How do I protect my low back in yoga? (Part 1)

Today’s question comes from Mar who wants to know:

“How can I protect my back in backbends?”

While there are many factors that contribute to low back pain in yoga, the one I want to address today has to do with bad posture. I’m talking about the habit of thrusting the hips forward and turning the feet out when standing. Charlie Chaplin famously adopted -and exaggerated- this posture.

charlie chaplin posture análisisThis apparently harmless stance creates tension deep to the buttocks, possibly compressing the sacrum and low back. When carried over to yoga, this postural habit will have you pushing your hips up as high as possible in urdva dhanurasana (bridge pose) with painful consequences to your low back.  (Here’s a completely different expression, of the same postural pattern).

The anatomical perspective:

Our hip rotator muscles live deep to the “glutes” in the buttocks. This muscle group is comprised of six individual muscles that connect the back of the femur to the pelvis. Acting together, these muscles turn the leg out, a movement also called “external rotation of the femur.” When standing, tight hip rotators will also tilt the pelvis backwards, while the two actions combined (external rotation of the leg and posterior pelvic tilt) may result in sacroiliac joint compression and back pain. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.53.13 AMAllow me a little digression. Have you ever heard of the piriformis muscle? It is the most “famous” of all the hip rotators. Here’s why: it is singlehandedly responsible for a painful condition known as piriformis syndrome. Piriformis syndrome is caused by the compression of the sciatic nerve by way of an overly tight piriformis muscle. Luckily, this painful condition can be relieved through stretching and deep tissue massage.

Now, back to posture. If we move through life with our own version of Chaplin’s gait, our posture will affect how we perform asanas (yoga poses). This is because posture is not a static “thing”, but a pre-conditioned movement pattern. Those of us who habitually thrust our hips forward and splay our feet out, seek stability by tightening our hip rotators. This habit will also affect how we move into asana. When tightening the deep buttock muscles, it will be difficult to maintain the knees “hip width apart and parallel” in yoga poses such as bridge. This clenching will also compress the sacroiliac joint and cause discomfort in the low back.

The good new is that we can retrain our posture by bringing our femurs to a more neutral position, thus freeing up our low back and avoiding unnecessary pain.

Try these easy steps:

  • Standing upright trace a horizontal line from your pubic bone to the outer edges of your hips. Here, you’ll be able to palpate the proximal portion of the femur, the greater trochanter, an easy easy to palpate  bony landmark. 
  • Now, initiating movement from your greater trochanters, move your femurs into a slight internal rotation. Visualize the movement of your leg bones, as this will help you to better execute the movement. Keep your buttocks soft and your breath relaxed.  Feel the subtle sensations in your body. Do you notice your sacrum growing wider? Does the weight distribution on your feet change?
  • After you’ve become familiar with the previous exercise, bring it into your yoga practice. Instead of pushing your hips upwards in Setu Bandha Sarvanghasana (bridge prep), focus on the position of your femurs in relation to your pelvis. Gently turn them inwards without tightening the buttocks. What do you notice now? Are your legs working harder? This is because now they’re actually supporting the weight of your body, whereas before they were pushing into your low back.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you gain awareness of your body (and your posture!) on and off the mat. Will you give it a try? 

PS: In part two of this article I will discuss the role of the shoulder girdle in backbending. Stay tuned!

PPS: I’m teaching an anatomy and yoga workshop on Saturday May 30th, 2015. Care to join us?

Anatomy Question:

“What is the relationship between the diaphragm, the psoas and the 12th dorsal vertebrae? Why is it important in yoga?” ~ Raquel

The psoas and diaphragm muscles are intimetely linked to one another, as one starts where the other ends. These two muscles meet on the anterior portion of the 12th dorsal vertebrae, right behind the peritoneum in the abdominal cavity.*

In this context, the 12th rib is a landmark that is easy to locate in one’s body: just draw a horizontal line from the inferior tip of your sternum (xyfoid process) all the way around to your spine. Yous should land just above your 12th dorsal vertebrae. Now that you know where that landmark is, you can also access -via your imagination- the back portion of your diaphragm, where it meets the psoas. 

Many yoga teachers use the language of anatomy to direct their student’s attention inwards (pratyahara).  If you are familiar with this language, you can follow your teacher’s instructions and place your attention wherever instructed. The attention required to do that fosters a meditative state in which you are totally present, here and now, aware of your body and listening to the sensations that arise. This is yoga!

*I made this video to help you see and understand the relationship between psoas, diaphragm and 12th dorsal vertebrae. I hope you like it.

Was this helpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. 

Anatomy of the breath


Artist: Camilla Sitarama Carlow

I’m finally back home in Barcelona, re-connecting with the special people whose presence in my life I am truly grateful for. And even though you may find it strange, you are one of those people. I’m serious! I really missed posting every week while I was out of the counrty. I have been positively surprised and inspired by the engaging conversations and interactions I have had with you all. They really make my day, so thank you.

This year, during the 3 months of yoga practice one of the things I’ve noticed was how my breath continues to change thanks to yoga. My breathing normally is short and really irregular. Sometimes I even catch myself not breathing when I’m typing away on the computer. I don’t like it. I’ve also noticed that my breathing is not good in moments of stress and that it contributes to feelings of anxiety and overload. The good new is that with yoga my breathing is becoming more regular, slower and deeper. On an emotional level I feel calmer, and less agitated, less in a hurry to get to what’s next. It’s awesome.

Yoga teaches us to place our awareness on the breath at all times, and little by little the breath refines itself. There are years of personal history, story lines and beliefs  that affect the way I breathe and these usually prevent a smooth, fluid breath. By placing my attention on the breath in my practice, I have built up the ability to be present now and not give too much importance to my thoughts. In this way, I have witnessed a deeper layer emerge that is richer and a lot more interesting than the stories rolling around in my head. One of my favorite Downton Abbey characters, the Dowager, says: “All this endless thinking. It’s very overrated!” I agree.

One day, during practice, my teacher gave us this instruction: “feel the breath from inside the breath.” (This is not a precise quote, just what I remember). I took it to mean: stop trying to inhale as if it’s something I do, instead be the inhale. Watch it rise and fall. Surrender to each breath completely. When I apply this instruction to my breath everything changes, my body, my breath, the room, the sounds.. it’s like I’m witnessing them for the first time. Even though this experience lasts only a few moments, it’s a little gift born from of yoga. And it’s priceless.

Anatomy Of The Breath

This weekend I’ll be co-teaching an anatomy workshop with Marta Puig in ZonaIoga, Sabadell.

In this first class – which is part of of a 3-session series – I will introduce some of the basic principals of anatomy and how these apply to you yoga practice. You will learn about the tissues of the body and explores them in class.

The next workshop is about the anatomy of the breath while the last one explores how the diaphragm and psoas relates to our core muscles.

Following each anatomy class, Marta will guide a delicious yoga practice so we can  put all that we’ve learned into practice. I can’t imagine a better way to spend Saturday morning, can you?

The series of workshops starts this Saturday may 9th and goes from 11:30 am to 2 pm. Please RSVP in advance. Have a great week!

PS: Do you have questions about anatomy? Well, I have answers. You can send me your questions here.

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