If you’ve ever experienced lower back pain – and most people do at some point in life, you’ll know how limiting it can be to every-day activities. An aching lower back or ‘lumbago’ is common and usually disappears in a few weeks or months, although other causes such as a ruptured vertebral disk or sciatica often require a lot more attention and care.
In any case, pain is a message from the body that we need to pay more attention – not just to what we do, but how and why we do it too….
The lower back is around the same area as our centre of gravity, meaning the rest of the body basically surrounds this area and relies upon it for stability. When we unconsciously change our movements in order to compensate for pain and discomfort, the rest of the body usually responds pretty quickly…. Those with back pain tend to walk differently to how they would without the pain, and may hold excess tension in the shoulders or jaw because of that pain – often leading to headaches and neck pain. Holding the lower back rigidly because of pain is likely to cause the muscles of that area to become ‘tight’, commonly translating into ‘tighter’ hip muscles and therefore an increased risk of knee and ankle pain. (because it’s all connected!).
If you’re dealing with a serious back injury, please visit a specialist who can inform you how you might be able to best heal yourself. However, if your sore lower back is simply stiff, rigid and compressed due to daily habits, this posture might help create a sense of spaciousness in an otherwise difficult place to work with.
‘Sitting for long periods of time’ is almost always said to be the cause of chronic lower back pain, but it’s not always your desk job which is to blame…. People who exercise a lot – specifically running, cycling or anything that involves quick and rapid jumping – will usually experience tightness in the hips, hamstrings and lower back. Well-targeted post-workout stretching can help release the tension brought on by this type of exercise, and although they’re controversial; foam rollers have done wonders for many people’s knee and lower back pain.
What’s your view on foam rolling?….
Over-use injuries are the most common, and these are the ones we don’t usually notice until something stops us from doing all the things we want to do. To prevent injury in the first place (yay!) begin by cultivating a little more awareness around daily habits; are there certain activities which put a little too much pressure on vulnerable joints like wrists and knees? Do you always come home with an aching back or neck? Or do you notice small nagging pains after running or jogging that aren’t quite that bad yet…. By taking time to notice which habits help and which don’t, we can then take charge of our own health in a natural way.
Lower back issues tend to scare us away from backbends in a Yoga practice. Although highly beneficial to the body – especially for those with back pain – the act of bending backwards and opening up can be very intimidating if we’ve spent a long time habitually holding ourselves stiff and protective due to pain. Knowing how to open and strengthen different parts of the body before moving into a posture is key to a Yoga practice which truly heals and serves the body, and will make each practice more of a fluid journey rather than a set of individual postures.
Other postures to open the hips and lower back:
This posture helps open the outer hips, gluteus medius & IT band, which – when tight – are both very common causes of knee and lower back pain. The final variation also releases tension in the hamstrings, which are often another cause of lower back pain. When the hamstrings are ‘tight’, they pull on the pelvis and create strain in the lower back.
To Prepare the body:
- This is a good posture to practice without much preparation, as it is very gentle, and will allow you to become more aware of which parts feel stiff or tight, therefore giving a clue as to whether ‘tight’ hips could be causing other issues in the body.
- One thing you can do is to bring some prior movement to the hips, boosting circulation which will help reduce a little muscle stiffness to begin with.
- From a supine position, bend the knees and bring them hip-distance apart.
- Lift the [left] leg from the floor, and begin to make big circular motions with the leg. (make the action come from the ball-and-socket joint of the hip, so the whole leg is being revolved in a circle. Do this for around 30 seconds to a minute, and then repeat on the other side of the body.
- Other postures which can give some relief to the outer hips before moving onto this asana include janu sirsasana (head-to-knee-pose), supta matsyendrasana (reclined spinal twist), or jathara parivartanasana (revolved abdomen pose). Practice each to both sides of the body if you’d like to spend longer releasing stiff hips and back pain.
- From a supine position, bend the knees and bring them hip distance apart.
- Lift the [left] leg and cross the ankle over the [right] thigh, just below the knee. Make sure you’re crossing just above the ankle of the [left] leg, in order to protect the foot, ankle and knee.
- Interlace the hands around the back of the [right] thigh – if this isn’t available to you at the moment, you can use a strap, or even a tie or scarf to hold onto instead.
- **Flex the foot to engage the leg muscles, therefore stabilising the ligaments surrounding the knees and protecting them. If this isn’t done, the action will be directed straight into the knee rather than the hips and IT band (which doesn’t tend to end well….).
- Gently begin to draw the legs in towards you, keeping the shoulders, neck and head relaxed on the floor.
- Keep the lower back grounded at first so that the pressure is directed again into the hips and IT band. When you feel the muscles release (which might take a little longer than expected if you have a lot of tension within the body) the lower back can come off of the floor so there’s a very slight rounding of the tailbone, allowing a deeper opening into the hips.
- Always be aware of how the rest of the body feels while you’re here; are you tensing the shoulders, jutting the chin up or compressing the back of the neck? Maintain length in the neck by very slightly drawing the chin down.
- You can stay in stillness, or choose to add some movement, which is a little more natural for the body, and will help to contact a wider range of muscles. Make small circles with the legs, or gently rock from side to side.
- If it’s difficult to clasp around the thigh, use a belt and loop it around the thigh instead.
- To move a little further, you could straighten the [right] leg and begin to open up the hamstring muscles.
- Ensure there’s no sense of ‘pulling’ at the point of the sitting bones where the hamstrings attach, or at the back of the knees. If there is, bend the knee a little and allow a slow and gradual opening to occur.
- To move further still, keep the shoulders relaxed and the upper back on the floor, and bring the [right] index and middle fingers to interlace around the [right] big toe. Gently use that hand to draw the foot – very slowly! – in towards you, so that now you’re opening the hips, glutius medius, IT band and hamstrings at the same time, which can very much help to create space and ease in the lower back.
- If this is difficult, you could use a strap and loop it over the top foot instead.
- Stay here for around a minute, or however long feels good to you.
- Use the breath; and instead of pulling or pushing through tension, use slow and deep breaths to calm the nervous system, therefore helping to release extra muscular tension.
- To transition out, bend both knees again if you took the last variation of the posture, release the hands either-side of the body, and un-cross the top ankle.
- Bring both feet back to the floor hip-distance apart and become aware of the effects of the posture – physically and energetically – and how different the body feels on each side, before moving on to the other hip.
To counterpose this asana: While this posture is brilliant for relieving tension around the hips and lower back, we always benefit from balance within a practice. As this asana primarily works on the outer hips, abductors, hamstrings and IT band, it can be useful to then practice baddha konasana in order to open the adductors, also helping to relieve the lower back.
Pain is sometimes inevitable, but suffering is always optional….