Perhaps like you, I’ve been listening with interest to Michael Mosely’s health advice on the BBC Radio 4 series “just one thing” and “just one long thing”. The advice from several experts about healthy ageing, preventing inflammation, diet and exercise is compelling. I would just add one more, long thing and say, do everything you can to prevent back pain! Back pain is draining and debilitating and makes you feel older than you need to be. The restricted movement and potential lack of activity due to back pain will lead to other health problems. Bad posture as in a rounded upper back, impacts your health and mood negatively and even makes you look old. In this blog I elaborate on the five pillars of back health, and explain how you can prevent back pain to support healthy ageing.
1. Look after your posture
It’s not just that we look older with rounded shoulders, there are also consequences for our overall health. Rounded shoulders collapse the chest, so the lungs have less space to expand with the breath. Therefore, the diaphragm is squashed by the lungs and the digestive organs are pushed forward, weakening the abdominal muscles.
Physiologically, when our chest is collapsed, the movement of the diaphragm is restricted and breathing becomes shallower. But this has repercussions for our mental health, as shallow breathing can lead to anxiety and increased stress levels. I have written more about what to do to counter rounded shoulders and upper back here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/yoga-for-better-posture-rounded-upper-back/.
If I had to suggest just one thing for your posture — apart from the yoga practices, raising your computer screen to eye level and not slouching on the sofa — it would be to check your posture regularly against a wall. This will give you a sense of how your body is aligned and, when repeated often, can reeducate your nervous system and muscles into a better alignment.
-Stand with your heels a just a little in front of the wall, not more than an inch.
-Line up the right and left side of your back against the wall.
-You will notice the lower back curving inwards, so this lumbar area does not touch the wall.
-Feel both shoulder blades equally touching.
-If your head is not touching the wall without the chin lifting, try to lift the collarbones and sternum up gently. This positions the neck in a better position.
-Don’t force the head to the wall. This correction for upper back and neck may take time.
-Open the palms out and breath 5 -10 breaths in the position.
-If you are used to rounded shoulders, it may feel very stretched, even a little emotional to breathe in this position. Notice what feelings arise and breathe through it, come out if uncomfortable and try again next time.
2. Strengthen your muscles
While yoga is primarily known for its stretchy asanas, there are many practices that require strength. Strengthening exercises are imperative as we age, as muscles get weaker and bones brittle. In terms of bones, I have written about osteoporosis here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/preventing-osteoporosis/.
For arm strength, have a look at this blog: https://beneyoga.co.uk/arm-strengthening/.
For your back, one good strengthening practice for the lower and the upper back is coming up from kneeling. This practice is quite strong and not a beginner’s one to try. If you have back pain, don’t attempt this just yet. There are other back strengthening practices that I have written about in past blogs. Alternatively, contact me here if you would like us to work together to strengthen your back: https://beneyoga.co.uk/book-a-free-consultation-call/.
-Start in Child’s pose with both arms on your back.
-Straighten your upper back so your trunk becomes parallel to the floor.
-Then use your lower back muscles to straighten all the way and sit on your heels.
-Once you have mastered this movement, use the inhalation to come up and exhalation to fold forward again.
-If you want to make it harder still, you can add one arm next to your head and come up to stand on the knees rather than sit on the feet.
3. Keep your spine mobile
Staying mobile is important for our body in general. Keeping the spine mobile means we can maintain a healthy back. If we don’t regularly move our spine in its whole range of movement, the muscles supporting the spine will become stiff, exacerbate bad posture, back pain and eventually lead to arthritis. I have devoted many blogs to keeping your spine mobile and healthy. Here is one: https://beneyoga.co.uk/practice-to-keep-your-back-mobile/.
4. Rest and release
To use a metaphor from breathing: we can’t just inhale all the time. The exhalation is not only important but a prerequisite for a good inhalation. Likewise, strengthening alone will create an imbalance. We need to release tight muscles so they can work properly. This means, for example, that we have to stretch after a long walk or workout.
Rest is equally important. After a yoga class the rest position allows the body to internalise what it has done and allows the mind to practise being still. A rest position by itself can substitute a yoga practice some days and deeply restore energy. For different positions to try, visit this blog: https://beneyoga.co.uk/restorative-yoga/.
5. Breathe and focus
With age, whirling thoughts can become increasingly dominant, diminishing our ability to concentrate and feel calm. This happens if we don’t practise taking a step back from our thoughts in activities such as yoga, mindful breathing, reflection or meditation. If we don’t learn to control our thoughts, they will control us. We may then become more frightened and frazzled. Taking a break from our worries, fear and repetitive thoughts allows us to realise what the sound and quality of our mind is like. If the internal speech is negative or repetitive, it is possible to change this.
Focusing on a yoga practice, by keeping our mind on the movements and the breath, quietens the mind and allows us to take a step back. It is easier than focusing on the breath, which takes our concentration a step further. Try this and see how you feel:
Breathe in to a count of 5 and breathe out to a count of 5. Try this for 1 minute first and then work up to 5 minutes or more. Don’t force the breath, and you can count as fast or slow as you like to accommodate your rhythm of breathing. If you find yourself thinking, simply bring the attention back to your breathing.
For more blogs about back pain and healthy ageing, do subscribe to this blog. If you would like private yoga sessions for your particular health challenge, you can contact me here for a free discussion: https://beneyoga.co.uk/book-a-free-consultation-call/.
I also teach group lessons online for people who would like to maintain an overall good health. If you would like to join the group classes online, don’t hesitate to contact me for more information.