By Anna Wechsel, Yoga Instructor

Photo by: lyn tally

Between Yoga and Pilates, you can reduce the occurrence, aggravation and symptoms of lower back pain. The work in Pilates strengthens the trunk muscles on the front and back of the body, providing a strong and stable ‘launch pad’ for all movement. The following information will guide you through several key aspects that you can bring into your practice/daily life to reduce discomfort, instead of contributing to the situation.

Common Forms of lower back pain:

-SI joint dysfunction

-Slipped/bulged disc

-Sciatica

-Lower back spasms due to hypertonic (extremely tight) muscles

-Trunk imbalances (tightness on one side and weak muscles on the other), the most extremely form being scoliosis, which often results in a rotational imbalance as well)

Whether your back discomfort comes from sitting at a desk, previous or current injury or even (heaven forbid) your yoga practice, here are some general guiding principles to keep in mind:

  1. Remember that moving faster or pushing farther does not equate to building strength or increasing flexibility. Instead, find balance between strength and flexibility by moving in and out of postures mindfully and with awareness.
  • Holding passive and active stretches for longer gets deeper into the meat of the muscles, reducing stress, strain and the potential for injury.
  • When practicing Pilates, focus more on the back of your body than the front.  If you are lying on a mat, think about anchoring your low back and pelvis to the mat rather than using your abdominals to do the ‘work’ of the exercise.
  1. Avoid the all-or-nothing mindset that you have to be in the fullest expression of a pose. This is likely the biggest contributing factor to lower back injury because the spine loses integrity. Instead, be mindful of standing and seated forward folds or postures that place the spine and lower back into precarious positions.
  • Use blocks, belts, blankets and modified expressions of postures in order to gain the most length and stability in the torso and lower back. A great example is seated forward folds. If you are noticing a rounding through your back or are pulling your head to your legs meanwhile the torso and abdomen are away from the thighs, use a belt around the feet and keep the spine lengthening by drawing the chest towards the feet.
  1. Think truck stability rather than simple core (abdominal) strength. Generally, the most effective way to use Pilates and Yoga for the purpose of alleviating any sort of pain is to start with stable movements that use a smaller (proximal) range of motion.  This allows the body to strengthen the deep core muscles properly, and then the foundation is set to build upon that.  Skipping these critical steps skews the ‘building’ process.  Imagine trying to build a house on a wobbly or crooked foundation – it’s very similar conceptually for your body.
  • We are three-dimensional structures and therefore it is important that we focus on strengthening the sides, back and front of the trunk (torso). Backbends not only strengthen the back muscles but help to build support in the front side of the body. Focusing on slight abdominal engagement during back bends helps to create length and space in the back. Twists are a great way of lengthening and strengthening the sides of the body. They work to create balance in both sides of the torso and spine. Building abdominal strength isn’t just done in Navasana (boat pose), but is something we can focus on throughout our practice. Next time you’re in Warrior one, think about drawing your hipbones towards one another and be aware of the engagement that this brings to the lower abdomen.
  • When practicing Pilates, think about stabilizing the trunk and minimizing movement. Remember, Pilates work is about the trunk of the body in its entirety, not just the ‘abs’.
  1. Remember to breathe. When times get tough we hold our breath which creates tensions in the torso contributing to lower back discomfort. This is also a tendency when focusing on the external.
  • By focusing on your breath you are more aware of subtle feelings within the body. When our focus is on the internal that is when transformation occurs, the mind settles and we can prevent injury by being in tune with our bodies.

Yoga has many benefits – it is a science that provides therapeutic benefits both physically and mentally. For more information on these benefits, ask your teacher or try researching online (ie Yoga Journal).

Simple stretches/remedies to relieve discomfort:

Utthita Trikonasana/Triangle pose – Lengthens and strengthens the torso three-dimensionally

Cat/Cow stretches – Brings healthy flexion and extension to the spine & torso

Ardha Matsyendrasana/Seated half spinal twist – Lengthens and strengthens the torso, reduces imbalances three-dimensionally

Bhujangasana/Cobra pose – Massages back muscles, increases flexibility of upper back, maintains lumbar curve, which decreases pressure on discs in forward folds

Prasarita Padottanasana/Wide legged forward bend – Helps to decompress the spine and lengthens the body three-dimensionally

Soak in Epsom salts – Reduces inflammation, improving muscle and nerve functioning and eliminates harmful toxins

Check out Angela Von Engel for a range of great products that help to reduce stress and tense or aching muscles. Angela offers pure Epsom salts in 1kg or 5kg packages and her amazing Von Balm (sports muscle balm), which contains natural ingredients with soothing properties that provide pain relief and improve circulation to the symptomatic muscles.  Visithttp://angelavonengel.com/