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Avoiding yoga movement with lower back pain is unproductive

Avoidance Yoga Does Not Work

feet & ankles yoga practice Apr 04, 2022

Most of us have areas or regions in the body that complain in some way when asked to move or when put under pressure.
One way to describe these ‘complaints’ is pain.
A very common response to pain that is experienced in yoga classes is to receive the instruction to avoid the movement or posture.

Avoiding postures or movements leads to an enforcement of dysfunction and can introduce further long-term problems.

But we do have other options when meeting pain. Instead of avoiding the movement and posture, ask how else the body could be supported and moved to have the apparent issue not come up.

Yoga and movement anatomy can help you understand the patterns of muscle engagement and strain transfer pathways in your body. In practice this knowledge helps to consciously avoid unnecessary pain and find more supportive engagements.

Following are some useful suggestions for what you can do when experiencing pain in your practice:

Ask yourself: Is this pain from impending tissue damage or from the nervous system not wanting to be there? In short there are only two answers to this question.
If just not wanting to be there, be there.
If actual damage looms - STOP. Back off and examine your situation.

Check on how you set up your body to move into this position and ask yourself if you engaged muscles sufficiently and in the right areas to support the movement and position. Do you have sufficient muscle strength to avoid undue compression, or stretch that would take your tissues beyond their current capacity.
Re-engage your muscles and try the movement again. Up to what point are you comfortable and what happens at the point of becoming uncomfortable?
What further engagements, movements and positioning adjustments will make you comfortable again? Are you letting go of muscle engagements?

Yoga postures are both a mental and physical effort. One reason to feel uncomfortable could simply be that you are distracted. Mental effort can be noticed in your focus and your self awareness for both observing stretch and strain as well as specific fine-tuning of muscle engagements.

Practice with effort, but without pain. Pain is stress and as such counterproductive to your yoga practice.
Some forms of discomfort can be okay. We experience discomfort throughout our day and life regularly. Discomfort is not something we can avoid. We can, however, adapt our actions around discomfort.
The important aspect of practising is how we respond to these challenges of discomfort and pain.
Are we simply allowing ourselves to be in pain / discomfort as a result of someone’s directions or actions and are accepting it? Or do we have the option to pause and reflect on the necessity of it and our ability to adjust our position and strength without shifting in to anxiety, stress or panic?

A productive response could be: ‘ Oh, this didn’t / doesn’t work. How else can I do this movement or posture?’. The result of this inquiry could be an adjustment of our breath, our muscles or position.  Another result could be to simply walk away from the pose or move.
Walking away from a challenge is not avoidance when, after careful examination of the situation and consideration of our abilities, we are at that point unable to meet the challenge.
In the follow up, it is up to us to decide if and how we want to prepare for facing that challenge again at a later point. If the challenge was a yoga postures, we could prepare with increasing specific strength, support, or mobility and focus on these specifics through dedicated practice.

To clarify this point of how to adapt and master a challenge, let’s look at a common posture for lower back pain complaints.
In warrior 1 - virabhadrasana 1 - the lower back area on the back leg side is prone to complaining when the front knee bends further.
Pain in the lower back, especially when moving into warrior 1 posture, is reason enough to back off.
But what went wrong? Isn’t everybody doing this pose?
Many people are. And many people are not fully comfortable or avoiding really being in the pose.

A visually similar and oftentimes less challenging pose to warrior 1 is the high lunge. The main difference between the two is the position of the heel of the back foot.
In the high lunge the heel is high off the floor, in warrior 1 the heel aiming to swivel down on to the floor.
Now, our heel, or even our foot do not move in isolation. This means that by turning the foot and heel down, we are also turning the leg, the knee, the hip and … the lower back.

Structurally, the ankle is not designed to turn, neither does the knee turn much.
This relative stability of the ankle and knee transfers the swivel action of the heel and foot to the next joint along the leg - the hip.
This is warrior one, the back leg is already in a challenging position stretched and pointing behind us. How much rotation can the leg at the hip joint offer / contribute while possibly already moved to the edge of its range?
This is the mechanical chain leading to back pain. The ankle, the knee and the hip joint were unsuccessful or unable to adapt to or move with the swivel in the foot and heel. The next joint area in line is the sacroiliac joint in the lower back region.
Depending on your individual body, the back leg with the heel down in virabhadrasana 1 can either compress your sacroiliac joint or force it into hyper-mobility. Both can be experienced as discomfort and both are preventable.

Keeping the lower back free in warrior one requires the integrated engagement of muscles from your feet to your torso.
- The foot is more than a singular lump that fits into a shoe. Foot related muscles can create stable spirals in the feet that provide both grounding stability and support the ankle at the same time.
- Muscles of the thigh prevent uncomfortable torque in the knee while transferring forces to stronger body structures.
- The pelvis has an intricate multi-layered muscle arrangement which secures, supports and directs the movement of the leg in the hip socket.
- Spinal muscles give shape and mobility to the vertebral column and provide deep support to the sacroiliac joint.
Across and throughout all these seemingly separate segments the fascia forms the continuous connection from foot to torso into which the muscle sections contribute their actions.

A successful and sustainable yoga or movement practice involves application of all of the above mentioned muscle and tissue areas.
For some people this happens automatically, Your postures are strong and stable, your movements flow and your body is at ease and free from discomfort when you practice.
If on the other hand you are someone who experiences discomfort when practising, maybe you are recovering from an injury or can’t find the ‘right’ way to move, then including and applying technique and knowledge to your practice can be very helpful.

Avoiding postures or movements because of pain, a yoga teacher may emphasize safety over specific instructions in a group. In many cases just not knowing what to do prevents avenues of healthy adaptation, and develops compensation patterns. These patterns can become subconscious ingrained movements that are more difficult to ‘unlearn’ in many cases than the effort it takes to develop a suitable healthy movement pattern and postural position.

Learn how to avoid unnecessary pain and build a cohesive and resilient body that moves more gracefully and with more ease.
The AnatomyShow courses can assist you to deepen your practice step by step with easy to understand video tutorials,  practice instructions and handouts to re-enforce the key points.

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