Jonathan Finegold is a guest blogger today for Wholehearter Yoga! Check out his personal experience and favorite postures for a pain-free back.
Bio: Jonathan was born into yoga. In 1975, his grandfather founded Radiance Yoga, a studio in San Diego. Unsurprisingly, yoga and meditation have always been central to Jonathan’s and his family’s lives, and it continues to be a vital part of his routine. He was formerly the marketing analyst at Robbins Research International and is now the marketing director at Now Media Group, which hosts a weekly yoga class for all employees.
I suffer from mild kyphosis — my shoulders are rounded and my spine doesn’t curve the way it’s supposed to. I don’t know whether I was born with the condition, whether it was the result of a childhood of bad posture, or whether it’s a little bit of both.
My spine has caused me problems. Or, rather, I’ve caused problems for my spine.
The medically prescribed solution was to take 800 mg ibuprofens four times a day. I don’t know whether a different doctor would recommend a different approach, but it was what was recommended to me at the time.
I knew that consuming four 800 mg ibuprofens per day was not a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
I needed an alternative. Luckily, yoga lives in my family.
My grandfather and aunt operate their own yoga studio, and my dad has used yoga to help relieve his own back pain, and they were able to teach me techniques for dealing with back pain in an alternative way. I want to share with you what my family has taught me because I know I’m not the only one who suffers from back pain. I’m not the only one who’s experienced, and is tired of, “traditional” pain relief.
There are so many factors that can cause back pain. Most people suffer from problems with their nerves or from spinal injuries that they have accrued one way or another. If you fit in this group, the yoga poses I’m about to share will help you too.
I’m no yoga guru, mind you. Believe me, all of these poses are easy to do and perfect for entry level yoga students.
Remember, if you suffer from structural spine issues, like a fused disc, it’s important to be careful with all of these poses. If you feel pain during the exercise, then the stretch needs to be modified or you may need to find a more suitable pose. Consult with a yoga instructor, such as Rosslyn, to help find an exercise that’s right for you.
Downward-Facing Dog (Sanskrit: Adho Mukha Svanasana)
To complete this pose, start on on your hands and knees. Your knees should be right under your hips and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Your toes should be tucked under and spread your palms.
Take a breath and lift your knees. Your knees should be slightly bent at first and your heels off the floor.
You want to pull your abdominal muscles toward your spine, straightening out and lengthening your back. Your body should be bending at the hip, so that your butt is sloping down with your legs. If your butt is the uppermost part of your body, it probably means that you need to broaden your chest and pull your stomach toward your back.
Keep your knees bent and focus on the spine, straightening your knees by bringing your thighs back only if you are able to maintain the position of your spine. Remember to keep your hands pointed forward and position your head so that your ears are touching your upper arms.
Hold this position for one or two minutes. To release, exhale and gradually come back to your knees.
This pose stretches several of the areas that cause back pain, including the spine, shoulders, and hamstrings. When your hamstrings are tight, this can be the cause of a lot of discomfort in your lower back, and oftentimes just stretching them can do absolute wonders.
Note that the pain relief is more than physical. Because you are mildly inverted, meaning that your heart is higher than your head in the pose, the exercise will help re-energize your body. This reduces fatigue, relieves headaches, and can even help with your confidence. This allows for a more comprehensive, holistic approach to resolving pain.
If you suffer from physical damage to your back, shoulders, or arms, please be careful. Work within your limits, and if you have any concerns speak to a medical professional first.
Cow Face (Sanskrit: Gomukhasana)
No, you’re a cow face! Just kidding. This is an actual pose, I promise.
It was suggested to me by Dr. Del Kovacevic, a dentist in nearby Greensburg. As it turns out, dentistry is one of the most at-risk professions for back problems because of how they tend to sit and hunch over the patient.
See an instructor before doing this pose if you suffer from serious neck or shoulder injuries.
To do cow face pose, start in staff pose, sitting on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Then, bend your knees and slide your left foot under your right leg to rest on the floor on the outside of the right hip. Cross your right leg over your left, and, keeping your knees stacked slide your right foot to the outside of your left hip. Ideally, each foot should sit an equal distance from your hips.
Next, you'll add the arm position. Start by stretching your right arm out to the right and rotate your hand so the thumb faces the ground. Next, bend at the elbow and sweep your arm behind your back, resting your forearm against the hollow of your lower back. Roll your right shoulder back and down as you work your right hand up toward your upper back, between your shoulder blades.
Inhale and reach your left arm forward with the palm facing up. Then, reach your arm up toward the sky and bend your elbow. Reach to grasp the fingers or your right hand.
Pro-tip: If your fingers don't meet, which is very typical, you may want to use a strap or belt.
Lift your chest, bring your right elbow toward the floor — remember to keep it tight against your torso —, and keep your left elbow next to your head.
Hold it for a minute, then release your arms, then uncross your legs. Repeat the exercise with your arms and legs reversed.
Just by reading the description I’m sure you can see how it pulls your shoulders back, straightens your spine, and helps stretch the muscles that we often contract and cramp. The benefits are comprehensive because it also helps open your hips, ankles, thighs, armpits, and triceps, and it helps with restoring balance between the left and right halves of the body.
Shoulder Stretch and Lat Pull Down
Bad posture can create rounded shoulders. Our shoulders also tend to round over time, in large part because we don’t sustain our skeletal strength. I'm going to explain an easy exercise you can do to counteract this rounding of the shoulders.
Grab the nearest strap or belt, take a seat with crossed legs, and straighten your back.
Keeping your hands a bit wider than shoulder distance. Extend your arms straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor.
Inhale and bring your arms over your head. On your next exhale, bend your elbows and bring the strap behind your head. Inhale again and raise your arms, then bring them down again as you exhale. The movement is very similar to a lat pulldown at the gym.
You will feel your shoulder blades being pulled down toward your spine. This will help bring them back, stretch, and open them, relieving the stress and tension we build into our bodies.
What I like about this exercise is that it’s easy. Downward Dog and Cow Face are excellent poses and I highly recommend them, but if you’re new to yoga or would like to make sure your form is good, I highly encourage you to visit Rosslyn at the Wholehearter studio. This shoulder stretch exercise is a bit more basic and something you can pick up right away.
Bonus Pose: Thread the Needle (Sanskrit: Parsva Balasana)
I personally love this pose because, I usually feel very comfortable while holding the position. This can have to do with my own flexibility limitations and injuries. Regardless, it’s a good example of how different poses may appeal because of the unique range of capabilities of your own body.
You’ll start on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Your fingertips should point forward and keep your knees hip-width apart. Keep your head centered and your back flat, looking straight down at the floor.
Walk your left hand out an inch or two and exhale. Release your shoulder to the floor until your right ear and cheek are touching the mat. You should be looking toward your left now.
With your hips raised, your left arm will be stretching forward. Roll your left elbow upwards and keep it up. Make sure you are not placing weight on your head. Give your back freedom, broadening your upper back and relaxing your lower back. You should feel the tension in your muscles drain.
I cannot recommend Thread the Needle enough. Ask Rosslyn at Wholehearter to help you with your form next time you come in for your class!
I am grateful for this opportunity to share my experiences with all of you. Rosslyn is a very talented instructor with an amazing website and studio, and to have the chance to contribute is amazing. She truly cares about our world and wants to make it a better, healthier place; she is a rare, and the best, kind of hero.