Musculoskeletal disorders, in particular back pain, are one of the leading causes of sickness absence. With an estimated to cost the UK economy of £15 billion a year, it’s no wonder that more companies have brought in yoga teachers to offer corporate yoga sessions. But if yoga practitioners have been found to have the healthiest spines, believed to be because we move the spine in it’s full range of movements every day, surely everyone can maintain a healthy spine with a regular yoga practice.
A well rounded yoga practice will encompass all spinal movements, so it’s important to go to a weekly class and build up your daily home practice. Here are my top 5 poses though, that can be incorporated into a full practice, or done as a sequence on their own. They are intended for those with a healthy spine, if you have back pain, see a medical professional before practising yoga.
In addition, try to do some targeted core strengthening exercises each day for 5-10 minutes – more on this here – as the most common culprit for back pain is core weakness.
It’s also a great idea to lie over a couple of blocks for a few minutes each day, to release the front of the shoulders and chest – an area that can get really tight and impact your posture. See more on this area here.
1. Cat/ Cow
Such a simple and well known movement, you’ve probably done it many times in a class, but this simple action is a great way to combine easy flexion and extension of the spine. The flexing, when rounding the back, has a subtle core strengthening element to it, so really try to draw the abdominal muscles in towards the spine, helping to strengthen this area, whilst stretching out the back muscles. When extending the spine, by lifting the chest and the tail bone, keep broadening the shoulders drawing them away from the ears. This movement provides a great massage to the spine, giving you an awareness of your range of movement and opportunity to get the spine moving.
2. Sphinx and/ or Cobra
Following on from warming the spine up in Cat/ Cow, you may be ready to take a gentle back bend posture. Sphinx requires less upper body strength than Cobra and Up Dog, so is a great back bending pose to do whilst acquiring more arm strength, and to spend a little longer in. Keep a gentle activation of the belly drawing in and the tail bone lengthening.
Cobra can be practised on its own, or when doing Sun Salutations. From the floor, roll back the shoulders, roll up the chest as the shoulders draw back, finally lifting the head. Keep the sides of the neck feeling long, as you keep the shoulders down and away from the ears. Press the pubic bone down to activate the abdominal muscles and lengthen the tail bone, supporting the lumbar spine and creating space in the upper spine. Not only is this one of the best poses to build upper body strength, it also starts to strengthen the back. What we want is to build the strength of our spinal pillars, to support the spine from all sides.
3. Salabasana/ Locust
This pose is THE BEST for a healthy spine! It builds upon the back strength required in the previous poses. There are so many arm variations but this is my favourite because of the additional benefits to the shoulders. Start lying face down, with arms in cactus. Lengthen the legs back, press the pubic bone down to lengthen the tail bone. Lift from the back of the shoulders, drawing the shoulder blades towards each other, lifting from the heart. Float the legs up, keeping them straight and close together. Take 5 breaths and repeat once or twice more.
4. Ardha Matseyendrasana/ Half spinal twist
After Salabasana, slide back to Childs Pose (Balasana). Roll up to take this lovely twist. I like this really gentle version. Depending on how you feel at the time can dictate how far you go into any pose but especially consider this when twisting. Sit tall by drawing the lower belly in the reaching through the crown of the head.
Cross one leg over the other, with the low leg staying straight, or drawing the foot to the opposite heel, with both sitting bones level. Sitting up on a blanket roll feels great and will facilitate this. Move slow, use the finger tips to support you as you gradually twist to the same side as the top leg, keeping the height through the spine and the support of the belly. The head will be the last thing to turn if you are going towards the full expression of the pose, or you can choose to look straight ahead, feeling the pose work here on the lower and mid spine.
5. Supine Twist
Etched Floral leggings and Crop top are from KiraGrace
This can feel a fantastic release for the lower back and is particularly good to do after back bends like those above. Also great post running. On your back, draw one knee in towards you, then across your body. Adjust your hips, so that you can comfortably relax the knee towards the floor – resting this leg on a cushion or bolster is a great option if the hips are tight.
Upcoming Backbend Yoga Workshop!
Backbends: Health and Grace – A workshop on Saturday 26th May, 10am – 1pm, at Gwills Yoga, Newquay – £25
In this workshop, we’ll explore a range of different backbend postures, that effectively strengthening the back and lengthen the spine – potentially relieving back ache and improving posture.
We’ll also work towards some more advanced asana in deeper backbends and how to come into them safely, respecting our individual bodies and looking at how they can benefit us physically and emotionally, as well as look great.
This 3 hour workshop will involve strengthening work, Vinyasa flow and workshopping poses. Some yoga experience required. Not suitable for those with back injury/ complaint, as a one to one session is more appropriate.
Booking via the App
So often practised in a Vinyasa class, when done properly, this pose, which is the transition between high plank and Upward Facing Dog, has the potential to build awesome shoulder and core strength. However, when practised repeatedly wrongly, has the potential to cause shoulder pain and injury.
Watch my video for simple steps to a great Chaturanga.
Want to learn more about yoga for strong, yet mobile, healthy shoulders? The Yoga for Shoulder Strength and Mobility Workshop is on Saturday 7th April, 10-1 at Gwills Yoga, Newquay, Cornwall.
Core strengthening – forearm plank
Serratus Anterior strengthening – scapula push ups
1. In high plank, lengthen the tail bone, hugging the lower belly in. Broaden the shoulder blades by pushing the floor away.
2. Scoot forward onto your toes, keeping the neck in-line with the spine. Look down or slightly ahead, not forward.
3. Drop the knees, keep everything else, as you bend into the elbows. Take a few push ups here to strengthen the biceps, whilst maintaining the integration of the core and the SA.
4. When that becomes pretty easy, do the same without the knees on the floor.
5. Lower the shoulder to just above the elbows. Do not dip the heads of the shoulders lower than the elbows. This is the primary reason for shoulder pain and injury in a Vinyasa practice.
Lower all the way to the floor, roll back the shoulders, lifting the chest and the head into cobra.
From Chaturanga, release the toes, lift the chest and head, keeping pushing the floor away as you drop the hips, coming into Up Dog.
Roll over the toes into Up Dog, roll back over into Down Dog.
Hope to see you at the Yoga for Shoulder Strength and Mobility Workshop on Saturday 7th April – 10am-1pm, at Gwills Yoga, Newquay, Cornwall.
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With the final in my series of Yoga for Runners workshops happening this Saturday, the focus of hamstrings, calves and feet is quite an obvious one – the added focus of Gluteus Maximus, perhaps not so, specifically Lower Gluteus Maximus.
It’s well known that Glute Max is the largest and most powerful muscle in the body, it’s a pretty obvious one! But how many of you knew that the upper and the lower portions actually have different functions?? Whilst the upper glut max has similar functionality to TFL, in externally rotating and abducting, the lower part primarily extends the hip joint, with only some abduction.
So, having different functions, we can almost consider the upper and lower parts to be separate muscles, and therefore strengthened and released in different ways. Now, because in our modern, relatively luxurious lifestyles we tend to sit too much, the lower glute max can become rather lazy and weak, with many people finding it hard to ‘connect’ with. This means that upper glute max often works much harder than it should, and tries to do the job of it’s lower counterpart, which it just can’t do well, leaving it tight, sore and causing tension elsewhere.
This becomes even more significant when running. As the lower half of the muscle extends the hip (that’s the role of lifting the heel towards the butt), this is an essential movement in a natural and efficient running technique. Hence the focus for this weekend’s workshop!
We’ll be exploring simple and more challenging ways to strengthen Lower Gmax and release Upper Gmx in the workshop, amongst releasing tension of the feet, calves, hamstrings and hips. Below, the first video shows one of the simplest ways to check in with and strengthen LGmx.
In the following sequence, I move between working the LGmx by thinking about ‘hugging’ my sitting bones in this version of Utkatasana/ chair and Horse, and releasing it in the forward folds, as well as the hamstrings.
I’ll be running the Runner’s workshop series again but dates aren’t set yet, so please join me if you can at Five Elements near St Agnes Cornwall this Saturday for two hours of feet, calves, hamstrings and booty, including a few easy running drills and recovery yoga. There is space if you want to join by booking here.
Our repetitive, daily forward-motion activities (driving, running, typing, reaching, etc.) take their toll on our posture. With actions where the shoulders hunch forwards, the pectoral muscles tighten and the infraspinatus at the back of the shoulders weaken.
If time isn’t taken to release accumulated tension in the chest and shoulders and to strengthen the back of the body, our posture will be greatly affected, which impacts our ability to breathe to our full capacity, to sit and stand to our tallest height, and to walk and run with proper alignment.
When we’re out of alignment, we’re at greater risk of injury because our spine is vulnerable. When running, only with proper posture and alignment will be able to run with optimal efficiency.
Try this pose, morning or evening, to open the chest, release the shoulders and lengthen the spine. You’ll need two yoga blocks – place one length ways along your upper spine, and the other at full height to support your head.
Spend a few minutes, then, if comfortable, reduce the height of the block under your head. Watch the video below, that includes a few other poses to release the shoulders and open the chest and upper back.
With my Yoga for Runners workshops starting this Saturday, I’ve been excitedly planning – bringing together my learning and experience of both yoga and running – to offer the runners of all levels coming, the most useful and beneficial poses, sequences and techniques. Although there’s been an awesome rise in athletes taking on yoga as a supplement to their training, there still exists an unawareness or resistance from many trying it out. I got to thinking about how I can clearly and succinctly explain how yoga helps to prevent sports related injuries and what makes it such a vital part of an athletes training plan. See what you think!
Yoga builds strength – where you need it most. When we train hard without enough of the right cross training, our muscles get so used to being used in a particular way, that we can start to over-rely on some, and under-use others. This type of muscular imbalance is what most frequently leads to injury, as over-compensation leads to tension, tension leads to strain, and strain leads to pain. In addition, muscular weakness means there’s insufficient support of the joints, that leads to undue pressure and eventually injury. This week, I used Gluteus Medius in runners as a great example of this – watch my glut med video here – as glut med is so often weak, yet is our primary hip stabiliser. When there isn’t enough strength to stabilise the pelvis, our alignment gets thrown out, excess pressure is put on the low back, hip and knees, and the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL) works harder than it should – straining the Iliotibial band (ITB).
Yoga develops flexibility – where excessive tension resides. So, our misalignments and imbalances that exacerbate our weaknesses over time, are also creating deep set tension. Using the example of weakness in Gluteus Medius creating an excess of tension in the TFL, it is that accumulated tension that usually causes ITB syndrome – when the IT Band becomes irritated with friction, often culminating with pain in the outside of the knee. See my ITB video here. Another example of a frequently tense/ tight muscle is the Piriformis: a small but deep external hip rotating muscle, that also stabilises the pelvis, can also work too hard if glut med is slacking, and builds extra tension through sitting and crossing legs! As with TFL, it holds on to the tension that it accumulates, if it isn’t frequently released through stretching.
Yoga enhances neuro-muscular awareness. Strength and weakness, clearly have so, so much to do with the way our bodies cope with the stresses and strains of our athletic pursuits but sometimes it’s habit and lack of awareness that overrides. What do I mean? Well, we can become so used to moving in certain ways, using certain muscles, that this becomes habitual and we loose the neuro-muscular connection and the awareness that we actually have better muscles to engage! Yoga is the best practice to create greater mind-body awareness, that not only enables you to use your physicality to its full functionality, but this awareness keeps you safer – you know when you can safely push your self harder and when you’ve reached your limit.
So, how was that for an overview of how yoga can prevent sporting injuries?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Yoga Flow Running
I’d also love to see you at the Yoga Flow Running: Yoga for Runners Workshops, read all about them and book in here.
Join me on the Revive and Run Retreat Portugal, the perfect retreat getaway for runners and non-runners. See the details and remaining room options here.
The next Yoga Flow Running weekend retreats in Cornwall are June, 1 space remaining, and October. Get your place here.
Thanks for reading! Please share with someone this could help and leave me your thoughts in the comments below.