Before the end-of-year activities become too overwhelming, it is good to have a short daily practice in place that is just for yourself. I hope you enjoyed paying attention to your feet and walking mindfully during the past fortnight. I hope that the discipline to actually do it made you feel good. This week, let’s focus on the lower back. A soothing practice of just 10 minutes a day can help you deal with that nagging or heavy feeling in your lower back.
The two practices below focus on mobilizing the spine and stretching the back of the legs. They are not safe for you if you have had a herniated disc and have had pain as a result in the past 3 months. For everyone else, the general rule is that if a movement or position hurts it is counterproductive and better to stop the exercise for now.
The method is crucial
When it comes to releasing muscle tightness, what is essential is not only the exercise itself as the way you do it. If you go through a movement too fast, too strongly or without really paying attention, it may work against you. I like to compare muscles to small children. If you were to sing a child to sleep, but you would sing quite quickly to get it over with, while checking your mobile phone and being miles away with your attention, would your child feel very comforted and peaceful? Exactly. So move slowly, with your full attention to the movements and your breathing.
The discipline to make it happen
Getting on the mat can be the hardest part of one’s yoga practice. That’s why the practices below are kept short, and there are two sessions so you can alternate: one involves lying on the back and the other is in a kneeling position. If you find it difficult to actually get on the mat, it may help you to think “I am just going to lie on my back/kneel on the yoga mat.” Once you are there, it won’t be such a hurdle to do the movements as well.
PRACTICE 1: SUPINE
Pelvic tilt and circle
Lie on your back with your legs bent. The feet are hip-width apart and not too close nor too far from the body. Put weight on the feet as you exhale and lower the back of the waist on the floor. Inhale and return to the starting position. Repeat at least 8 times.
By shifting the weight on the feet slightly, circle around the edge of the sacrum. Imagine that you a have a clock on the lowest part of your back and you push down on each number of this clock, going around first in one direction a few times and then changing the direction.
Both exercises are good to do when you have sacroiliac joint pain.
Holding one knee
Keep one leg extended on the floor and hold the other knee towards you. Feel how the whole back can relax on the mat; relax it even more with every outbreath. It is lovely to slowly move the head from side to side in this position so the neck muscles release too.
Stretch one leg up
Bring both legs towards the chest and both arms next to your body on the floor. Inhale and lengthen one leg towards the ceiling while moving the opposite arm next to your ear. Swap sides and do 4 to 8 times.
Keep both legs close to you and bring your arms out to the side. Move the legs over to one side and look away to the other side. It is important not to force a twist. If your knees don’t go down to the floor that is fine, enjoy the stretch and support the knees on one side.
Keep moving from side to side, inhaling to bring your knees back to the centre and exhaling to lower them to the side.
Hold both knees
The rest position at the end of a practice is very important. Please don’t skip this part as your muscles need a few minutes to rest and assimilate what they have gone through. Skip this step and you may well find that your practice left you more tired than before!
PRACTICE 2: KNEELING
Inhale and come on hands and knees. If your back feels fragile then stay in a straight “table-top” position. If it feels fine then lift the chest so the back arches slightly. Keep looking forward and down: you don’t want to strain the neck. Rather keep the neck vertebrae in line with the rest of the spine, so in a gentle curve rather than a strong angle. Alternate this pose with the previous one, the child’s pose: inhale into cow’s pose, exhale into child’s pose.
Dynamic hunting dog
From a position on all fours, bring one knee towards your head and the head towards the knee. At the same time your opposite arm is going back. Inhale and lengthen the leg and the arm all in one line. If it feels ok, repeat 6x on one side and 6x with the other arm and leg.
Rest as in child’s pose but place your knees wider apart and the toes together. Stay in this position for a minute, aware of your breath and where you feel the stretch in your body.
Be careful with this position if you have had a herniated disc in the past year or your lower back is painful at the moment.
Start this strong stretch for the whole back of the body in child’s pose with the feet hip-width apart.
Tuck the toes under.
Stretch the arms in front of you and place the hands mat-width apart.
Unfold the legs to come in this “triangular position.”
Bend your legs at first and then try stretching them.
Stretch the hips up and behind you.
Keep the shoulders wide, giving plenty of space for the neck (see here for more instructions and variations).
Hold for a few breaths or longer if it feel comfortable.
Go down to the child’s pose to rest after this stretch.
Turn around and make sure to rest on your back for a few minutes, preferably with the legs bent and feet on the floor. Use this time to keep paying attention to your body and the way it responds to your breathing.
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