The lower back is a place a lot of us experience discomfort, in fact lower back pain is the number one cause of disability world-wide. (In this sense, disability means no longer being able to go about your day in the way you’re used to, so you may still be able to move around, but at a very limited capacity compared to your ‘normal’ state).
Strengthening the ‘core’ is often the prescription for bringing more stability to the trunk of the body and the spine when back pain occurs, however exercises like sit-ups and crunches are actually quite counter-productive if we’re looking at reducing back pain…. Classic abdominal strengtheners like crunches – when done repetitively – actually begin to flatten the lumbar curve of the spine, which is the most important curve in terms of supporting us in an upright position. (One of the major differences separating humans from other mammals is actually the fact that we’re the only ones with a lumbar curve in the spine….)
The ‘core’ consists of far, far more than the muscles of the midsection, in fact it encompasses the whole body – from the feet all the way up to the head – but there’s a whole other conversation to be had about that…. One of the most important parts of our core is the lower back itself. The ‘back core’ of the body works closely with the transverse abdominus – a very deep abdominal muscle which supports the spine in full extension. So many of our daily activities generally weaken the lower back and deeper core muscles. Sitting for long periods of time in a slouched position in particular, is something a huge proportion of the population does every day, and is also one way to give yourself not only a weak lower back, but a painful one at that.
Backbends are fantastic for un-doing back complaints, and a good place to start is by building strength with salabhasana. If you’re a regular yoga practitioner and already pretty flexible, this simple posture is actually even more important to practice…. The more flexible we become, the more important it is to maintain strength of the muscles surrounding our joints.
Keeping The SI Joint Safe
As the hips and lower back become more flexible, there becomes more risk of over-‘stretching’ ligaments surrounding the sacroiliac joint at the back of the pelvis. The sacroiliac joints lie either side of the sacrum in two halves, forming what we refer to as the SI joint, connecting the sacrum to the iliac crest (the pelvis) hence it’s name sacro-iliac.
This is a small and particularly strong joint, surrounded by ligaments and is not particularly mobile in it’s healthiest state. This joint transmits force from the upper body to the pelvis and legs, and acts as a shock absorber for this force, creating a stable base of support for the spine.
An issue within the sacroiliac joint is often caused by an imbalance – as with all aspects, there must be a balance of sthira and sukha (steadiness and ease). If there is too little movement and rigidity within the SI joint, or if there is too much movement or hypermobility, this can cause sacroiliac joint dysfunction.
Hypermobility within the joint is one cause of SI dysfunction, and is most commonly found in females (women are around eight times more likely than men to have a problem with the SI joint) with particularly flexible hips, and also those with a weak pelvic floor. Women have a little less stability within the sacrum, and hormonal changes can also affect the amount of instability to this area.
So whether you’re completely new to Yoga or you’ve been practicing for years, relatively simple backbends are always worth including in a daily asana session to maintain that balance of strength and suppleness.
Of course, this variation is a little different….
To prepare the body for swimming salabhasana:
Begin your practice on all-fours and move through a few rounds of cat / cow to wake up the spine. Tension in the back often arises when we hold one part of the spine stiff, so bring some movement into the whole body in whatever way feels good to you in that moment.
From there, make your way into downward facing dog and walk the feet towards the hands to come into uttanasana. roll up to Tadasana, aware of the spine lengthening as you rise up.
Move through two rounds each of surya namaskar A and B. Spend some extra time in your cobra or upward facing dog each time, and focus on using the muscles of the back to lift you into the backbend, rather than relying solely on the arms (or squeezing the bum!).
After your last round, make your way to the floor, and lie down on the front of the body….
- From a prone position, reach the arms out in front of you along the floor, so they’re either side of the head.
- Bend the elbows out to the side
- As you inhale, start to squeeze the [left] elbow in towards the [left] waist as you lift the opposite leg. Keep the leg straight as you would for the traditional salabhasana posture.
- Take your gaze over the [left] shoulder as you do this, to create a slight twist.
- As you exhale, bring yourself back to center and lower the leg down to the floor. Continue to each side of the body.
Focus: Building true strength is all about connecting to the deeper muscles of the body, rather than the superficial ones we can see…. While you’re practicing this, notice if the superficial glute muscles (the bum….) start to grip. When we hold tension in the butt cheeks, this actually prevents the diaphragm (our primary breathing muscle and the biggest muscle in the body) from moving and expanding as much as it likes to, which means we’re not breathing as fully as we could be…. Focus on moving from the deeper muscles of the back and lift the legs by lifting from the inner thighs. This may mean you’re not lifting up as high as you did before, but it’s worth sacrificing how the posture looks on the outside for how amazingly strong you’ll feel on the inside. This is about building an intelligent relationship with our bodies, not making impressive shapes….
- Practice 5 to 10 times to each side of the body, and then rest everything down, pressing the belly into the floor as you inhale to create a slight opening in the lower back.
- To counterpose this asana, bring the hips back to rest in balasana (child’s pose), directing the breath into the back of the body, and relaxing through the neck and head.
When our focus is taken towards more subtle aspects of ourselves, a Yoga practice can be about creating a better relationship with our bodies and minds, and developing a deeper awareness of how each of our actions effects us both on and off the mat….