Do you sometimes feel tight or stuck in particular parts of your body? Perhaps from being in a certain posture for too long? I have five gentle yoga postures for you (and they’re even based on scientific research).
What a pain in the… back!
In a world where we spend so much of our time seated at a desk. or in the car. or on the couch… it’s no wonder most of us experience some kind of non-specific musculoskeletal pain at some point. As an exercise physiologist, I hear a lot of complaints about back pain, and more specifically, lower back pain… and I’m going to talk about this in a blog all of its own next month; keep your eyes peeled for ‘Low back pain is a tug-of-war between your abs and hamstrings’!
Why do I get back pain?
The short of it is this: when we’re sitting down, the muscles at the front of our body are in a shortened position, whilst the muscles on the back of our body are typically in a lengthened position. Our bodies are really, really smart organisms that want to adapt to make our life easier. So if we sit for 8-9 hours a day, then our body is going to adapt to this shape by adding adhesion to the muscles around our hips and chest, and it’s going to ‘tune-out’ from the muscles on our back body, since we don’t really activate these much *cough, glutes*.
Solution 1 – Increasing neuromuscular connection
By waking up some of these ‘sleeping’ muscles, we increase our brains ability to communicate with that muscle and it’s surrounding muscles so that we can utilize them for movement. A great example of this is our glutes. As I hinted at above, many of us sit on our bum all day long and as a result of this we actually really struggle to consciously activate and squeeze our glutes on our own command. Try it now, lay down on your back and see if you can squeeze your glutes one at a time! (and you’re not allowed to let your hamstrings switch on!). It’s really hard for the majority of people! Our glutes should be the biggest and strongest muscles on our body, these guys are really important and their main job is to stabilise our pelvis, which gives rise to our spine – and that’s a pretty important structure! If we can’t recruit our glutes then other muscles have to do the work that they should be doing, and this is how and why we often get tightness in our back.
If glutes don’t work, then these muscles here (see below) do the brunt of the work when we’re walking, stabilising, leaning, running, reaching, bending over, standing up, climbing the stairs etc.
Solution 2 – lengthening the myofascia
Just as importantly, we need to lengthen the muscles, and more importantly the fascia that are have adapted to be short, tight, and a bit sticky from our lifestyle of habitual sitting. This is where these yoga postures will come in handy! I recently read a research article about a yoga study that showed 96% of people in the yoga group experienced significant reductions in musculoskeletal pain (compared to 36% in the control group) with just a single session of five yoga poses! This builds on existing evidence that regularly attending yoga may improve pain and reduce pain medication usage. So below is a short, evidence-based yoga program that absolutely anyone can do at home to help ease back pain or discomfort!
Aim to hold each posture for about 4-5 minutes. When you’re setting yourself up, you don’t want to go past 60% stretch; this is important as if we go past this point we typically start to see the central nervous systems automatic response to protect our muscles and joints kick in and the muscle will actually be holding on to protect you! So a gentle, light sensation is okay – but nothing strenuous. And lastly, try to pay attention to your breath – particularly noticing the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale and trying to make them smooth, steady and even – this helps put our nervous system at ease and will allow the tissue (muscle and fascia) to ‘soften’ a bit more.
Forward fold, foot to thigh
Great for the hamstrings, the glutes, the fascia that all our back muscles insert into across our sacrum and our adductors (inner thigh muscles). You can use a pillow, a rolled up blanket, or anything really to support your forehead so the stretch isn’t too intense.
Half pigeon pose
This accesses the hip flexors of the leg behind you, if you can, play with gentley engaging the glute and seeing how that changes the sensations at the front of the hip. Chest can stay up, or you can fold forwards onto a pillow. Note: the knee should be out wider than your hips, and if this doesn’t feel great in your knees – don’t do it.
Bound angle pose
This is a favourite. Feet together, knees out wide. Hands can be out like cactus arms, on your belly, or above your head – whatever feels good for you! If it’s too intense, pop a rolled up towel under each knee.
Make sure your knees are relatively even (the top knee will try to crawl back), and then twist from above your navel. It doesn’t matter if both shoulders aren’t on the ground, as you relax into the pose they may head in that direction. Your arm can be outstretched or you can pop the hand behind the head.
Legs up wall
This can be done with or without props. Definitely recommend elevating the hips either on a yoga block or on a rolled up blanket. Arms out (as pictured) is a nice way to open up the fascia in the chest area. If it feels like a struggle to keep your legs up, you can pop a belt/strap around them… and then relax into this juicy pose.
Now let’s be honest, there’s definitely more than 2 solutions. There’s probably hundreds! But increasing your bodies neuromuscular connections, and lengthening out the myofascia that surrounds our muscles can only be a great place to start! Your body is unique, and your discomfort and pain is unique to you, so if you experience back pain and it doesn’t want to go away, or if you’ve nailed the first two steps in this blog and now you’re ready to start loading up the musculoskeletal system to get nice and strong (the ultimate pain preventative); it might be time to see one our Exercise Physiologists.
What should you do now?
- Check in with your glutes daily. Once that’s easy, it’s time to challenge them with some load.
- Do these five yoga poses at the start and/or end of each day, and see what differences you notice
- Set little reminders throughout the day to get up, sit up straight, elongate your spine, pull your shoulders back, squeeze your glutes, stretch, or whatever works for you!