A few weeks ago one of my students came into the group class and declared: “I want a beach body by August.” An unusual request in a back care yoga class, so there were a few seconds of stunned silence. Then I thought “great!” A beach body presumably has shapely arms, firm glutes and a toned abdomen. Strong Glutes, arm and abdominal muscles also happen to be important for back health, so beach body and back health work together very well. My blogs this summer will focus on these three muscle groups, making them ready for the pool or beach if you want, or simply toning them to support your back health. If we also do these exercises mindfully, they can have a positive effect on stress levels, and cultivate a healthy approach to our body. We are starting with the glutes today.
The glutes consist of 3 muscles: the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. They can easily become weak when we sit for many hours. When they are weak or passive, the muscles around the area have to overwork and may get strained. For example, the piriformis, which is one of the “deep six”, muscles located underneath the gluts, tends to take over from underperforming gluts and become tight. This can lead to “piriformis syndrome” when the tight and enlarged piriformis presses on the sciatic nerve and causes nerve pain down the leg. Tight and/or weak gluts are also troublesome for the lower back, as they burden the hamstrings and back muscles. Their efficient coordination with other muscles is important for efficient walking, running, many sports and yoga poses.
Our body is very intelligent and does not respond well to force. We can invite it to relax, encourage it to strengthen, but never impose these things with our will power. Therefore, when you do the exercises below, do them with full attention to the sensations in the body and the breath. Notice how your body responds, and how it feels afterwards. Respect whatever signs your body is giving you. You may find that your attitude in yoga corresponds to how you approach many things in life. If you are a very ambitious person, maybe you have to cultivate more acceptance and patience. If you usually take it easy, you may need to find a little extra “oomph”.
In any case, don’t let these exercises hurt you. Different causes of back pain will require different exercises. If an exercise hurts it is a sure sign that this particular one is not right for you and another movement will be more appropriate and efficient. To find out exactly which movements are for you, you can always contact me here for a chat about private yoga therapy sessions, which I do in person or via Skype.
The exercises and poses below are arranged from easier to more complicated. I also include stretches for the glutes, because relaxing these muscles is as important as strengthening them.
While sitting or standing, contract one side of your buttocks and then the other. Not strictly yoga but good to start working the glutes, especially when you are at your desk, in the car or waiting for the bus. If you don’t find it easy to find these muscles, try contracting both sides at the same time. If this hurts, go straight to the stretches and forget about strengthening the glutes for now.
Sideways leg abduction: “the clam”
The sideways leg abduction or “clam” is again not strictly a yoga exercise but useful to target the gluteus medius. Lie on your right side, head resting on the right arm and legs bent about 90 degrees. Keeping the feet together, lift the left knee without moving the back or hips. Do this with an inhalation and exhale as you lower the leg down. Repeat a comfortable number of times on each side.
This yoga movement is especially for the gluteus maximus. Make sure you contract the lower abdomen and tuck the tailbone to lengthen and thereby protect your lower back.
-Lie on your abdomen with the forehead on your hands. If this is difficult for the neck you can look to the side.
-Contract the lower abdominal muscles and tuck the pelvis slightly.
-Exhale and lift one leg while keeping it straight and keeping both hipbones on the mat.
-Think of lengthening the leg away rather than merely lifting it.
-Work up to 6 repetitions with each leg.
Roll over onto the back and bend both legs. Place the right ankle just below the left knee. If it feels comfortable, bring the left leg towards you and hold the thigh by hooking the hands through on either side. This stretches the gluts and the piriformis.
Bridge strengthens all the deep and larger buttocks muscles.
-Lie on your back with the legs bent and feet hip-width apart, not too far away from the body.
-Exhale and put weight on the feet, thereby tilting the pelvis and touching the lower back (the back of the waist) on the floor.
-In the same exhalation, lift the pelvis off the floor, as high as comfortable. Keep the knees parallel.
-Inhale and stay in the position, keeping the lower back long, with the tailbone slightly tucked.
-Exhale and slowly lower the spine.
-Repeat a few times and then rest by holding the knees towards the chest.
The instruction of “rolling the spine up/down one vertebra at a time” is often given. Whether this feels good or not depends on your spine. If it doesn’t, it is fine to lift the spine in one go.
Standing Chair pose
This pose targets the gluteus medius and maximus: Bring the feet and knees together and pretend to sit down, stop halfway and stay in the position. Use your abdominal muscles to tilt the pelvis so you avoid overarching the lower back.
Stay for up to 7 breaths and then rest in a squat position.
Dynamic Warrior 3
This dynamic warrior pose is good for all the glutes plus the “deep six”. If balance is not easy, please have a wall or chair nearby.
-Start standing, with the feet hip-width apart.
-Inhale and lift the left knee and both arms. Keep the shoulders relaxed and the lower back long. The lower back should feel neutral: neither arched nor flat.
-Exhale and move the left leg back so you are in an airplane position: arms out to the side, head, trunk and left leg in one line. Do not lift the leg higher than the hip. The picture shows the position with the arms forward. It is easier for the shoulders and for balance to keep the arms out to the side.
-There is no need to being the body and leg in a horizontal position at the first try. It is better to leave the leg lower and the body higher and first get used to the balance and to keeping the spine long and relaxed.
-When in the warrior 3 balance, feel lengthened in two directions: the crown of the head is attracted forward while the heel is attracted to the opposite direction. Notice that this is about “lengthening and releasing” rather than about forcing the body in a certain place. The ease comes when the core muscles and gluts are strong, hence the importance of first mastering the easier version with the body and leg diagonal rather than horizontal.
-Repeat a few times on each side.
Kneel down to the frog position to stretch the glutes: with the toes together and knees apart, rest the head on the mat or on the hands. Allow the elbows to relax on the mat.
Finish by resting at least 5 minutes lying on your back