Modern western lifestyles dictate that many of us spend hours sitting at a desk in front of a computer, lounging in soft unsupported sofas, sitting in cars or lifting heavy objects as part of our normal day. These types of activities can put excessive pressure and strain on the muscles surrounding the spinal column. Over time, this stress on the spine can increase the likelihood of intense compression or even herniation of vertebral discs.
Non-sedentary cultures, such as those living in India, do not have the same epidemic of back and neck problems that we do. Picture a woman gracefully balancing a large basket of food on her head. To carry such a heavy weight, she must have a perfectly aligned spine and strong posture-support muscles. You do not get that kind of alignment and strength from sitting around and watching the television. You can, however, get it from a regular GENTLE YOGA practice.
When we are beginning to learn to get into perfect posture to optimise the outcomes of our yoga practice, it is surprisingly challenging to master the art of rooting down through the feet while lengthening up through the spine, keeping your chest open without jutting your lower ribs out, and keeping the legs muscles strong and lifted without tensing the belly or jaw. And, that is precisely the reason we spend so much time in the GENTLE YOGA classes working on our Mountain Pose (Tadasana) which is such an important foundation pose for so many of the other postures. Tadasana demands that you stand in a way that supports the natural curves of a healthy spine.
It is important to understand the anatomy of proper posture. Whether you’re sitting or standing, your spine has natural curves that should be maintained. They are a mild forward curve in the neck and lower back, and a mild backward curve in the upper back and midback. As you practice yoga, you learn to maintain these optimal curves in many standing poses and in most sitting poses.
If any of these curves are habitually flattened or overly curved, abnormal posture can get locked into the body. A wide variety of abnormal curves can occur, including a flat neck and a flat lower back, but we will focus on the two most common problems: a hunched upper back (known as excessive kyphosis), which is usually linked with a jutting forward of the head (known as forward head) and, at the other end of the spectrum, an extreme sway in the lower back (known as excessive lordosis). These extreme curves contribute to many of the painful problems—muscle strain, joint pain, and disk problems, to name a few.
Maintaining just the right curves is only part of the equation, however; to function efficiently, our skeletal structure also needs to be aligned vertically. That means when you are standing, your ears should be over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and your hips over your knees and ankles as in Mountain Pose (Tadasana).
When any body part falls out of that vertical line, the adjacent support muscles will feel the strain. For example, years of having a forward head will cause the muscles of the upper back and neck to become tired and achy from holding up the weight of the head against the pull of gravity.
So, that is why Tadasana is such an important posture. With regular practice, you will discover that the simple act of straightening up, in Tadasana mode, not just in your yoga practice but also when you are standing anywhere, anytime can change your life. If you train your body to maintain the normal spinal curves and keep your posture vertical and spacious when you are standing or sitting upright, you are likely to feel better all over.
The GENTLE YOGA sequence which is employed in class is designed to strengthen the muscles in the back as well as the abdominal muscles. Back and abdominal muscles are essential components of the muscular network of the spine, helping the body to maintain proper upright posture and movement. When these muscles are well conditioned, we mitigate against back pain.
The hamstrings too play a vital role in managing spine health. They run from the back of the ishial tuberosity (pelvic bone) to just below the back of the knee. They are responsible for bending the knee and assisting the gluteal muscles to extend the hip. These muscles are very important to stretch because, when they are tight, they make it nearly impossible to sit up straight. People who do not sit with an erect posture run the risk of early onset of degenerative disc disease and other back problems. Tight hamstring muscles are closely associated with low back pain and that is why we spend so much time stretching them in class.
In our class sequence, we also engage a number of movements and postures which have the result of stretching the soft tissues – the muscles, ligaments and tendons in the back, legs, buttocks and around the spine which can also serve as a preventative measure to avoid back pain. In particular, Pawanmuktasana (fondly known as gas releasing pose), where we draw the knees into the chest towards the end of the practice, is particularly effective.
A number of postures in the sequence are geared towards stretching the piriformis muscle which runs from the back of the femur (thigh bone) to the sacrum (base of the spine). Tightness in this muscle has been linked to sacroiliac joint dysfunction and sciatica-type pain along the sciatic nerve.
Other postures work on the psoas major muscle which attaches to the front portion of the lower spine (from thoracic segment 12 through lumbar segment 5) and which can greatly limit low back mobility when tight.