Excerpt from an article published in the Australian Yoga Life Magazine, Issue 10, 2004
(Exercises and accompanying photos have not been included).
EXPLORING THE LOWER BACK
Becoming aware of – and working with – the spine’s natural curves creates a sound foundation for asana practice and daily life, as Graeme Northfield explains…
The strongest man in the world is Iranian Hossein Rezazadeh. At the Athens Olympics he clean and jerked a world record 263.5kg over his head while preserving his lower back by bracing his spine in what is called the ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ position.
To do this, he tilted his hips forward, maintained the length in his lower back (i.e. didn’t let it round) and took the lift into his legs.
Lifting the equivalent of two fridge-freezers over your head, as you would imagine, puts extreme stress on the back. Most of our bodies will never be called on to hold aloft that amount of weight – but the technique of working with the neutral spine is not just for weightlifters.
Every time we practice yoga and also in our daily life – whether it’s playing sport, lifting shopping bags or during pregnancy – substantial stress is placed on the lower back. Even poor posture, such as slouching while sitting, adds to stresses on the back. Left unchecked, these factors can lead to a weakening of the back’s muscles, degeneration, pain and decreased mobility.
The saying, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ is relevant to the spine. In some cases, there can be a weakness from one vertebra to another, in others, a more general weakness can occur over several vertebrae.
Poses such as forward and back bends, knee-to-chests and spinal twists place stress on the spine. If you are stretching incorrectly into a forward bend, for example, the weak area of the spine will bear the brunt of the force, leading to further weakening and possible injury.
What weightlifters such as Rezazadeh can teach us is that this can be avoided by engaging the neutral spine before moving into, and as we hold and exit, a pose.
In yoga, many of us have been taught to flatten the lower back before going into a pose. However, recently published research and my own experience, leads me to believe that this is not an ideal way to work and that it actually may lead to a weakening of the spine, with loss of stabilization.
The neutral position of the spine creates the maximum space between the vertebrae. Along with developing core strength by working Mulabandha (pulling up the pelvic-floor muscles, drawing in the lower abdomen and pulling in the lower ribs), working the neutral position affords greatest strength and stability for the spine.
But what is the neutral spine?
Looking side-on to the spine, there are several natural curves. The base of the spine curves out slightly to begin with, before curving inwards at the lower (lumbar) spine. The spine then curves out again as it journeys upwards into the upper torso (thoracic region), and finally curves in again as it enters the neck (cervical) region.
When the spine curves inwards it is called lordosis; when it curves outwards it is called kyphosis. When the lower spine is at rest and neither bending over nor backward it is in neutral lordosis – or, as it is commonly known, the neutral position.
The five vertebrae of the lower spine are the largest in size and support the entire upper body. The shape and arrangement of the vertebrae allow for movement in all directions while aiding shock absorption and compression loading.
As the spine bends forwards (flexion) or backwards (extension), especially under loading, it becomes less stable and requires the activation of muscle groups in the back, abdomen, hips and legs to ensure stability. The muscular activation required in order to maintain the ‘direction of neutral’ depends on the condition of each individual’s spine, the asana, and the depth of stretch.
Not everybody has an anatomically perfect spine. A spine can range from being hyper-arched (sway back) to having a complete loss of the natural curve (rounding outwards). The ‘direction of neutral’ means being aware of the neutral position, and maintaining it as much as possible, especially when the spine is required to bear a load, such as bending forward from the standing position. It doesn’t mean the spine must always stay in neutral, for example, in passive movements such as Child’s Pose.
By working the direction of neutral and avoiding rounding the spine especially at the beginning of a pose, we can isolate the muscle groups we actually intend to stretch and strengthen, instead of actively rounding the lower back to make the stretch.
Forward bends, such as Upavistha Konasana, are a classic example. When the neutral spine is activated first, the stretch can be isolated into the hips and hamstrings. Rounding and loading the lower back in order to achieve this posture is common when trying too hard to reach what is perceived as the ‘goal’, thereby losing sensitivity and awareness along the way. It is of greater value to give focus to the foundations and preparation work.
There are thousands of asanas and countless ways to move the body. Yoga gives us the platform to explore and customise which postures to use and how to perform them in order to regain and maintain balance and health.
No one exercise or yoga program is suitable for everybody. For students who have back pain or injuries it is beneficial to have an assessment by a health practitioner. Sometimes an individual program that incorporates regular feedback is necessary.
Take care to warm up before exercising or lifting. When lifting, engage and maintain the neutral spine. Leave at least one hour after waking before working energetically with the spine. Give attention to softening the lower back during relaxation. For a balanced yoga practice, counter-posing is recommended – for example, do a forward bend after back bending. Avoid advanced poses without the correct preparation.
Be patient. Don’t overdo it; resist the urge to be goal-orientated. Remember to use the awareness and control gained on the mat in your daily life – not only when bending and lifting but when sitting, standing and working.
Developing a strong foundation from the neutral position allows us to move from our centre with awareness and sensitivity and can extend to our emotional and psychological condition. Becoming aware of, and exploring, the nature of effort and non-effort, activity and receptiveness, highs and lows can lead us to being true to our selves and experiencing contentment in our lives.