever is touching the earth or a prop. Be mindful not to jump around the body, instead move your directives along neuro-muscular lines (inner arch to inner knee or inner hand to top chest).

Teach tadasana and dandasana…
Tadasana (or samasthiti) is the blueprint for standing poses. Give three to four key cues for your theme in tadasana in the opening of your sequence and then give the same cues in all standing poses in your sequence. Do the same for seated dandasana in your sequence of seated poses.

General guidelines…
Sequence standing poses before back bends or seated front bends, inversions before back bends or deep front bends (except for salamba sarvangasana), twists before back bends or seated forward bends, standing twists before seated twists, poses to lengthen the spine before twists, cooling poses after heating poses, and hip releasing poses after back bends.

Sequence around an action…
Choose an action such as external rotation of the arms and carry it throughout your sequence, cueing it in every pose (adho mukha svanasana, urdhva hastasana, parsvakonasana, adho mukha vrksasana). 

Sequence around shape…
Choose a “peak pose” or pose that will provide challenge or deep opening for your students and appropriately progress their understanding. Observe the shape of the pose taking note of the actions in the leg, hips, shoulders, shape of the neck, etc. Choose several less challenging poses that teach the overall shape of the pose, or teach the shapes of given areas of the body. For example, prior to teaching vashistasana II, offer supta padangusthasana II, trikonasana, and uttihita hasta padangusthasana II.

Sequence along myofascial lines…
To deeply and safely open the body, begin with the periphery and work your way into the core. For example, to access kapotasana open the tops of the feet and triceps and then move into the quadriceps, hip flexors, deep belly, and psoas. To deeply access the upper chest for purvottanasana or salamba sarvangasana open the palms of the hands in baddha hastasana.

Cultivate flow…
Design sequences to give a feeling of continuity to balance the nervous system and give them a sense of harmony. For example, create a sequence of poses to gradually anchor the shoulder blades and open the chest prior to ustrasana. Do not sequence opposite poses together, such as a back bend and forward bend, as it leaves the body feeling disorganized and prone to injury.

Incorporate vinyasa…
Breath and movement synchronization is one of the best ways to get students to lengthen their breath and it calms the nervous system, clarifying their attention. This can be done as simply as cat/cow on the back or hands and knees and increasing to the complexity of sun salutations and linked poses.

Sequence with speed…
A great class can have the quality and tempo of a wave; beginning slow and picking up speed and intensity then gradually slowing to land in the stillness of savasana. Alternately, after a fast paced standing vinyasa sequence, a long hold in a seated twist can regain their energy prior to deep technical work in backbends.

Balance symmetry with asymmetry…
Symmetrical poses bring a sense of ease and grounding and support the parasympathetic nervous system. In symmetrical poses the body and mind “come to center” and assimilation and healing can occur. Always begin and end your class with symmetrical poses. Constantly bring them back to their “midline”, meaning their central axis, spine, and inner feet and legs. Squeezing a block between the inner legs or bringing the palms of the hands together in namaste mudra achieves this midline centering.
Asymmetrical poses release strain on one side of the body and bring integration. Twists, for example, relieve the left/right imbalances of the spine. Asymmetrical poses tend to be more challenging and must be balanced with symmetrical poses. Do not sequence too many poses on one side (for example a long warrior II sequence with reverse warrior and parsvakonasana) due to the risk of strain and the bodies’ tendency to harden.

Stability then ease
Stabilize your students in their feet and legs as well as their joints before teaching deep opening and release. It is traditional to learn standing poses first because they foster stability in the legs, pelvis, and core allowing for ease and release in the shoulders and neck.

Balance abhyasa with vairaghya~ give them a break!…
Abhyasa is applied effort in practice while vairaghya is letting go. Allow your students to recoup their energy during the sequence. Standing forward bends and twists can allow for rest and reconnection to breath. Don’t sequence too many standing poses especially for beginners to allow them to build stamina slowly.

Combine compression and decompression…
One of the goals of asana is to move the fluids throughout the body. By compressing and decompressing a joint or organ we move blood and through the area and increase sensory awareness. For example move from garudasana arms into surya namaskara series to flush blood and oxygen into the upper chest, or from a long hold in plank (adho mukha dandasana) into adho mukha svanasana to release the diaphragm.

Address gravity…
In asana practice we are engaged in a constant dance with gravity; yielding to it in savasana, rooting into it through the inner hands in adho mukha svanasana, or resisting it in bakasana. Design your sequences and cues to address this by teaching them to lift their inner knees in standing poses or release their kidneys in supta padangusthasana.

Respect savasana…
Savasana is an essential pose with incredible benefits to the body and mind. Especially in our fast paced culture savasana is a great gift which not only allows for deep rest and healing, but teaches letting go of doing in favor of being. It has the effect of hibernation, allowing the body to absorb the benefits of the practice so students emerge refreshed and grounded.

 

 

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