Snap. Is that my joint?
Catch 22: What’s Your Spine Sacrificing For Deep Backbending?
Ever wonder what exactly is happening to our spine when we do deep back bends? Like most practitioner, I strive for poses like Scorpion, Drop-Backs (from standing to Upward Bow Pose) and Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose). The euphoric sense of touching my toes to my head (or my very protruded yogi bun) propels me to step on the mat and push my limits a little further each day. However, as time goes by, I start to wonder if I’m sacrificing something greater for a deeper back bend.
First let’s take a quick overview of the physical structure of the spine.
Compartments of the spine
The spine connects our legs to the skull, allowing the body to stand upright, bend and twist while protecting the spinal cord from injuries. Divided into 5 parts: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum and coccyx, each part of the spine has different functions, range of motion and curvature.
Cervical (neck): The main function of the cervical is to support the head. There are total 7 cervicals numbered C1-C7. The cervical spine has the greatest range of motion and allows motions like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as well as rotating the head sideways to almost 180°.
Thoracic (mid back): Total of 12 vertebrae, T1-T12, the main function of the thoracic spine is to hold the ribcage and to protect the heart and lungs. The range of motion is very limited.
Lumbar (low back): The main function of the lumbar is weight bearing. The 5 lumbar vertebrae L1-L5 have a large vertebral body to absorb the stress of carrying or lifting heavy objects. The lumbar has a higher degree of mobility but not as much as the cervical spine. Normally, this is where the back bending happens.
Sacrum: There are 5 sacrum bones that are fused together. The sacrum is responsible for connecting the spine to the hipbone (iliac). The spine together with the iliac bone forms the pelvic girdle.
Coccyx: Known as the tailbone, the coccyx is made of 4 fused individual bones. The purpose of the coccyx is to provide attachment for ligaments and muscles of the pelvic floor.
The five parts of the spine form a natural S-shaped, the cervical and lumbar being slightly swayed (known as lordosis) and the thoracic, sacrum, and coccyx are slightly hunched (known as kyphosis). Like a bamboo swaying in the wind, the normal curves of our spine facilitate the constant weight transfers as we walk, bend and twist. Also as we breath, the changing shape in the lungs and abdomen causes subtle flexion and extension in the spine. Therefore, the spine can never be totally ‘straight.’
Each vertebra is separated and cushioned by the intervertebral disc. The main purpose of the intervertebral disc is to provide shock absorption keeping the spine from rubbing together. The outer ring of the disc is called annulus fibrosis, which is tough and sturdy offering protection; the gel-filled center of the disc is called nucleus pulpous, which is designed for shock absorption.
The hollowing spinal canal in the vertebrae contains the spinal cord, fat, ligaments and blood vessels. The spinal nerves exit the spinal cord and pass through the vertebrae foramen to branch out to the body.
As we can see, the vertebral spine is critical for body movement and spinal cord protection. Now let’s take a look at what’s happening when we perform back bends.
Like eating a hamburger!
Simply speaking, every primary action (agonistic) comes with an opposite action (antagonistic). A backbend consists of compressing the posterior side of the spine while extending the anterior side. Imagine taking a big bite of a hamburger with a thick patty and lots of fillings, the fillings will move away from your mouth. Perhaps some fillings would even fall out depending on how you hold the burger. Similar to our spine, the nucleus of the intervertebral disc would move towards the front of the spine as the back of the spine is being compressed. Luckily, under healthy circumstances, the annulus fibrosis and the longitudinal ligaments prevent the disc from slipping out!
The community effect
Generally spinal problems occur from repeated use and/or without proper techniques. Most often, I see yoga practitioners dumping their weight into their low back when bending back. Safer measures are to stiffen the spine slightly (also known as bracing) and then create space between the vertebrae. Next is to engage the pelvic floor (specifically the Mula Bandha) and finally slowly bend backwards. Bernie Clark, an experienced and insightful Yin yoga teacher in Vancouver, has a fantastic article on Bracing and Spacing. Here he dives into the importance of stabilizing the spine before moving it. We often think the stabilization of the spine requires only the rectus abdominis (your abs) but that’s not true. Professor and researcher Stuart McGill, from the University of Waterloo states that the “true spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, ilioicostalis and multifidus.” (1) Very well, we can think of these muscles as part of a ‘back bending community’. When one member short fires, the community weakens as a whole. A way to compensate is for another muscle to fire stronger, this would help stabilize the spine in the short term, but over time, the extra workload will weaken the muscle and you’ll risk injury.
As we can see now, stabilizing the spine is important to prevent injuries, but how about mobility? After all, us yogis want to know how to do a perfect scorpion…
According to Bernie Clark, the spine is safe to move in non-neutral position when held without any load or accompanied movements. Furthermore, when the spine is loaded or moving, it should be stabilized. Therefore, in our yoga asana practice, it’s safe to perform most seated postures including forward folds, recline twists and lateral bends. However, we get into the danger zone when performing postures that require a large range of motion under load, for example the Camel Pose, Upward Bow Pose, Drop-Backs and Scorpion. Thus we find ourselves in a dilemma with the inverse proportion found between stability and mobility. Although there are ways to strengthen the muscles to withstand the load but it does not negate the fact that mobility can only be increased with decreased stability. So here’s the million-dollar question:
How much stability are we willing to sacrifice for a deeper back bend?
Essentially, the answer is it depends…
What is your intention of doing a deeper backbend? Whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, it’s important to be clear with your motivation. A gymnast maybe performing a deep back bend to qualify for the Olympics while a construction worker is rehabilitating his spine from an injury, thus a deep backbend does not serve him whatsoever. A grandmother is moving her spine daily to lubricate her joints to prevent arthritis; and a small child is flipping upside down and bending backwards to explore his curiosity in life.
1. What would a deeper backbend bring you ultimately? (ie: joy, health, success, peace, pride...)
2. Would that ultimate goal help or inspire you and others?
Get clear on your purpose of attaining a deeper backbend and if it serves you for the better, seek the proper techniques and go for it.
1) Back Fit Pro, www.backfitpro.com, Selecting Back Exercises by Stuart McGill
2) Bernie Clark, www.yinyoga.com, 3 Things I learned From a Spine Biomechanist, Stuart McGill
Finding time for our yoga practice may seem like an impossible task. Between work, kids, housework and other day to day tasks, the only posture we squeeze into our day could be shavasana before bed. To help you out, here are some suggestions to sneak in your practice!
1. Schedule it in
Put it in your Google Calendar or set up an alarm for daily reminder. Make your yoga practice the same as an appointment to the doctor, meeting an important client or picking up a big cheque from your employer. You'll be surprise how suddenly you can squeeze in your regular schedule plus an hour of yoga practice in the day.
2. Plan your sequence
For home practice, always have a sequence ready to go. The last thing you need is to ponder what poses to do when you're crunch for time. You don't need to choreograph an elaborate yoga sequence with intricate transitions. Keep it simple. Start with a few sun salutations, some standing and seated postures, headstand, shoulder stand, twists, shavasana. Never skip shavasana and allocate at least 5-10 minutes of silent meditation in the end. This is what set yoga apart from regular exercises. Shavasana and meditation give us tremendous mental benefits. They help us set a tranquil tone for the rest of the day! There are many online yoga videos that you can customize your own class including picking the duration, style of yoga, target areas (shoulders, hips, core..etc) and levels of experience.
3. Start the day with 10 minutes of...
I'm sure you have already sourced out the local yoga studios, online videos and even have a buddy system. But for whatever reasons, you lack the necessary motivation to keep up a daily practice. Here is when the power of intention comes into play. Every morning when you wake up, set aside 10 minutes for the following:
- Calming breathing (5 minutes): Inhale through both nostrils and hold for 3 seconds. Exhale through both nostrils silently. Repeat. Calming breathing clears the thoughts that cloud the mind the moment you get up.
- Repeat an affirmation internally (5 minutes): Choose an affirmation that aligns with you. For example: " I am loved by those around me, I feel no fear, I am safe." To make time for yoga means self-love. Affirmation is like pouring love straight to our souls, it grounds us.
When finished, set an intention for the day. For example:
"I will nourish my soul and spirit by going to yoga."
" I deserve time for healing and nourishing."
" I treat all living beings including myself with love and kindness."
When you're calm and feel grounded, the intention that you set for the day will tend to stick.
There will be those days you simply cannot practice physical yoga, however you can practice the other aspects of yoga like meditation before bed, pranayama on the bus or be nice to those around you. This will also receive tremendous benefits!
This article is written by Annie Au, RYT 500, yoga teacher, vegan and traveller.
Coming to a yoga teacher training can be a life transforming experience. Beneath the facade of expensive yoga wear and props, you're stripped emotionally bare where going within is the only way to seek the true-self.
In a 200hr yoga teacher training, there is no sauntering for a skinny latte after a "feel-good" yoga session. A typical schedule at the teacher training starts at 7am and ends at 7:30pm. Racking up two to three practices and numerous hours of lectures a day, most of us left muttering in Sanskrit as our new common language by the end of the day.
I signed up for an Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher training in Thailand when I was still living in Canada. At 27, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend (again) and just quitted my job. Life at the time seemed like fragments of devastation and frustration. Feeling defeated and emotionally drained, I was in need for some serious soul searching. Hence after a week of extensive Google search, I sent off half of my life savings and flew over the Pacific Ocean to embark on this spiritual journey.
In the first week of training, I couldn’t believe half of the postures I had to endure. What? You want me to put my leg behind my neck… oh both legs? Hm… Oh I knew it…had I practice more power yoga back home and less Hatha…
Nothing was easy. It certainly felt like I was training for Cirque du Soleil’s latest production-Ash-Tan-Ga.
After series of postures that somewhat resemble the Olympic gymnastic stunts, I was dying to get into child's pose. Wait -the teacher trainer is near me now. Dang it! There goes my child’s pose… As she continuously urges us on, holding 5-breaths in a pose suddenly seems like an eternity.
In 24 days, I was pushed to the limits and then some more.
Under the hot sun in an untouched jungle, I lived, breathed, stretched, cried, and laughed with 20 other yogis who were just like me.
Foremost, a yoga teacher training is a costly investment. Unless your wealthy and generous parents have paid for the course, air flights and accommodations-you simply just don't walk out and quit.
Moreover, there seems to be a greater moral lesson when one quits a yoga teacher training. Come to think of it, it reminds me of my university days when I failed my morality paper in a social psych course. (Never did my parents find out and I intend it to stay that way.)
After all, I thought I was ready for a better me- a more honest, spiritual, accepting, enduring and loving person. Yet the ugly truth is-and we all hate to admit- it's easier to lounge back and read the latest edition by Echkart Tolle while sipping tea then to buckle up that yogi strap and walk the talk.
Could it be my high-strung Scorpio personality combined with the years of militant ballet training and the need to own up to my Asian ethnicity and all that are expected of from my Asian parents? Quitting just isn’t an option.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against people who do quit. There are many legitimate reasons to do so. I understand and acknowledge them all. However, I would only hope that one would not overestimate the legitimacy of these reasons and under evaluate their own shortcomings.
Bottom line is-be truthful to yourself.
Alright…so I sucked it up and kept going. I reached further pass my toes and twisted deeper down my spine.
Let's get this done.
As I lay in Savasanna one morning, I found tears tumbling down my trembling cheeks. In a split second, I was shriveled back into that insecure, vulnerable self.
What? I thought I was doing great?
Wrapped in emotional turmoil, my fogged up and restless mind was in complete overdrive. Failure, shame, vulnerability, guilt and all other uninvited negative emotions I tried so hard to suppress quickly sipped right back to the top of my consciousness.
So what happens now?
Well... after resisting the temptation to sob in my lonely room until my pillow is soaked with salty tears. I chose a more spiritual healing method.
On my knees and hands, I crawled onto my yoga mat-my salvation and solitude. There I positioned in padmasana, closed my dampened and swollen eyes...and had a nice long talk with myself.
An internal dialogue is the first step of introspection. How do you speak to yourself? Blame, guilt, victimizes? Who is talking other than the over-ridden ego? Recognize that nobody other than yourself can trap your free will- to make you feel small, insecure and invaluable.
I took a deep breathe in, held it briefly and let it all out.
Tomorrow is another day.
As a yoga teacher, I’m my first and ever-lasting student. Aside from the technicality of yoga postures and philosophies, a yoga teacher training taught me self-discipline, forgiveness, patience, and most importantly being present.
All the guilt one possesses is burdens from the past and all the worries one beholds are projections of the future. While the past is gone and the future hasn't arrived yet, neither guilt nor worries will make the present any better.
The true self signifies the person without past and future.
Loving for the sake of loving; being for the sake of being.
One of my favorite quotes:
"Be here now."~ Ram Dass.
Who is living in the present, if not you?
Cherish each moment because there are no replicates of it.
On the day of graduation, as I walked up to retrieve my 200hr yoga teacher certification I couldn’t resist to smirk a little. For the truth is, at that moment, I knew I was receiving something much-much more.
This article is written by Annie Au, RYT 500, yoga teacher, vegan & traveler.