Yoga for a Happy Back: by Rachel Krentzman
In all honesty I didn’t actually read this book in March. My good yoga book for March is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle I just haven’t finished it yet. But there’s still a few days left in March I’ve got time!
The reason I wanted to write about this book is because I’m doing a workshop called “Yoga for a Happy Back” that incorporates a lot of what this book talks about.
I actually met Rachel (the author) back in 2014. She came to Maine and taught a segment of the 500 hour teacher training I was doing at the time. Her part was a 35 hour, five day training and I learned so much! Ever since then I’ve wanted to teach some specific Yoga for a Happy Back classes because as much as it was applicable to the group classes I teach, this kind of yoga is really best taught in a specialty setting. There’s more prop set up, more one on one work, and not much vinyasa flow. Well, time moves fast and last year she published this book. I immediately bought it and started planning a workshop.
I’m super excited to finally teach it, and I wanted to give you all a sneak peak.
We all know to do yoga for a happy back. Yoga teachers say it, doctors say it, heck magazines all say it. It’s everywhere. But the thing is, just like with anything else when it comes to yoga, it has to be done mindfully or it can injure just as much as it can heal.
And I don’t say that to scare you.
In fact, one of my favorite things that this book says is to not to be afraid of movement. With any sort of injury the body tends to tense up to protect itself. That can be really important in some situations but often it’s that tension that’s actually causing the pain. This is super common with back pain especially. But one of the best ways to keep the spine healthy is to keep it moving.
As long as you know how to move it.
Quick anatomy lesson … here comes the nerdy.
When you see a picture of the spine usually you’ll see the vertebrae all the way down to the pelvis, and it’s so interwoven that I’m going to talk about both here.
You have three different sections of the spine. The cervical spine at the top which is made up of 7 vertebrae. The thoracic in the middle made up of 12. And the lumbar just above the pelvis made up of 5. There’s also the sacrum which is where the vertebrae attach to the pelvis, it’s 5 vertebrae that have fused together. You can see it right between the pelvis here. There’s mobility between each vertebrae, and also a little bit on the sides of sacrum where they meet the pelvis. Oh there’s your coccyx too, or your tailbone. That is made up of 4 tiny vertebrae that have fused together. There’s no movement there (hopefully, if there is it’s probably painful!) so you don’t have to think about that much.
Looking at the pelvis, the two little holes at the bottom are where the leg bones attach. That’s your hip joint. And that’s why when yoga teachers talk about “hips distance” it’s not the widest part of the hip. Your hip joint is actually more on the front of the body than on the side. Weird right?! And because the hip joint is so close to the spine what’s happening in your hips directly impacts your spine. There’s a whole chapter in the book about certain poses for the hips.
Something she doesn’t mention that I think is really important is folding forward from the hips as opposed to the spine. In a vinyasa flow class there’s a lot of folding forward from Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to a forward fold and often I’ll see people using their spine to round forward. You really want that action to be coming from your hips. As in where your leg bone attaches to your pelvis.
So … if you imagine your pelvis as a bowl balanced on top of the legs. When you fold forward you tilt the bowl forward and if there was any water in the bowl in would spill in front of you. The key thing is to imagine that happening at your hip joints not where the vertebrae attach to the spine.
There’s all sorts of conditions that can affect how an individual’s spine is shaped. I’ll talk about those more in the workshop but I don’t want to take up too much space here. If there’s one you’re specially interested in let me know and maybe I can write up a whole post about it.
The important thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about movement in the spine is that you’re looking to find a balance between mobility and stability. It’s not all about stretching. Just like with the hamstring muscle (here’s a link just in case you missed it) we need to both stretch and strengthen. See a pattern? It’s all about balance.
Krentzman also really emphasizes being able to find and maintain a neutral spine. If you look at the side view of the spine you’ll see that the upper (cervical) and lower (lumbar) parts of the spine curve into the body and the middle (thoracic) curves out. The sacrum curves out a little bit too although it’s harder to see cause it’s so small in comparison. Wherever you are, imagine your own spine and try to follow those curves. The low spine curving in towards your body (which might be hard if you’re seated) then your middle spine where your ribs are go back, and finally your neck curves in slightly. That’s your neutral spine.
I’m trying to demo that here, on the left I’ve tucked my tailbone pretty dramatically which shortens the front of my body. On the right I’ve allowed my low back to stay neutral allowing everything else to stack nicely.
That was kind of freeing for me to hear. I don’t have to constantly be tucking my tailbone and if I let my butt stick out a little bit it’s okay!
There are certainly some people who have too much of a curve, it’s called a lordosis in the low back. But Krentzman says “in truth, most individuals do not have enough of a curve in their lower backs” (p49). So explore being in Tadasana and instead of tucking your tailbone, focus on lifting your low belly up to engage your core. That way you can keep the neutral curve in your spine but still have muscles working to hold you up.
The book goes into a whole lot more detail, obviously, it’s a whole book :p
There’s a chapter on what to do while in the acute pain phase (not much except gentle traction to create space). Also a chapter on the sacroiliac joint (where your sacrum and pelvis meet) which can cause pain if it’s unstable. Part 2, which is really only the last quarter, is directly applicable to teachers. There’s sequence ideas and how to teach specific poses.
Before I go, here are a few of my favorite poses from the book.
This one is more about building strength and stability than mobility. Pretty straight forward – with your back against a wall take a block between your thighs and bend your knees. You’re building adductor (inner thigh) strength and by rolling your thighs towards one another slightly (internal rotation) you might feel some space open up in your low back.
Cobra is a great pose for back health. Not only does it bring your spine into extension (which most people don’t get enough of) it also strengthens the back muscles. You get to determine how much back strength vs arm strength you use. You’re welcome to hover the hands off the mat completely to make it all about strength or you can use the arms to lift you up slightly and get more of the mobility part too.
This one’s my favorite. Total restorative pose. You can use a bolster and blanket like I’m using (blanket under the head) or use a couple pillows. The important set up piece is to have your hips on the ground so the support is under your low back. This will again bring your back into extension which counters all the slouching that can so easily happen when seated.
So if you found this interesting and you’re in the NH area I’m doing a Yoga for a Happy Back workshop at 3 Bridges Yoga in Portsmouth on Sunday, April 9th from 4-6pm. Here’s the link for more info and to sign up. The workshop is open to anyone, yoga practitioner or not, back pain or not, if you’ve got a spine, it’s applicable!
Alternatively if you or someone you know might be interested in working one on one with me that’s really where the most change can occur. It doesn’t happen in one session but with time we can figure out which muscles might be stuck in tension, which need more mobility, and which need more stability.
As always let me know your thoughts – I love chatting yoga stuff!