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Flow into Yoga: Chronic Back Pain

Yoga class at the Morton Grove Park District's Prairie View Community Center in Morton Grove Thursday Dec. 27, 2012. | James C. Svehla~for Sun-Times Media
Yoga class at the Morton Grove Park District's Prairie View Community Center in Morton Grove Thursday Dec. 27, 2012. | James C. Svehla~for Sun-Times Media

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If you have experienced chronic back pain, you know how truly debilitating it is. All you want to do is lie down and not move. Every movement, and even lack of movement, aches from your neck all the way to your toes.

However Bikram yoga is a great tool in combatting back pain.

How can all that bending and twisting be good for a sore back you might ask? Well Bikram yoga has a balance of forward and backward bending in a heated studio which allows your muscles to relax.  

As we highlighted in the Spine Strengthening Series last week, most of life is spent in a forward bend, whether it be driving, working at a computer, gardening, or merely just bad posture.  We need to stand up tall especially if we have back pain!

To understand how Bikram yoga combats back pain, we need to better understand back pain.  

A back injury is often termed a herniated disc, and a herniated disc is essentially a disc with a hole in it. In a herniation, the tough outer membrane of the disc is penetrated, and the softer inner membrane extrudes. Pain occurs when the extrusion comes into contact with a nerve. Nearly all Americans have some deterioration of the lumbar discs.  Most people with painful herniated discs have either tight hamstrings, which creates downward pressure on the pelvis, and/or weak abdominal muscles; both cause a state of nearly constant forward bending in the lower spine. Bikram yoga is great for stretching of the hamstrings and building of the core muscles.

Constant forward bending is not our friend. When a person bends forward, the front of the vertebrae move closer together, which forces the disc toward the back of the spine and the spinal nerves. Persistent unsupported forward bending will cause or aggravate back pain from herniated discs. For most people, when their low back hurts, they lean forward; however this is only further intensifying the back pain. It will sound counterintuitive to most people to backward bend when they are sore, but it is essential to make that philosophy shift. Instead of leaning forward, those with back pain should try a supported standing backbend (Camel Pose) throughout the day as needed. In a backbend, the backside of the vertebrae come together, moving the discs away from the spinal nerves, thus relieving pain. It will be difficult and painful in the beginning, but back pain sufferers need backward bending to strengthen and relieve pain.

You either love it or you hate it, but Camel Pose (Ustrasana) is the posture that we all need. When performed correctly, nearly all the major muscles of our bodies are being stretched and then there is the beloved backward bend. To achieve Camel, keep your knees hip width apart and thighs perpendicular to the floor. The soles of your feet should face upward, toenails touching the floor. Place your palms on your hips and try to keep your outer hips as soft as possible. Use your hands to lengthen your back pelvis and draw in the tailbone. Inhale and lift by pressing your shoulder blades to the back of your ribs. Begin to arc your back. For those that are ready, you may proceed to the second part of Camel by withdrawing your arms one at a time from your hips and place them on your heels. Press your palms firmly against your heels to keep from losing your balance. Turn your arms outward so that the elbow creases face forward. Arch your back until your arms are straight. Be careful not to strain your neck or tighten your throat. Maintain this posture for 30 seconds to a minute. Breathe calm and deep. And you are on your way to a pain free future.

Midge Furlong is the owner of Bikram Yoga Burr Ridge in Burr Ridge. 

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