Anatomy and the Lumbar Spine

Through our physical practice of yoga we begin to better understand the biomechanics and energetics of our body. Over time practice may build strength, stamina, stability and flexibility in our bodies. Unfortunately, we are not always taught how to do certain postures, or even categories of postures, in a way that helps us stabilize and strengthen. Without this awareness we often find ways of compensating, which I like to call “yoga cheating”; we use release valves which are compensatory mechanisms in our bodies that kick in when we are unable to stabilize a part of the body. This is the result of excess mobility (hyper flexibility) or restriction (being stiff and tight), habitual movement patterns, or a lack of understanding and attention, according to Gary Kraftsaw, a leading therapeutic yoga teacher.

In our modern postural approach to yoga there is a form-function problem: we get really attached to achieving the form of the fancy postures, but this does not necessarily mean that we are achieving its function, states Kraftsaw.  With form focus we may actually miss the potential benefits or even neglect to see the potential harm of the posture. It was only when I started studying with my teacher, Rod Stryker, that this reality hit home.

One of the first of many things I learned about my lumbar spine at my initial ParaYoga training was the fact that it was weak and that most of us have weak lower backs. It was the first day of the training module which focused on sequencing, when Rod made the observation about our weak lower backs after observing us in our first practice. It was the forward folds that gave it away. Not only was Rod shocked, but so were most of us! Many people in the training had been teaching for years. So how could it be that most of us were so weak in our lower backs?

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Rod took the next 30 minutes using one of the participants to demonstrate the point and provide us with proper explanation of how to safely move in and out of forward folds in a way that strengthens. The issue is that many of us were taught to do forward folds in the “swan dive” manner, locking up the knees, compressing the lumbar spine and let the chin lead us forward.  This results in many of us looking up the lumbar curve (which is a backbend) as we forward fold. Coming up from the fold we then use some variation of a rag-doll or roll-up, which does not build strength or stability in the posture.

Strengthening our lumbar spine

The trick to folding forward is that the knees must be out of a locked position, the tailbone stays in the body rather than lifting up (which creates an arch in the lumbar spine for most of us), the chin must stay slightly down – as if holding a tennis ball to the throat – and the torso and spine stay long (don’t collapse the chest into the abdomen).  To come out of the fold, the knees are not locked, the chest pulls away from the thighs lengthening the torso and back, the tail draws deeper into the body as we come up to standing. Beginners or those needing to build strength in the lower back can run their fingers down their legs coming into the fold and up their legs coming out of the fold, moving in and out of it dynamically before holding for a few breaths.

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There are two poses that we emphasize in yoga to build strength in our lower back:

Chair pose with dynamic movement in and out – inhale: arms up, exhale: sink into the chair position and fold forward letting the arms and head release, inhale: pull back into the chair and all the way back up to standing, repeat. Hold in the chair position for a few breaths after a few dynamic rounds to complete the series.

Simple locust pose – lying in prone position (face down), hand resting at the lower back/sacrum area and arms relaxed, inhale: lengthen through the belly to lift the chest off the mat keeping the chin slightly tucked, exhale: release back down, turn the head to one side, repeat turning the head in the opposite direction on the next exhale. After a few dynamic rounds hold the pose for a few even breaths, then relax. You may want to include lifting the legs as well as a variation.

When I incorporated these poses into my practice using dynamic entry and then holding, it was only a matter of weeks before my lower back was strong. I teach these poses in virtually every class and see how student’s backs strengthen quickly. Warning: these poses feel like a lot of work initially, but that only demonstrates that they are strengthening.

The subtle anatomy of the lumbar

We’ve discussed the form aspect of forward folds to explore how a weak lumbar spine can be identified and then strengthened. The biomechanics of a strong and stable lumbar are related to and support the more subtle aspects of this part of our anatomy. The subtle anatomy of yoga gives us an entirely different view of our worldly experience and reality.

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In the area of the lower lumbar and sacrum we have svadhastana chakra. This energy centre is associated with our individuation, our “I’ness”, and how we signify and identify ourselves in the world as separate and unique from others. It is also related to our attachments and emotional issues. While working with the physical side of yoga we are also impacting this subtle side.

Svadhisthana is known as “her resting place” or “her abode”, meaning that this is where our dormant potentiality is resting, waiting to be awakened. This may sound esoteric to many, but once we journey deeper and connect to our subtle body these layers of our existence are clearer. There more subtle yoga techniques that connect us to the subtle body more readily, but the physical practice plays a definite role.

The great mudra, Maha Mudra, where the spine is lengthened with all of its natural curves perfectly lined up, is one technique that bring us into the pycho-spiritual level of being. When we hold this mudra  we normally begin to feel a tremendous amount of heat building in the lumbar region. While some of this sensation is due to the physical position of the body and spine, a significant portion of this heat is the result of the breaking up of a psychic knot (granthi) in that area. This is the stuff transformation.

The lumbar spine is of importance structurally, but no less so on a more subtle energetic level.

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