THE FORGOTTEN BACK BODY
With the winter nip in the air you start to notice how much the body closes in to protect itself against the colder weather. The muscles of the spine were created to keep us upright. They become weakened from sitting for long periods of time, and as a result, don’t have the strength to do the important job of stabilising against gravity as we move. Strengthening the back body in yoga helps to keep an upright posture, counteracting curled in shoulders, a hunched back, and helps prepare the lower body for safer forward folds. Following on from my upper back strength sequence I started to explore down the full length of the back body – adding the lower back, glutes, outer hips, hamstrings and calf muscles. When we visualise our bodies we think of our front body, and the poor back body often gets ignored. If we gave our back body a bit more love and attention we might be better equipped to avoid back pain, hip instability, and pulled hamstrings.
STRENGTHEN TO STRETCH
For a long time I thought that to stretch the back body you need to do lots of forward folds. Not necessarily so! Before you stretch out a muscle you need to strengthen it first to warm it up, wake up the connective tissues, and bring fresh blood to the muscles. Strengthening is not to be confused with tightening a muscle. Tightness comes from repeated strengthening with no stretching. There is so many variations of posture in yoga that every muscle is being stretched and strengthened during your time on the mat. Taking a poses like Salabhasana/Locust will strengthen the whole back body before going into deeper forward folds. Utkatasana/Chair will wakes up the strong muscles of the legs, outer glutes and the outer hips. With the arms raised you are also working the muscles of the back and shoulders. Hold the poses till you feel the muscles working to create stability and strength. You will find the whole back body more receptive to opening up to forward folds when you have warmed it up, and switched it on first.
After warming up the back body with Salabhasana/Locust and Utkatasana/Chair, spend plenty of time in Downward Dog to ease into any deeper forward folds. It will start to gently lengthen out the back of the legs and stretches out the upper back and shoulders. Work on tipping the pelvis forward towards your upper thighs and reaching your sit bones up high. There are three rounds of the downward dog flow in the above sequence. Place your feet mat width for your first round, hip width for the second, and all going well, together for the third round. You’ll notice the closer the legs are together the more of a stretch is required in the backs of the legs. Taking chair pose with the legs at different widths will also work slightly different hip muscles and continue to strengthen the back body between forward folds.
Try the sequence above and bring all your attention to your back body as you move through the practice.
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Ruth Delahunty Yogaru