How to protect your lower back and increase stability in any yoga pose

Olga Kabel

Olga Kabel, Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist

Physical therapists know this. Pilates teachers know this. Athletes and dancers know this; how come yoga teachers are behind?

Recently one of the commentators on my blog, Michele, asked me: “Why don’t I hear yoga teachers talk more about “zipping up” (progressive abdominal contraction) in yoga classes?” I don’t know why. I do know that it is absolutely essential. Many yoga poses, if done without it, can be very risky to students’ backs and sacrums and just make the pose more unstable. What is this elusive “zip up”? Let’s explore. BabyBelly

Today I observed my 2 year old son discover zip up. He was playing with his belly button and discovered that on the inhale it is easy to stick the belly out and on the exhale it is fun to pull it in. That entertained him for a while. This pattern represents our natural breathing pattern – when we breathe in, the diaphragm flattens and pushes down on the internal organs, causing the belly to stick out, since the organs have no other place to go. With every exhalation the belly relaxes, since the diaphragm goes back up. In yoga practice we piggyback on this natural pattern and intentionally contract the abdomen on the exhalation, drawing it in. IT DOES NOT HAPPEN NATURALLY, WE DO IT ON PURPOSE. Why?

Do an experiment. Stand with your hands on your hips as if you were holding a bucket of water. As you inhale, tip the pelvis forward, as if spilling the water forward. What are your back muscles doing? Contracting. What are your abdominal muscles doing? Stretching. As you exhale, tip your pelvis the other way, as if spilling the water back. What are your back muscles doing? Stretching. What are your abdominal muscles doing? Contracting. This experiment is meant to demonstrate the relationship between your lower back and your abdominal muscles. They have an agonist-antagonist relationship: when one is contracting, another one as passively stretching. Why is that important? Well, most of us have either weak or chronically contracted lower back muscles because of sedentary lifestyle, overuse, posture issues, patterns of movement – many different reasons. And many people, especially in the yoga community, have excessive lumbar lordosis (exaggerated curvature of the lower back). Do those issues go away when you step on the mat to do your yoga practice? Nope, you bring them with you. So next time you go into Virabhadrasana 1, your pelvis automatically tilts forward, because it’s easier. As a result, your lower back tightens even more, so instead of fixing the problem you exaggerate it.

Take a look at these two images. What is the main difference?

ViraImage

In Image 1 the lumbar curve is exaggerated, because the shoulders are aligned over the hips, the stance is too wide and abdomen is not contracted. Even though it looks like a nice back bend, the lower back is compromised and vulnerable to potential injury. In the yoga world this is called “Anga banga”(real Sanskrit word) – it’s when you are trying to do something good for yourself but end up hurting it. What’s the solution? Zip up! In Image 2 the shoulders are positioned slightly in front of the hips, lower back curve remains neutral and abdomen is contracted. The result – supported lower back, stronger core, better alignment, deeper awareness. Yes, the backbend might not be as deep, but we know better then compromise safety for the sake of contortion, right?

My students catch up on the idea of zipping up quickly. Any time I ask them: What can we do to make this pose (any pose) safer/more stable/stronger, they respond in unison: “Zip up!” Doing zip up in back bends protects your lower back, doing it in twists ensures that you twist from the center, instead of using arm leverage, doing it in forward bends takes you deeper into the pose in a safer way, etc. It’s one of those things that you really shouldn’t go without.

By the way, having developed “six pack” abs have nothing to do with having strong core. Abdominal crunches exercise Rectus abdominis muscles, whose job is to flex the trunk. They do not support your lower back. Transverse abdominis muscles that lie underneath serve that purpose, almost like an internal corset that holds things together. By progressively pulling the abdomen in toward the spine you activate those muscles. The term “zip up” is not really a term but an image that helps you visualize the process. Imagine putting on a tight pair of jeans. When you attempt to zip them up, you gradually pull your stomach in from the bottom toward the top to make it happen. This image usually works better for women, then for men 🙂 When we say “zip up”, we mean “progressive abdominal contraction from the pubic bone toward the navel”. “Zip up” is just faster and more visual.

Theoretically, we want to engage the zip up EVERY TIME WE EXHALE, for the duration of the yoga practice. This is the simplest way to develop core strength and support the lower back. It has other unexpected benefits. It trains your body to respond quickly if your balance is compromised. Consider my personal story: I was taking my rambunctious lab for a walk one time and turned to lock the door. He saw a squirrel and pulled so strongly that I went flying off the stairs. The thought that flashed through my head was “I am about to do a face plant on the cement walkway.” But my body responded differently. After years of practice, my core muscles contracted automatically, regrouping my entire body and I landed on my feet – no conscious decision on my part!  This happens when you teach your body to behave a certain way through mindful training on the mat and the results show up off the mat. That’s why we do yoga anyway – not for it’s own sake, but to live happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives (with fewer injuries!)

Few words about bandhas. I often hear yoga teachers use the term “uddiyana bandha” in place of “progressive abdominal contraction”. It’s not the same thing. In general, teachings on bandhas vary from one yoga tradition to another. Sri Krishnamacharya was clear in his teachings: bandhas are done in a seated position for the purpose of affecting your body’s subtle energy, NOT structural support.

ZIP UP TECHNIQUE.

jeans texture with zipperWhen moving in-out of the pose: On the Exhalation progressively contract your abdomen from the pubic bone toward the navel; on the Inhale gradually release the contraction form the navel to the pubic bone.

When holding the pose: On the Exhalation progressively contract your abdomen from the pubic bone toward the navel and release it only partially on the Inhalation to maintain support. On the next Exhalation reengage the abdomen and on the Inhale again release partially. Continue for as long as you hold the pose. Partial release of the contraction on the inhalation allows you to breathe more fully, but remaining contraction of the lowest part of the abdomen maintains support for the lower back.

Do you teach progressive abdominal contraction to your students? Do you have an interesting way of presenting it?

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EXAMPLE OF A “ZIP UP” YOGA PRACTICE WITH EMPHASIS ON FORWARD BENDS AND TWISTS

INTENTION: To use progressive abdominal contraction on EX to increase stability in the postures, support the lower back and go deeper into Forward Bends and Twists.

Zip-up-practice200x255

To view the practice, click on the image

TOOLS:

  • Use progressive abdominal contraction in multiple poses as a theme
  • Use appropriate Forward bends and Twists  to illustrate the effects of progressive abdominal contraction
  • Use Krama (Segmented) Exhalation to develop better control of abdominal engagement

Of course, it’s up to you to decide whether or not this practice is appropriate for your students. You can copy this practice and change it to your liking by logging in to your Sequence Wiz account.

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What do seniors need in a yoga class?

Olga Kabel

Olga Kabel, Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist

Couple of days ago I read an article titled “Yoga after 50“, that made it sound as if older students practicing yoga is some sort of a novel idea. I couldn’t help but wonder – how did we manage to distort the yoga tradition in such a way, that it surprises us that people older then 50 can do it? I believe it was Sri Krishnamacharya who said: “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga”. Certainly, older students will have different needs, and this is what we’ll discuss here.

Personally, I love working with older students. In fact, the majority of my private clients and students in group classes are older then 60. Why do I enjoy it so much? Well, younger students usually have many more things to juggle in their lives – family, careers, etc, which places great demands on their time and energy. They certainly need yoga, but, understandably, yoga is often not a priority. My older students usually have established careers or are already retired, their children are grown, therefore they are more in charge of their time. Their priorities often shift from taking care of others to taking care of themselves and yoga becomes an important piece of the self-care routine. This means that they are more consistent in their class attendance, they keep their appointments and they are interested in going deeper, beyond physical contortion. Some of my students have been studying with me for 10+ years – how’s that for commitment to practice? And since many of my students are older professional women, they are incredibly supportive of me as a yoga teacher and a yoga studio owner, which makes our relationship even more special.

PrivateSessionChairThere are two main ways to approach your work with older students: yoga classes and private yoga sessions. I usually recommend that new students, especially if they are 50 and older, come see me privately before they join the class. Meeting them one-on-one gives me an opportunity to get a better idea of what’s going on, what they need and what kind of limitations they have. It also helps to establish our relationship for the future. I don’t charge anything for that meeting, so most people get excited about it right away. After that initial consultation I am usually in a much better position to make a recommendation about whether private sessions or group classes would be the best fit for them.

Let’s look at a yoga class first. First of all, I believe that the term “Gentle Yoga’ is largely misunderstood. This term is often used to describe yoga classes aimed at beginners and older students; what does it mean, anyway? Sometimes it is even used interchangeably with “Restorative Yoga”, which is an entirely different thing. Theoretically, Gentle Yoga is supposed to be less challenging then other classes, have slower pace and place more emphasis on the breath – all fantastic ideas. But often I observe that teachers take it to the extreme, simplifying the movement dramatically, keeping their students on their backs for most of the class and spending more time articulating the joints then moving the spine. Yet maintaining the mobility of the spine is fundamental to any well-rounded yoga practice and becomes even more important as we get older. Joseph Pilates said: “You are only as old as your spine is flexible.” According to the yoga tradition, spine is both structural and energetic center of the body and we need to take great care of it. Since your spine is capable of moving in 5 different directions – forward, backwards, sideways, slightly upwards and rotate – a balanced yoga practice needs to have some combination of forward bending, back bending, lateral bending, axial extension and twisting. You don’t have to pile them all into one class, but we need to make sure that we don’t neglect either one of those.

Therefore, the primary need for most senior students will be maintaining the mobility of the spine. Next, we need to make sure that we include some core strengthening work. In the yoga world we talk a lot about flexibility and often forget that another side of that coin is stability. Strong core (I don’t mean just abdominal muscles) helps protect and support the lower back, links the upper and the lower body and makes the entire structure more balanced, stable and efficient.

Next is balance. We are all aware that our balancing capacity declines with age, and falling can be devastating to students both physically and mentally. That’s why we need to continuously work on maintaining (or developing) their ability to balance.

And last, but not least, is flexibility. I would warn against focusing on flexibility for it’s own sake. After all, our students do not intend to audition for Cirque du Soleil any time soon; all they want is to be able to get down on the floor to play with their grand kids, feel less stiff when they wake up, be able to reach for the top shelf without shoulder pain, etc. I call it “functional flexibility”; it’s less about putting a foot behind your head and more about being able to perform daily tasks with minimum discomfort.

So there you have it. The physical needs of older students could be boiled down to these four:

  • Maintaining the mobility of the spine
  • Strengthening the core musculature
  • Developing the ability to balance
  • Bringing the joints through the full range of motion to develop “functional flexibility”

tree_poseAfter years of working with older population I also know that most seniors will benefit from a longer warm-up, slower pace, simpler poses and some predictability of sequencing. They usually like to stay engaged and give their feedback during the practice; they prefer to start on their back, do some breathing work at the end, have longer Savasana and minimal sitting on the floor.

Observing these simple principles minimizes the risk dramatically. Of course, you always need to monitor your students closely and encourage them to speak up if something doesn’t feel right. And of course, you will need to modify and adapt to make the practice safer for individual students. But that applies to any yoga class regardless of the participant’s age; we all have limitations in one area or another.

On the other hand, when you design a practice for an individual senior, you should be much more specific. Yes, she might benefit from the things that you have worked on in a class, but you will need much more information on what’s going on with her and what she is looking for to make her practice effective. Knowing her priorities will set the direction for your work together. You might discover that she is most bothered by stiff knees that limit her walking; or that she can’t sleep through the night and wakes up tired; or that she is having trouble focusing when she reads the paper. A carefully designed yoga practice can address any one of these concerns. Once you know what she wants to work on, you can select appropriate yogic elements and organize them in a way that targets the primary issue. Each student’s individual differences and personal preferences are also important to consider. She is much more likely to continue with the practice if it resonates with her on some level and suits her personality. If you give her a breathing technique that makes her feel lightheaded or a mantra that grinds on her nerves, no matter how appropriate it is for her CONDITION, it would not be appropriate for HER. (To read more about the difference between yoga classes and private yoga sessions, go to the learning center at your Sequence Wiz account)

The bottom line is that older adults do and should practice yoga. It can become a primary form of self care or an organic addition to other things that they are already doing. Our job as yoga teaches is to encourage it, provide support and help them acquire confidence to continue. The world would be a better place if more people practiced yoga!

Share your experience – what are your observations about working with older students?

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EXAMPLE OF A BALANCE PRACTICE FOR OLDER ADULTS

Balance-Practice-for-Older-Adults200x255

To view the practice click on the image

INTENTION: To create a well-rounded yoga practice for older adults that helps maintain strength and agility, improves balance and develops mental focus.

TOOLS:

  • Use appropriate Forward bends, Back Bends, Twists and Axial extension poses to maintain the mobility of the spine
  • Use progressive abdominal contraction in multiple poses to emphasize core strengthening aspect
  • Use simple balance poses in various positions (on hands and knees, feet and pelvis) to work on balance
  • Use Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) to balance the system on the physiological level and deepen mental focus

Of course, it’s up to you to decide whether or not this practice is appropriate for your students. You can copy this practice and change it to your liking by logging in to your Sequence Wiz account.