By: Jean Johnson for Back1
“Yoga keeps you young,” said physical therapist at Providence Portland Medical Center, Ana Dupuis, DPT.
|The North American Spine Society suggests the following diet, lifestyle, stretching, and flexibility tips:|
Yoga poses can be deceptively strenuous. So it’s important to work at the limits of your own body and not force the joints and muscles beyond their current limits.
A way to enhance yoga stretching is by focusing on the breath. If, for example, you are doing the child’s pose in which you kneel on the floor and bend over the knees resting the head and arms out in front of the knees, you can feel how the back expands slightly on the in breath. As the body relaxes into the pose, the breath can be a vehicle to gently increase the stretch.
For downward dog and other poses, visit the Yoga Journal’s Web site.
“One of the things I see a lot of in people with neck and back problems is that even if they’ve lived really active lives, stretching tends to be the thing that gets thrown to the wayside. So people who practice yoga and stretch regularly tend to maintain more balance front to back and left to right,” said Dupuis. “That’s been my professional observation.”
We were surprised that Dupuis zeroed in on the legs instead of focusing on the back itself. But she reminded us that everything’s connected. “The legs are related to the back because all of the muscles that come out of your legs are attached to the pelvis,” Dupuis explained. “So if the pelvis is out of alignment, it affects the spine and it kind of just climbs up the chain from the bottom up.”
Dupuis adds that the way the spine is curved is critical as far as back health goes. “We were molded in such a way that those normal curves are really important, and problems there can wreck havoc on the whole system and interfere with our ability to move against gravity.”
Yoga Does Double Duty
“I do recommend yoga classes if someone’s expressing interest in that area, not only to help restriction and tightness but also because yoga helps bring the mind back into the body,” said Dupuis. “Quite often, the reason patients are out of synch is because they aren’t aware of their body and what it’s doing.”
Dupuis says that yoga is more dynamic than regular stretches. We asked her for an example of a yoga pose designed to stretch the back and keep it in good shape.
“For the lower body and back, the downward dog stretch when done properly, elongates the whole back side of the body: the hamstrings, calves, gluts, and lower back in kind of a neutral posture. Plus it provides extension through your upper back and thoracic spine. And also, because downward dog requires weight bearing on the arms, you are stabilizing the shoulders and scapulas,” said Dupuis. “It’s an excellent yoga stretch.”
One way to get into the downward dog pose is to simply bend over, drop the hands to the floor, and walk out with the hands until you’ve reached a point at which there is a good stretch all along the back side of the body from the heels to wrists. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, though, so Dupuis explains that she regularly modifies it for clients. “If you can’t reach the floor to do the dog position, you can modify it with chair or counter height. So it’s using props that are in the environment to make it more feasible for your body.”
Modifying Poses to Meet Any Body’s Needs
“That’s probably the biggest advice I give anyone who’s going to a yoga class,” said Dupuis. “Certainly in perfect world I would want all teachers to have knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics, which is the basic application of anatomy that explains how the joints are aligned and how the muscles act on them to produce a particular motion.
“I encourage my clients to find an instructor who can help them modify the postures using blocks and straps and bolsters,” said Dupuis. “People will mostly find these instructors at yoga studios, instead of health clubs.
“If you are doing yoga at a health club, you need to be careful not to put too much stress on the body. I tell my patients to do only what you can do and not hurt yourself. The idea here is that you’re not doing competitive yoga and not comparing yourself to how others are doing,” Dupuis emphasized. “Instead, it’s something you’re doing for your own body.” She advises being careful and not forcing joints or stretches that hurt.
Strength Training, Stretching, and Yoga
Dupuis encourages those interested in stretching to think about what’s going on inside the body and appreciate the relationship between aerobic workouts, strength training, and stretching. “The point is that you are tightening up the muscle and making it stiffer during exercise. Think about the cross section of the muscle: it’s going to get larger and become more taut. So if you don’t ever stretch it, you just get this big stiff muscle.”
Dupius suggests starting by stretching one or two muscles each day. “If you are a regular exerciser, you’re better off shaving five minutes from your cardio and taking time for stretching.
“And then in terms of yoga specifically, I think two times a week is realistic thing for someone to do. I know a lot of yoga instructors who want their students to take two classes a week and then do a daily personal practice to reinforce their development. But I think you can really get away with twice weekly. Daily stretching is healthy, but every day might not be attainable for most busy Americans.”