Hit the Mat, Help Your Back

Hit the Mat, Help Your Back

Learn five simple yoga poses that can help you strengthen your core and eliminate back pain.

Allegra Burton, MPH RD Santa Monica, CA

Introduction

A strong core –the muscles in your back and abdominal areas – is crucial not only for providing a foundation for almost any body movement but also in preventing a number of potential injuries. The core stabilizes the spine and pelvis and transfers power between your upper and lower body. A strong core will improve your performance in everything from snow skiing and water skiing to throwing a baseball or running a 5K. Practicing yoga is a sure-fire way to develop stronger, leaner core muscles. So read on and find out about some key core-strengthening yoga poses that you can incorporate into your current workout regimen.

Plank

Place hands on the floor directly under your shoulders, shoulder distance apart, index fingers pointing straight forward. Keep your toes on the ground, hip distance apart, heels pushing back. Hold your body up in a straight line. Look down and slightly forward keeping your neck in line with your spine. Focus on tightening the muscles around your core to help stabilize and hold you up. Start by holding for 15 seconds and gradually work up to 60 seconds or more.

Variations:

Once you can comfortably hold the pose for 60 seconds try lifting one foot off the floor so that it is in line with your hips and shoulders and parallel to the floor.  Keep your foot flexed, hold, then change legs. Next, while holding plank pose, bring one knee towards your nose and hold. Contract your abdominals to keep your knee lifted and engage your belly.  Keep your shoulders over your wrists. Change legs. For more challenge bring your right knee in and hold alongside of your right upper arm. Then bring the leg back and then forward and across your body and try to hold it outside of your left upper arm. Make sure to keep shoulders over wrists. Change legs.

Side Plank

Start in plank pose (see above) then move right hand in so that it is centered below your body. Turn your body at an angle facing left so that you are perpendicular to the floor, balance on the outside of your right foot, flex your feet and stack your feet left on top of right. Raise your left arm up towards the ceiling to create a straight line with your arms from one hand to the other; the line of your arms should be perpendicular to the floor. Look down or, if your balance is good and you’re feeling stable, look directly in front of you or look up towards your left hand but keep your head back, neck in line with your body. Hold. Focus on engaging your core muscles to hold your body in a straight line. Do not let your hips sink down or backwards. Do not let your elbows lock or hyperextend. Hold for 15 seconds or longer. Change sides.

Variations:

If this is too difficult, try bringing your bottom knee to the floor in line with your hand and foot. For more of a challenge start in side plank then raise your top leg up so that it is parallel to the floor and hover.

Dolphin

Start in downward dog pose – feet hip distance apart, hands shoulder distance apart and rooted firmly on the floor, fingers facing forward, hips up and body in an inverted “V” position. Engage core muscles and lower down onto your forearms, fingers facing forward and forearms in a straight line parallel to each other. (If this is too difficult you can clasp your hands together in front of you, keeping elbows shoulder distance apart, until you develop more strength and flexibility in your shoulders.) Focus on keeping your abdominal muscles engaged to hold your middle up and walk your feet in a little closer towards your arms. Hold.

Variations:

For more of a challenge, while holding dolphin pose lift one leg straight up behind you and hold. Change legs.

Dolphin Plank

From dolphin pose (see above) walk your feet all the way back until your body is in a straight line and you are in plank pose on your forearms. Keep your core muscles engaged, heels pushing backwards and legs engaged. Look down and slightly forward. Hold for 15 seconds and gradually work up to 60 seconds or more.

Variations:

Once you can comfortably hold this pose for 60 seconds try lifting one foot off the floor a few inches. Hold, then change legs.

Boat Pose

Start by lying flat on your back and then simultaneously raise legs up to a 45 degree angle and raise upper body to a 45 degree angle keeping back straight, legs straight and abdominals tight. You will be in a “V” shape. Hold arms out in front of you in line with your shoulders, palms facing inward or up. Balance on your sit bones. Hold.  Make sure your abs are engaged to support your lower back.

Variations:

If this pose is too difficult with straight legs, bend at the knees and keep shins raised and parallel to the floor. Hold.  For more challenge, once you are able to hold the pose with straight legs without difficulty, slowly lower legs and upper body simultaneously towards the floor and hover a few inches above the floor.  Keep legs and back straight and concentrate on tightening your core muscles. Hold, then raise legs and upper body back up to boat pose. Repeat.

A Healthy Back in No Time

These are only some of the many yoga poses that can help you build a stronger, leaner core. Whether you are a novice or elite athlete or an advanced yoga practitioner, just a few minutes a day on a yoga mat is all it takes and you’ll be on your way to a stronger core and healthier back in no time. And don’t forget to breathe as you hold each posture.  Namaste!

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