A supple spine is the basis of a healthy and pain-free back. Whether you want to address lower back pain and tightness, or you just want to keep your back healthy, moving your spine in a gentle and careful way is key. It is important to keep all 24 vertebrae of the spine “free” and unstuck. Age, misalignment, repetitive movements, long periods of sitting, etc. can all contribute to rigidity in parts of the spine. So how do we look after these 24 little bones?
Yoga has a variety of poses to keep or regain the spine’s mobility and health. The 24 vertebrae are connected to each other through a complex structure of ligaments and muscles that need appropriate movement. If I don’t do these exercises every day my back feels tight. I know that with time it would start to feel as if I had only two parts to my back: a rigid upper back and a separate, equally rigid lower back. It doesn’t have to be like that!
Try the poses below for about 10 minutes a day, making sure they do not hurt. If you have recently had a herniated disc and you still experience pain, these movements are not right for you. Instead, if you are interested in recovering from back pain through yoga, do have a look at my back-care package; it is available in person or through Skype. If your lower back feels tight or you have a very mild lower back pain, the exercises below can be very helpful. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Cat and Cow
Start on all fours, with your hands underneath the shoulders and knees underneath the hips. Exhale and bring the abdomen up to the spine, arching the spine like an angry cat. Allow your head to hang down — this “cat stretch” is also a wonderful release for the neck.
When you next inhale, return to a straight back and then lift through the chest, so the back is slightly arched in the other way. If you are new to this exercise and your back hurts at the moment, you may need to just bring your back to a straight position, rather than arching it.
Once you are familiar with the movement, see if you can move from the bottom of your spine first: the tailbone curls under as you exhale, and then imagine moving one vertebra at a time to the full cat stretch. The head is the last to be involved in the movement. Inhale and again think of starting with the tailbone first, allowing the movement to slowly engage the rest of the spine “one vertebra at a time”.
When you have finished 5-7 repetitions of cat and cow, rest in child’s pose. Use a rolled towel under the ankles if the feet are tight, and maybe a rolled towel behind the knees if your knees are painful. Rest the head on the mat or on your hands. Rest for a minute or so, if comfortable.
Turn around to lie on your back. Place your feet a foot away from your body and hip-width apart. Put weight on your feet and with an exhalation press the lower back on the floor. Inhale and come back to the starting position. Do this pelvic tilt a few times. In itself, this pelvic tilt is soothing for lower back tightness. After a few pelvic tilts, inhale and roll your spine off the floor, again trying to do this “one vertebra at a time” until your hips are as high as comfortable. Keep pushing down on the feet. The feet should be underneath your knees and the knees are not wider than hip-width apart. Roll back down with the next exhalation. Roll up and down into the bridge position a few times.
Hug your knees towards the chest and stay in this position for a few breaths. Then slowly lower your knees to one side while looking to the other side. If this position is new for you it is very important to start gently, not lowering the knees all the way to the floor but holding them midway with the hand on that side. First get used to this way of twisting the spine, for quite a few days. If you are not used to twisting and you start too enthusiastically, this movement can cause back pain so please be careful. Even when you are used to this spinal rotation, you want to keep both shoulder blades on the floor and this may mean keeping the legs higher up. That is fine and will allow for a more efficient twist in the spine.
Hugging knees to chest
Come back to the centre and hug both knees towards the chest. Place one hand on each knee. Exhale and bring the knees a little closer to you, inhale and allow the legs to move further away. Make this a very gentle movement that is guided by the length of your breathing, rather than pulling the knees with your arms in a vigorous pace!
Apart from moving the spine, it is also important to lengthen it, to release the muscles along the spine. In the next blog in two weeks time, we will have a look at the poses that can help you with that. In the meantime, keep practising these movements regularly and let me know how you get on!