Someone once explained to me that if you think of the disks in your spine as stacked checkers and you put thin rubber bands around them, they would easily fall out. If you put lots of thick strong rubber bands around the stack, they would be less likely to slide out of the stack. This is why we want to strengthen the back muscles and core muscles. As a yoga teacher, I call the spine our tap root or lifeline. Without it, we cannot function or concentrate so keeping a strong core and back is essential to our life. If you combine these strengthening exercises with an equal amount of stretching, you will find your vitality increase and your pain decrease. Our bodies have many systems that interact; our nervous system interacts with our endocrine system which interacts with our immune system and so forth. When we improve one system, we improve the others. They do not exist in isolation from each other, rather they are synergistic and responsive to many preventative health techniques. When you increase your circulation through strengthening exercises, you are releasing stress reducing chemicals. While most people consider yoga to be only stretching, there are many strengthening poses that target the muscle groups holding your torso up. Your posture will also improve with these exercises.
Let’s begin with boat pose. Start sitting on the ground and keep your spine straight. The key to this pose is keeping a straight spine. Grab onto the backs of your knees and lean back until you feel your core muscles engage. Allow your feet to come off the ground and either keep your hands behind your knees or stretch your arms out to the sides. Keep your chest lifted and maybe play around with straightening out your legs. Remember to breathe deeply through your nose to bring lots of fresh oxygen into the muscle groups you are working which will help build those muscles. Release after four to five breaths and repeat three to five times depending on how challenging you find the pose.
Another great core and back strengthening exercise is called side plank. Stand on your knees and place your right hand on the ground so your right shoulder stacks directly over your wrist. It is important to stack your joints to protect your elbow and shoulder. Make sure you are not hyper extending your elbow, meaning that your arm isn’t bending past straight. If it is, bend it slightly so it is straight. If you are building arm strength, keep your right knee on the ground and straighten your left leg out while you reach your left arm up to the sky. If you feel sturdy, try stacking your feet on top of each other and balancing on the side of your right foot. Once you master this, try lifting your left leg up away from your right leg. Keep all your muscles tight. You will find that if you continue to breathe deeply, this pose will be much easier. Hold for 4-5 breaths and then switch to the other side. It is important to always do both sides to keep your muscles balanced. Also as a side note, think of anything you carry daily on one side, this exercise may be building uneven muscles. Try using a back pack so the weight is more evenly dispersed.
The next exercise is called plank. You will balance on the palms of your hands and on your toes. Make a flat board with your body so there is one line from your heals, to your hips, to your shoulders. Be mindful not to droop the hips or pop them up out of line with your shoulders and hips. It may be helpful to do this in front of a mirror. Keep a strong shoulder girdle and press your palms firmly into the ground. Think of puffing up the top of your back so your shoulder blades pull away from each other keeping your shoulders from scrunching up into your ears. Hold this pose for 4-5 deep breaths. For these poses, try to breathe just through your nose and elongate your breath to a count of five on your breath in and five on your breath out.
The next pose is one of the most common yoga poses, downward facing dog. Start in a table top position with the wrists stacked under the shoulders and hips stacked over the knees. Tuck your toes and lift your hips to the sky creating an upside down ‘V’ shape with your body. If you have weak wrists, you can do this pose on your forearms which is a modification of the pose called dolphin pose. Place your hands shoulder distance apart and spread your fingers as wide as you can. Press your heart toward your thighs and reach your heels toward the floor. Point your tailbone towards the sky. Pull your shoulders away from your ears and breathe deeply 4-5 times.
The next pose is called baby cobra which can be done if you have no lower back injuries and are not pregnant. Lay on your stomach and place your hands palms facing down under your shoulders with your fingers spread wide and facing forward. Press your palms into the ground as you lift your chest so your back is slightly arched. Only go as far as feels comfortable. You should not feel any pinching in your lower back, if you do, back off a little bit. It is important to un-tuck the toes in this pose and press the tops of the feet into the ground to protect the lower back. Take a few full deep breaths as you stretch out your front abdominal muscles and strengthen your back muscles. Be sure to keep the legs together in this pose.
For the next exercise, come to a seated position and pull your knees into your chest wrapping your arms around your knees. Rock and roll forward and backward on a soft mat to massage your back muscles. This is a great way to release stuck energy in your nervous system and massages your back muscles. Avoid this one if you have herniated disks as it may be painful to put pressure on your spine.
I suggest doing three sets of plank pose, downward facing dog, and upward facing dog to start to build your muscles. If you do these once or twice a day, your body will start to respond. Never underestimate the power of consistency. A good friend once told me, it’s better to do a little yoga a lot, than a lot of yoga a little bit. Ten or twenty minutes can make a difference. Maybe make a play list of your favorite songs to get you motivated and change it regularly so you are always excited about it. If you are interested in learning more poses that can strengthen your spine, one of the most inclusive book for total body transformation is called ‘Light on Yoga’ by B.K.S Iyengar. His book includes picture illustrations and proper alignment of strengthening poses.
A final pose to release your lower back and massage the lower back muscles is happy baby pose. Lie on your back and hug your knees in towards your chest. Then either grab onto the bottoms of your feet or onto your calves or ankles. Allow the knees to come wide and pull them toward the ground. You can rock side to side to help release your lower back. This helps stretch and release your hips as well.
Please consult your physician before trying these exercises. My recommendations should not replace medical advice and are not intended to cure serious medical conditions. If you are unsure if something is safe for you, please make sure you consult with your licensed care provider.