No Pain…No Strains

“Degenerative Disc Disease”…..those words uttered from your doctor’s mouth can make you feel downright ancient. The simple truth is that as we get older, some wear and tear is going to happen. But seriously….do they have to tell us we’re “degenerating?” Are we degenerating? What does this term “Degenerative Disc Disease” (DDD, for short) mean?

First, let’s take a look at the spine. It’s made up of a bunch of vertebrae stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebrae are the intervertebral discs. The discs are squishy structures that are made up mainly of water and collagen. Their job is to help stabilize. cushion, absorb pressure, increase flexibility, and protect the nerves. That’s a lot of work these little squishy wonders do! Unfortunately, over time, the discs show signs of wear and tear. They lose moisture and squishiness and are less effective. Often an individual can have this degeneration without any pain or other symptoms. DDD happens when this normal process of degeneration causes pain or disfunction. For some, the pain can be constant and unrelenting. For others, it is intermittent. DDD most often occurs in the low back or in the neck. In this post, we’ll focus on the low back.

One of the best ways to help alleviate low back pain from DDD (and other conditions) is to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles. Many yoga and fitness classes focus on strengthening these core muscles. Doing so increases support for the low back. Other great activities to practice are walking, swimming, and stretching. Stretching and movement increase blood flow to the disc, and thus facilitates the healing process. Physical therapy, regular yoga practice, and Functional Yoga Coaching can help as well. A sampling of yoga postures that work well to decrease the pain and discomfort associated with DDD are:

  • Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose)
  • Apanasana (Knees to Chest Pose)
  • Parsva Balasana (Bird dog pose)
  • Jathara Parivatanasana (Supine Twist Pose)
  • Phalakasana (Plank Pose)
  • Setu Banha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
  • Cat/Cow
  • All stretches for the legs and hips

For more information on how to alleviate pain from DDD, check out my website or sign up for Functional Yoga Coaching, or my new Healing through Yoga Class. You can also get some great yoga and physical therapy tips by subscribing to my newsletter.

How to Heal your Heinie

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A very common problem is excruciating pain in the backside that shoots down the leg. Most of us have heard the term “Sciatica” to describe severe pain in the buttocks, back of leg, and feet. But what is it, and what can be done to help those who suffer from sciatic pain?

Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve gets compressed. The sciatic nerve is a bundle of nerves that pass through the space between the Ischial Tuberosities (referred to in yoga as the “sits’ bones) and a knobby bump at the top of the Femur (thigh bone). It is roughly the thickness of an index finger, so that’s quite a large bundle of nerves! The piriformis muscle (see my newsletter for a more on this muscle) also passes through this area.

There are a few ways that the sciatic nerve might become compressed, thus leading to pain. First, the piriformis muscle may become tight and start to spasm. This is known as Piriformis Syndrome. Although there are a few causes for Piriformis Syndrome, it is quite common for it to evolve from long periods of sitting. Another cause of sciatic pain is a herniated (bulging) disc in the low back. Herniated discs often cause back pain, but if the sciatic nerve is being compressed, the pain can be felt in the buttocks, and also shoot down the legs, instead of in the low back where the disc is.

So, what can be done to help relieve sciatic pain? First, the extreme pain that comes with sciatic conditions, definitely merits a trip to your doctor to find out the cause of the pain. Treatment depends on whether the cause is Piriformis Syndrome, a herniated disc, or some other cause. Gentle stretching of the piriformis muscle is effective in helping with pain due to tightness and spasm of the piriformis muscle. Stretches should be held for 15 seconds to start, then progress to a 60 second hold. Examples of piriformis stretches are the “Figure 4” stretch or Pigeon Pose. Additionally, twisting postures may help with Piriformis Syndrome by realigning any imbalances in the hips. Examples are Prvta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

For a herniation, it’s helpful to practice gentle back bends. This can assist in easing the disc matter back into the disc, thus relieving pressure on the nerves. Examples include Salabasana (Locust Pose) and Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose). If you’re unsure of the cause of your sciatic pain, you should practice extreme caution with twists, as they can exacerbate a herniation.

For more information on spinal health through yoga and physical therapy, check out my newsletter, join me for a class, or contact me for a private online Functional Yoga session.

Lessons Learned from Monkey Pose

What’s life without a little challenge? Of course I realize that life is throwing challenges at us left and right lately, but instead of just playing defense and fighting life’s challenges as they come up, I decided to challenge myself by working towards the goal of achieving the posture Hanumanasana, aka “the splits.” This posture is steeped in symbolism since it’s named after Hanuman who epitomizes strength, courage, perseverance, and release of ego. Hanuman is a fascinating character and I encourage you to read more about him.

As I start my journey to this goal, the PTA/yoga teacher in me considers the anatomical breakdown of this posture. Instagram and the web are full of beautiful people looking serene in this pose. But there is much complexity to this pose in an anatomical sense. I could easily teach a total yoga class just on Hanumanasana alone. It is not just about stretching the hamstrings and “being flexible”. The muscles are a balance between stretching and contracting/activating.

Much of this pose is about balance. The torso is balanced over the pelvis, and there’s also a balance between stretching and activating the muscles. Many of the muscles of the legs come into a stretch, but then they continue actively contracting (eccentrically) for stabilization.

The front leg is flexed at the hip while the back of the thigh (Hamstring Muscles) stretch. After those muscles elongate, they contract at that elongated position. This is called an eccentric contraction. To help stabilize the posture, the calf muscles are also contracting.

The back leg is extended from the hip. Here, the front of the thigh (Psoas Major and Rectus Femoris muscles) experience a deep stretch. Before sending the leg all the way backwards, I recommend regular stretching of these muscles. They are usually pretty tight from all the sitting we do in day to day life. If theses muscles are too tight it’s difficult to balance the torso over the pelvis. Additionally, if you have tight hamstring muscles it is often due to the hamstrings compensating for tight hip flexors. So stretching the front hip and thigh muscles would serve you well. See my latest newsletter for some tips on how to do this.

In addition to the legs, the spine is a large part of this posture as well. The spinal extensors are at work here to lift and hold the spine over the pelvis, especially with the arms extended. All the muscles on the front of the torso elongate, then eccentrically contract as we lift the arms skyward.

Yes indeed, there’s a lot going on in Hanumanasana. I have my work cut out for for me as I attempt to embrace this posture in a safe, supportive way. I invite you to follow my progress (and help inspire me to persevere) as I post I post on Instagram and Facebook. @yogalorie.com #yogalorie