Guest Post by Marque Garaux of Great Lakes Ashtanga Yoga
This past week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Adam Keen for his podcast Keen on Yoga. Adam is a long time student and accomplished teacher of the Ashtanga method. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience of his own. He has practiced with many well known teachers and has interviewed even more.
My first thought was “why would anyone want to hear me talk?” We all perceive the world (and the practice) through our own lens. All I have to share is my direct experience. Maybe it can help a few people going through a similar one.
I began my Ashtanga journey at the age of 30 (nearly 11 years ago) with two herniated discs in my lumbar spine. Before this, most of my knowledge of yoga came from a DVD that I would do occasionally when my back would “act up”. This back pain became an issue for me in my early 20’s during my service in the United States Marines Corps.
It’s not that exciting of a story really. No combat action stories, no PTSD, no drug addiction or alcoholism to overcome. No prison time, depression or anger issues. I came to the practice because I was in physical pain and I was desperate and scared. I was terrified of losing my mobility and the level of fitness required to continue playing in the mountains and doing the things that I felt at that time gave my life purpose.
My early years of Ashtanga were mostly done at home with my wife as we tried to teach ourselves the series from a book. I also spent countless hours reading about the spine and watching YouTube videos from every chiropractor, physical therapist, gymnast, yogi, and anyone who knew anything about the spine. I became obsessed with finding the answer to the annoying question that constantly came up in my mind? “What did I do differently from the guy next to me who did the same job as me and carried the same exact weight in his pack?”
Let’s talk about back pain and the things I have learned that helped me answer that question. A very large percentage of the population at some point will experience back pain during their life. The two leading causes are dehydration and postural imbalances. These two things can then lead into a multitude of different problems.
Proper hydration seems easy enough if we just drink the recommended amount for our body weight each day. That is a great start as it does help our muscles and connective tissues stay supple and health but sadly it falls quite short of a very important thing. To have a healthy spine we need intervertebral disc hydration. This can only be achieved optimally if we take that hydrated body and then move it. Flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion are key. We must move the spine through all ranges of motion each day in order to force fluid into and around those discs.
Now when it comes to postural imbalances we should understand posterior pelvic tilt (ppt)and anterior pelvic tilt (apt). With ppt the back of the pelvis dips down which lowers the hamstring attachment points and shortens and tightens the muscle. The quadratus lumborum (muscles on the low back) become over stretched and weak. The spine rounds forward and the natural lordotic curve of the lumbar region flattens out. This puts the spine in an unstable position and creates space between the posterior side of the vertebrae. Space for discs to begin migrating towards and bulging.
With atp we experience the opposite. The front the the pelvis will dip down which shortens the hip flexors as well as the quadratus lumborum. The spine goes into too deep of a lordotic curve and the spacing on the posterior side of the vertebrae decreases. What I believe the most important thing to understand is that neither spinal flexion (rounding) or spinal extension (arching) are bad. Both are important and normal for the spine. The problem with either is when they are done habitually and become your “normal” posture and inform all of your movements.
Avoiding Backbends Didn’t Help
When I began doing the primary series, I loved the way the forward folding felt. The increase in space on the back of the vertebrae gave immediate relief to the areas that were bulging and stretched my tight low back which we all know that stretching tight muscles feels nice. Backbends felt tight and created a lot of fear.
The fear causes the nervous system to “protect” the area so muscles further tighten to limit our range and keep us safe. Unfortunately though this tightening causes a feeling of pain and restriction which then just further validates our initial feeling of fear. And enforces the notion that backbends are bad. After a few years of avoiding backbends, the frequency of my back pain increased and the discs were likely bulging even further. The further they bulged the more back bends seemed like a bad idea. This is where I was stuck for about 4 years until a teacher very confidently told me that I needed to learn to backbend correctly.
A New Approach
When I began this new approach to back bending it was not an immediate relief. It was uncomfortable initially but I was extremely gentle and deepened them at a pretty slow rate. Slowly reducing the spacing on the posterior side of the spine encourages the bulged discs to move back into their proper place.
However, many people are not so patient and push too deeply into backbends before their bodies are ready. This can cause injury, of course, but worse than injury is the pattern of fear. Many physical injuries come and go rather quickly. The body is designed to heal; however, the emotional healing, our memory of discomfort, and the nervous system’s pain responses are much more difficult to rewrite. This leaves some people in a similar place to where I initially began, afraid to do what is needed.
On the flip side, too much back bending will tighten the low back muscles and can also be problematic. The key is balance and everyone’s balance will be a little different. I am forever grateful to that teacher who gave me the confidence to explore my back bending practice and helped me regain the ability to carry heavy packs up and down the mountains. I hope every student finds a knowledgeable teacher who instills confidence in them to explore and experience the powerful teachings of the healing process.
You can find out more about Marque on his website Great Lakes Ashtanga Yoga.