Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chain reaction: Continuing to focus back

Photo credit: Soham Basoham (soham_pablo/ Flickr Creative Commons)
I have a confession to make.  For the first time in my life, I've had terrible back pain since some time last month. As a yogi, I couldn't help thinking This shouldn't be happening to me. I kept hoping it would just stop, but it didn't. In fact, as you might have guessed, it got worse until it was really affecting my quality of life and severely impeding my ability to sit in meditation. I couldn't figure out what was triggering it. I'd been traveling a lot during December and the first part of January, and the pain started some time after I returned home. I feared it was my return to running after taking some time off, or maybe it was my bed? I did more yoga, hoping I could work out the kinks, but my back continued to get worse. I deepened my inquiry into the back body. And then, I wrote my last blog post.

After reading my post, Kit Spahr, who blogs at Sometimes It's Art, wrote to tell me she's been engaged in a similar exploration of the back body. She turned me on to this post by Katy Bowman. I tried the suggested exercise and discovered, of course, that I'm a rib thruster. Katy provides some useful tips for correcting this alignment problem, and I started to consider these.

Then I started catching up on my Yoga Journals that had come around the holidays when I'd been too busy to read them. In the December 2010 magazine, the Anatomy column is by Roger Cole and is called "Easy Seat" (unfortunately not available online, but if you have the magazine, it starts on pg. 75). Cole talks about contracting the lower erector spinae muscles to correct misalignment and eliminate back pain in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). When I read it, I had a sudden realization. Far from keeping my back healthy, my yoga was causing my back pain - and it had been exacerbated to its current level by poor alignment in seated meditation during my Commit to Sit program.

The next time I sat, I was able to follow the whole chain reaction in my spine. My hamstrings are tight from running, so it's hard for me to achieve the correct pelvic position in a crosslegged seated position (the top of my pelvis is tilted back). I've been adjusting for this by sitting up on blankets or a meditation cushion, which allows me me to tilt my pelvic into a neutral position, but it takes effort to hold it there so as I focus on relaxation or on the breath, I tend to slip and round the lower back again.

Very often in yoga class, an instruction is given in a crosslegged seated pose to "roll the shoulders up, back, and down." When I was less flexible in the upper body, this had the intended result of opening my chest and relaxing the shoulders down, but as my chest, back and shoulders became more flexible and my shoulder blades became more mobile, I began performing this action by thrusting my thoracic spine far forward and pushing the shoulder blades deep into the back.

Another common instruction is to "lift the chest/ sternum" (I mentioned this in my last post), which I achieved by thrusting my ribs forward. Add this to my sometimes rounded lumbar spine, and I've been putting a huge amount of stress on my thoracic spine to curve in ways it was never meant to. (Cole's article is really excellent and has a helpful way to explore the curves of the spine and the use of the erector spinae muscles using cat/ cow which I highly recommend.)

One way I can tell when I'm doing this is that belly breathing is difficult, even painful. For years, I've been having occasional difficulty with the three-part yogic breath; I now realize it is often hard when sitting but always easy when lying on my back. I'm not sure of the anatomical explanation for this, but sitting the way I have been (slightly rounding my lumbar spine and pushing the thoracic spine forward to compensate while thrusting the lower ribs out), breathing into the belly is painful. When I contract the muscles along the lumbar spine and pull my lower ribs back while focusing on flattening my shoulder blades onto the back instead of thrusting them into the back, I can suddenly breathe into the belly with ease.

Another instruction I've misunderstood is one often given in seated forward bends: lead with your chest. The idea of this instruction is to have students bend at the hips instead of rounding the spine to get further down. However, because I don't have the mobility in my pelvis but I do have a lot of flexibility in my upper back, I realize that I've been backbending in my forward bends, thrusting the chest way out and the ribs way forward. Focusing on keeping the lower ribs in as Cole describes in his article allows me to work on bending forward from the pelvis instead of pushing the chest forward.

I guess part of the problem is that instructions that were appropriate for me as an asana beginner became harmful to me as I developed more flexibility in my upper body while remaining relatively tight in my lower body. I had a complete misunderstanding of how good spinal alignment should feel in my body and had no idea that I was having any of these problems until my back started hurting. Now that I've recognized the problem, I can begin working to correct it but my muscles need to get used to working in these new ways and I get tired easily. My back is improving - but slowly. In the meantime, seated meditation is painful - unless I sit in Virasana, elevated on a block or cushion to protect my knees, in which case I can easily achieve the appropriate alignment of my pelvis (and therefore my back) and alleviate pain.

If you're a yoga teacher, do you give these types of instructions to your students? It might be useful to find out if any of them are having midback pain or struggling with belly breathing, and to explore whether this is a cause. Perhaps meditators with midback pain could benefit from the suggestion to try (modified) Virasana for meditation, as well as working on flexibility in the hamstrings and working with the alignment of the pelvis and thoracic spine. If anyone out there is having similar problems, I hope this helps you with your own exploration.

1 comment:

Kit said...

Yes! As a rib-thruster myself, I've even been playing with this in backbends. Thrusting the ribs forward, because I can, gave me one kind of backbend. Drawing them in a bit allowed for backbends that are truly spread out deliciously through the whole body front and back. It's a whole new world.