Yogis, stop duct-taping your body! Redefine "the core" & shift your movement patterns to address the root of back pain and collapsed posture.
Recently noticing the smell of mildew in my office, I discovered that the air conditioner, braving sweltering summer heat, had been leaking water surreptitiously onto the carpet for weeks. Being the not-so-handy, book-nerd, yogi-artist, bodyworker type that I am, I decided to wrap duct tape around the edges- which totally worked! For a week.
Misunderstandings of what "the core" is abound in modern pop & fitness culture, often causing more harm then good. When back, shoulder or hip pain inevitably strike, we're often told we need to stretch more or “strengthen our core,” which often translates as “do crunches” so we get busy with the ol’ ten minute ab video.
Stretching and crunching is a little bit like duct tape. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, which in the physical body is unhealthy movement patterns, spinal weakness and the muscular tension and asymmetry they cause, we “just put some duct tape on it!” Usually not from laziness but from ignorance.
Our mysterious bodies are composed of many interconnected webs of muscle. Some muscles are shallow and superficial, like the “six pack” muscles on the front of the abdomen, others are deep postural muscles that allow us to sit, walk and move functionally, like the intricate ribbon-like muscles of the spine or the complex webbed musculature of the pelvic floor.
When we overuse superficial muscles to get through our day it's like walking around patched up with layers of duct tape. Our unsupported spine, the sacred center of the body, gets progressively weaker, suffering degeneration & further collapsing our posture. Without getting to the root of the problem, low grade inflammation creates chronic discomfort and layers of duct tape, or muscle tension, continue to get patched on, creating barriers to our wellbeing.
As yogis, we are committed to seeing beyond the superficial to the universal life force that illuminates our lives from the inside out. When it comes to addressing chronic bodily discomfort or fixing an air conditioner leak, this means we’ve got to get to the source. Instead of incorporating a few exercises, we must shift the way we relate to our bodies so that our lives become an organic practice of therapeutic movement and an empowered emanation from the deepest parts of ourselves.
Unlike a few exercises, efficient movement patterns treat the root of discomfort and imbalance, improving energy levels, circulation, digestion and calming the nervous system to reduce stress while increasing our sense of living purposefully.
To make this shift our body-mind, we must move beyond pop science and fitness marketing to redefine the core, releasing the delusion around the superficial abdominals. Thanks to the media, you might think a “six pack” looks sexy but it has very little to do with healthy movement or bodily comfort, or even whole body strength! Technically, the core actually refers to the entire abdomen, from the collarbone under your neck to the sitbones at your hips.
Getting to the source is not always popular in our culture. To experience greater freedom (moksha) in your body-mind, mucho tapas is required (and no, I’m not talking about delicious Spanish appetizers). Tapas is the inner fire at the core of your energetic body generated by sustained commitment to a purpose. As yogi’s, if we lean into our breath and inner body awareness as the primary tools on this journey, committed to liberating our tissues to their natural state of ease and strength will, over time, also liberate our mind from excess, scattered tension and old, limiting belief patterns- HUGE BONUS!
Start connecting to the root of your core, the root of your power in movement, by experimenting with these four steps in your practice.
1) Strengthen your Posterior Chain, (aka your back body)
The human body was predominantly designed for walking long distances to gather food with an occasional sprint to chase prey. The primates from which we evolved lived in and climbed trees. Our arms are made for holding children and each other, our necks for holding heavy loads atop our heads. In the modern world where we may sit, drive and lie down more than we stand and walk.
The human body thrives in symmetry and dynamic movement. When we sit our hips are in flexion, which in yoga terms means a forward fold. The primary result of this common position is weakness throughout the body but especially in the hips, back, shoulders and muscles of the spine along with the side effects of low energy, self esteem & motivation, limited flexibility, and chronic discomfort in the back, hips and/or shoulders.
The first step to addressing the root of problem is to strengthen the weak, overstretched muscles that we use the least when in passive forward folds: the back of our body (called the posterior chain of muscle). Movement therapists recommend that for every exercise you do for the front of your body, you must do four for the back body.
The posterior chain starts at the bottoms of the feet, moves up the calves to the hamstrings and into the muscles along the spine and back of the neck. Even the back line of the arms gets short shrift with our computer and driving poses activating the bicep again and again.
2) Stop Mindlessly Crunching
Further compressing the front body with crunches, unless part of a balanced fitness routine monitored by a professional or while activating the posterior chain and moving in conjunction with the breath, may further weaken and pull on the back. In fact, you could photo shop the arms and flip the image of someone doing a crunch and easily mistake it for slouched desk posture.
When the superficial abdominals are strengthened with sit-ups or crunches they grow tighter than they already are from excessive sitting, pulling on the back and drawing the spine out of its normal curve that protects the body’s inner and outer balance and wellbeing.
Instead of tightening our abdominals, which contributes to a stressed out nervous system causing anxiety or a scattered mind, most of us need to relax our belly to take pressure off of our back.
As a bodyworker, I’m often blown away by how much tension my clients hold in their abdominals, which are often full of tender adhesions. I’m also blown away when clients who receive regular massage say they’ve never had their belly released.
Mixing crunches with ongoing floppy forward bends to stretch the back & the back of the legs = a rounded, slumped posture + weak and vulnerable lower back.
3) Stop Doing Floppy Forward Folds, Instead Strengthen your Legs
The most common and damaging misalignment I see in class is the idea that the value of a fold lies in touching the toes and/or having straight legs. While we may feel short-lived relief from draping our torso over our legs like a wilting flower, instead of repeatedly stretching our backline, we need to focus on increasing it's strength (see step #1), even while practicing yoga.
Most of the original yoga poses were developed in India by people who's core and limbs were already incredibly strong and flexible by our standards simply through their daily activities. Fortunately, yoga is a living, breathing tradition, dynamically adapting to disparate cultural contexts to meet the needs of practitioners seeking ease in their body, mind and spirit.
As we are waking up to the physical effects of technology, there's been a recent proliferation of articles with titles like “Stop Stretching your Hamstrings” underscoring that, although our back and hamstring of contemporary homo sapiens are experienced as "tight," this sensation results from being weak and overstretched. Pulled by a collapsed and shorten front body they have to fight for dear life to compensate so we can stand.
Take pressure of your back by moving it to the work horses of the body- the large muscles of the legs, including the glutes and hamstrings. Use the most powerful muscles in the body properly- don't waste time and cause damage stretching the back body if you aren’t going to use that booty and the back of those thighs like the animal that you are.
It's obvious why aligned and active back bending poses like Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) or Shalmabhasana (Locust Pose) are therapeutic for the human body, considering they are the opposite of our most our common daily posture. Backbends are the oppostite of crunches. But in an aligned yoga practice, even a deep forward fold like paschimottanansana (Intense West Stretch) should activate and deeply strengthen the hips and legs.
In order to align and activate the strength and intelligence of the hips, most contemporary humans need to bend their knees and widen their heels either a little or a lot to activate the deep muscles of the low back and pelvic floor, the root of the spine, instead of collaping the front body and pulling on the back.
From the perspective of functional movement, it’s far preferable to avoid what might look like depth and flexibility from the outside to an untrained eye but to hold the strength, engagement and ability of your back line. Weak or collapsed postures or many “cat”-like postures with a rounded low back aggravate core weakness and ensure spinal degeneration over time.
4) Invest in the Natural Curves of Your Spine
The human spine is an intricate, miraculous and genius structure. Although it consists of four curves and must be able to shift in all planes of motion, it’s primary purpose is not to be overly flexible or floppy, but to be stable without being rigid.
As the center of a healthy yoga practice, the natural curves of the spine are deeply sacred. Even the most instagram-worthy advanced extreme backbends or forward folds, if done correctly, still have sufficient muscular tension to recreates a semblance of this sacred geometry.
The solution to rebuilding the spine is strengthening around its curves, finding the greatest length possible without forcing or rigidity. By making this the primary cohesive physical intention of our practice, all of our poses become therapeutic exercise and begin to embody grace, power and ease.
In order to experience the power of our spine, we must be willing to change the way you've done things in the past, even the way you may have been taught by teachers still following the guidelines of a practice made for different bodies on a different continent at a different time for a different purpose.
If your pelvis naturally tilts forward, pooching out the belly, your lower back curve becomes too extreme, crunching the low back. On the other hand, if you slouch in the low back by tucking your tailbone under and sitting on it, you lose or reverse that curve completely. If your chest is pulled tight (it’s challenging to find a contemporary human who’s chest isn’t tight) your arm bones pull forward, making your upper back puff out. If you fight that tendency, you’ll often unconsciously pooch out the low ribs to compensate and appear brave in your chest, reversing the curve of the mid back. While there are many patterns of spinal dysfunction you could track by sitting on any park or gym bench, they all generally shorten the back of the neck and push the chin forward, losing the length of the cervical curve, what we call “text neck.”
Salons all over the country are having to redesign their hair washing stations because people’s necks are now bent so far forward that they can’t comfortably lean back to release their skull without many towels to support their weak necks. It's called “text neck” and we’re looking at you, yogi-iphone user.
Yoga gives us a direct experience of the freedom in the body-mind that is our primary nature. In the case of backpain, the Zen sage Haquin quote stands true “not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” Everything we need to rebuild our organically healthy body is already built into our system but it takes tapas to retrain ingrained movement patterns. As yogis; we practice this self- discipline as self devotion, not devotion to our ego, identity or personality, but to the deepest, universal-collective self, the light we refer to when we say “namaste.”