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 Yoga for a Healthy Spine

If you’ve ever experienced back pain or discomfort, you’ll likely agree that a healthy back is easily taken for granted until, well, it no longer feels so healthy. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, 8 in 10 Americans will experience back pain during their lifetime. Americans spend at least $50 billion annually on back pain, making it the most common cause of job-related disability and workplace absences in the country. The bad news: with statistics like these, if you’ve not already experienced back pain at some point in your life, it’s likely you will. The good news: whether you’re looking to prevent future back injury, soothe current back pain, or strengthen and maintain a healthy back and spine, yoga can help.

Yoga increases self-awareness, teaching and encouraging the exchange of bad habits such as poor posture for healthy ones. Slumping over your laptop? Yoga will remind you to sit tall and soften the shoulders. Leaning forward to send a text message? Yoga prompts you to gently stretch your hamstrings and psoas in order to lengthen the back body, perhaps standing taller with time and reversing the spinal curve.

Along with offering body awareness and postures to counter habitual movements, yoga targets specific areas of the body to stretch, condition and relieve tension. Yoga also provides a gentle yet effective option for re-entry into an exercise regimen following pain or injury, when stopping exercise altogether can be tempting and possibly result in chronic pain over time. A yoga practice for your back will often include preventative stretching of the back, abs and spine to build strength in the trunk (think core, upper legs, hips), increase stability and lighten the load carried by the spine and pelvis. A balancing practice by nature, yoga addresses both the front and back of the body to support an evenly fortified core, lengthening to counter compressed discs and curvature that often accompany a shortened front or back body and less than ideal posture.

Yoga’s benefits for the back are many, and readily available to you with just a few postures. You will enhance your strength; improve spinal alignment and ease tension throughout the body.

The Practice

Cat / Cow Pose ( Bitilasana)

Benefits: Provides a full spinal stretch, balances the spine-pelvis alignment, offers gentle spinal warm-up and relief to back tension and stiffness

  1. Start on your hands and knees in a "tabletop" position. Make sure your knees are set directly below your hips and your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in line and perpendicular to the floor. Center your head in a neutral position, eyes looking at the floor.

  2. As you inhale, lift your sitting bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink toward the floor. Lift your head to look straight forward.

  1. Exhale, coming back to neutral "tabletop" position on your hands and knees. Repeat 10 to 20 times

Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

Benefits: Open chest and shoulders, strengthens the abs, back and glutes, counters curvature of the spine and fatigue.

  1. For this pose you might want to pad the floor below your pelvis and ribs with a folded blanket. Lie on your belly with your arms along the sides of your torso, palms up, forehead resting on the floor. Turn your big toes toward each other to inwardly rotate your thighs, and firm your buttocks so your coccyx presses toward your pubis.

  1. Exhale and lift your head, upper torso, arms, and legs away from the floor. You’ll be resting on your lower ribs, belly, and front pelvis. Firm your buttocks and reach strongly through your legs, first through the heels to lengthen the back legs, then through the bases of the big toes. Keep the big toes turned toward each other.

  1. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and stretch back actively through your fingertips. Imagine there’s a weight pressing down on the backs of the upper arms, and push up toward the ceiling against this resistance. Press your scapulas firmly into your back.

  1. Gaze forward or slightly upward, being careful not to jut your chin forward and crunch the back of your neck. Keep the base of the skull lifted and the back of the neck long.

  1. Stay for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then release with an exhalation. Take a few breaths and repeat 1 or 2 times more if you like.

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Benefits: Stretches the spine and hips, strengthens thighs and glutes, encourages chest opening.

  1. Lie supine on the floor, and if necessary, place a thickly folded blanket under your shoulders to protect your neck. Bend your knees and set your feet on the floor, heels as close to the sitting bones as possible

  1. Exhale and, pressing your inner feet and arms actively into the floor, push your tailbone upward toward the pubis, firming (but not hardening) the buttocks, and lift the buttocks off the floor. Keep your thighs and inner feet parallel. Clasp the hands below your pelvis and extend through the arms to help you stay on the tops of your shoulders.

  1. Lift your buttocks until the thighs are about parallel to the floor. Keep your knees directly over the heels, but push them forward, away from the hips, and lengthen the tailbone toward the backs of the knees. Lift the pubis toward the navel.

  1. Lift your chin slightly away from the sternum and, firming the shoulder blades against your back, press the top of the sternum toward the chin. Firm the outer arms, broaden the shoulder blades, and try to lift the space between them at the base of the neck (where it's resting on the blanket) up into the torso.

  1. Stay in the pose anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release with an exhalation, rolling the spine slowly down onto the floor.

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