Chances are, you have suffered from a spot of back pain at some point in your life. In most people, it will heal of it’s own accord. Once the body gets moving again, the muscles relax, release and recover. However, in a growing proportion of the population, back pain can hang around or re-occur, so that the condition becomes chronic.
Chronic lower back pain creates a vicious circle in which movement is limited due to pain and restriction. When we (unconsciously or consciously) prevent an area of the body from moving we lessen the blood flow and lymphatic drainage to that place. As a consequence, the area becomes tight and stiff and this can contribute to an increase in pain.
This is why the latest evidence-based guideline for the treatment of lower back pain is to get moving. Once the initial inflammatory period is over, it is important to find ways to regain confidence in moving once again.
This is all very well, but for any one who has ever had back spasms or sciatica, getting moving seems counter-intuitive and even dangerous. After all, it is natural to feel fearful about what has “gone wrong” with our spine. The diagnostic names given “three joint degenerative disease” or “facet joint disease” or descriptions of misplaced or crumbling vertebrae are enough to make one never move one’s spine again! Yet, this entirely understandable reticence needs to change in order to truly improve back health.
Thankfully, gentle yoga, specialised for back pain sufferers, offers a great way out of this conundrum. This is due to the fact that yoga practice gives us space and permission to listen to the body’s messages and respond accordingly.
The body’s language consists of somatic experiences. These are sensations such as tweaks, twinges, aches, heat, tingling, gripping, releases and softening, to name a few. These sensations give us information about how to unwind the tension and stresses that run through the body’s musculo-skeletal and fascial systems. When we learn to listen to, and correctly interpret, the body’s messages we find our way out of the vicious circle of chronic pain.
If we choose to practice yoga on a regular basis with the guidance of an experienced teacher we can learn to establish a new collaborative relationship with the body. Once the nervous system starts to feel the benefit of this process it begins to allow the muscles to let go of their unconscious tension. When this happens, the vicious cycle of pain is broken and healing can occur.
Many people see the body as a vehicle for transporting their minds. Moreover, many people have a lack of consciousness about how their body is feeling and working. Unwittingly, many people commonly force the body to endure discomfort, that they barely aware of, because their mind is “elsewhere”. Tasks such as gardening or carrying heavy loads can create strain, it’s true. Equally problematic are less strenuous activities such as sitting in cars, sofas or at a desk for far too long. Unconsciously, the spine can assume a c-shape or s-shaped curve in response. The pain we experience is actually a cry for change. The human body has evolved to breathe deeply and move freely, with awareness. It is not happy to sit and slump!
More often than not, pain can be a consequence of imbalance in the muscular-skeletal system that creates strain. These imbalances can be due to a diverse array of things such as wearing uncomfortable shoes or clothing, injuries, surgical operations, childbirth, ailments or accidents.
Gentle yoga will teach you how to use your skeletal system in a more mindful way so you don’t unwittingly put pressure on the intervertebral disks, a common cause of back pain.
Photo by Robert Kneschke at dreamstime.com
In addition, there are other insults the body has to endure. These might include money worries, shocking or traumatic events, feeling unsupported, loneliness, bereavements and difficult break ups. All these life experiences have their impact on the body as well as the mind. Emotions and feelings can be identified by physical brain states and measurable chemical changes. A separate body and mind is actually impossible. In fact, some researchers have gone so far as to label the body as the unconscious mind. They postulate that we hold memories of past injury, insult and trauma in the tissues; in the words of a highly esteemed trauma researcher, Bessel van der Kolk: “The Body Keeps the Score.”
Examples of holding emotions in tissues might be rounding our shoulders, tightening our jaw or gripping our thighs together. This can go on long after we feel we have emotionally processed the experience. Gentle breathing and movement can help us to release layers of this unconscious holding. Often we are not even aware of the release of tensions related to emotional holding; there is just a feeling of lightness and peace. However, sometimes there is a deeper sign of release, some tears, a long sigh, a palpable feeling of relief.
The spine is an incredible structure. Given the right conditions it can be resilient, flexible and strong. However, the spine does not fare well when it is stuck or stressed. The vertebrae are complicated joints, which house the spinal cord and form spaces for the nerves. The nerves are bundles of fibres, that transmit signals to and from the muscles and other areas of the body. Holding ourselves too far off centre on a regular basis can compromise the support muscles for the spine. They undergo excess strain as they try to help you remain stable in standing and walking. This creates stress patterns through the tissues, which can compress the nerve fibres causing sciatica. Moreover, these patterns of stress can restrict breathing, squash organs, and dull the mood.
A small deviation in the curves of the spine or in the relationship of the skull, ribcage and pelvis can create havoc. Yet only if this deviation is due to a habitual holding pattern. Yet, it also must be acknowledged that many people have very strong imbalances and pathologies in the spine and experience no pain at all!
However, in some people, habitual holding of tissue near a misplaced vertebrae can hold it in the uncomfortable place. We might get that vertebrae re-aligned by an osteopath and that might stick – if we are lucky. The problem is that often, once we go back to our habitual walking, sitting, standing postures, we activate the old holding pattern. This will pull it back to the habitual place. The result being… we are stuck with it!!
A gentle, mindful yoga practice can progressively relax tensions and engage sleepy muscles. In many cases, regular practice can create the right conditions for the spine to realign itself. This process allows osteopathic adjustments to be held in in the long term. To achieve this we need to respectfully move through our full range of (comfortable) motion in three dimensions, in all the joints of the body, particularly the spine. When we do this on a regular basis, there is an increase in the neuro-muscular communication through the motor and sensory nervous pathways. Due to this increased fine motor control, we are able to access more fluidity and detail in our movement. We often learn to consciously engage muscles that we didn’t know we had! Consequently, the spine is rejuvenated, liberated and nourished. The movement creates increased flow of interstitial fluid, lymph and blood. The intervertebral discs become more plump and juicy; unwanted substances are carried away through the lymph; and important nutrients can be transported into the bones and tissues. Communication at a nervous system and cellular level improves enormously when we move slowly and consciously. All these processes create the right conditions for a healthier spine.
Much of the gentle yoga practice involves reassessing our posture and movement by examining the relationships we are holding between our main bony structures. We start to get more of an understanding of how the bones articulate and communicate with each other through our whole system. We start to notice for ourselves what parts are stuck, and what parts are too loose. By practicing regularly, we begin to be able to notice, question, unwind tension and allow a more efficient co-ordination of joints to occur.
All this sounds rather involved, yet in practice it is very simple, enjoyable and relaxing. This kind of movement, coupled with awareness, gives us a space in our busy lives to turn inwards and assess how we hold ourselves. We learn how we use our spine, what our stance is, where we can move freely and where we feel stiff. By getting to know our body in this way, it learns to let go of stress and tension.
The incidence of lower back pain is increasing amongst the population worldwide. This is not surprising given the increase in stress levels, sedentary work, use of laptops and mobile phones. In 2016 NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) published their updated guidance for the assessment and treatment of lower back pain. They found that in most cases, painkilling medications and surgery are not the best treatment choices. Why not try the Yoga for Healthy Lower Back Course and see how your body responds to the benefits of gentle movement and relaxation? It has been scientifically proven to be safe, effective and suitable for all kinds of back pain.
Alison Trewhela, Yoga for Healthy Lower Backs, (Lotus Publishing 2011)
Bessel Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, (Penguin, 2015)
Gary Ward, What the Foot? (Soap Books, 2013)
John Sarno MD, The Mind-Body Prescription, (Hachette Book Group, 1999)
Thomas Hanna, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health (Lifelong Books, 2004)