A Simple Solution to Low Back Pain (part 1)

As a yoga teacher it’s a little bit embarasing to be suffering from Low Back Pain. Shouldn’t my yoga practice be helping me? Better yet, shouldn’t my understanding of the body, both as a yoga teacher and as an engineer help me figure out a way of dealing with it or at least point me in the direction of a solution?
Well I guess all I had to do was ask if there was a way it could be dealt with.
Ask and the universe will respond.
For awhile I thought my pain was a result of me being lazy in using my abs to support my lower back.
The trouble with that line of thought was that when I did try to use my abs to straighten out my back I didn’t get any relief from the pain. I thought that maybe my spinal erectors where weak but then I realized that the real pain came from in front of my spine not from behind it. For awhile I thought I wasn’t grounding through my feet in a way that allowed the back of my legs to actively pull down on the back of my pelvis. That too brought little relief.
I thought that by stretching my psoas I would get the relief that I needed but that again wasn’t the answer to the problem.
I wanted an elegant solution, a simple one. I wasn’t sure if there was one but I thought it would be nice it there was.
I’ve worked with guns, computers, motorbikes, most often fixing them or figuring out what the problem was when things went wrong. I’ve also worked a little bit in design. In most cases, when things go wrong there is one thing that is key to it all. I needed to find… wanted to find the simple key to the problem of my lower back pain.
The answer came via a book called Chi Running which I picked up a few days after deciding that I was looking for an elegant solution to back pain. (At the same time I was also a bit skeptical to their being an elegant solution.) As I said, ask and the universe will provide. I wasn’t really that interested in Chi running (I thought I could figure it out myself!) None the less I picked the book up, if for no other reason than I needed a break from all the Chinese I’ve been seeing. (I live in Taiwan).
The answer was simple.
Reading the section on posture for running I got the answer I was looking for. I simply needed to stand with my hip joints above my ankles so that my legs where aligned with the force of gravity. With my legs aligned with gravity my psoas could relax and give me no more back pain. Well actually, it comes and goes on occasion but more and more I am finding that my back is pain free.
The irony is that I already knew the answer…. sort of. I teach handstands quite frequently in my yoga classes. The main thing I teach people to do is to use their hands to help feel where there center of gravity is. Then they can position it where they need it to be… over their hands. But in addition to this, because a lot of the people I teach may be new to handstand, I teach them to align their arms with gravity, to stack their shoulders over their wrists. This way their arm bones take the brunt of their body weight which means the muscles of their arms don’t have to (work so hard.)
This was the exact same thing I needed to do with my legs. Align them (and my center of gravity) with gravity. The funny thing was that it had never even occurred to me to do so.

  • What happens to the psoas when the legs aren’t vertical?
  • Why does verticalizing the legs help the psoas to relax?
  • What is the psoas and why is it important?
  • How can we tell if our legs are vertical and how can we keep them there?
  • Before I talk about all of that I’d like to talk about the type of back pain that I suffered and when I suffered from it. In general I was getting it a lot while standing around and also while walking. I found it especially bad when carrying the baby, and also sometimes while carrying a back pack. I got relief when I sat down.
    I also got relief doing standing meditations where I stood with my knees slightly bent, my weight centered through the soles of my feet (so that my toes could relax) and my awareness moving around within my body.
    After reading the relevant section in Chi Running I realized that I habitually stand with my pelvis slightly forwards of my feet. This means that from my feet to my hips my legs slope forwards.
    To balance this my upper body leans slightly back. The result of this position is that the weight of my upper body pushes my pelvis forwards. So that my body stays upright my psoas activates to pull my pelvis back and my legs and lower back forwards.
    The psoas joins the inner upper thigh bone to the front of the lumbar spine. To join the two it passes forwards and up from the thigh to the front of the pelvis. It passes the lip of the front of the pelvis and from there reaches back and up to the front of the lumbar spine.
    Looking at the body from the side the psoas is shaped like the head of an arrow pointing to the front of the body, with the tip of the arrow at the front of the pelvis and the two “wings” at the lower back and top of the thigh respectively.
    If the pelvis is pushed forwards relative to the feet and upper body then the psoas is stretched. To prevent itself from being stretched too far the psoas tightens. Because the legs are in contact with the ground, they remain stationary and so this tension in the psoas causes it to pull the lower back forwards causing the lumbar curve to accentuate. Enter lower back pain (or one possible cause of this.)
    Now we could try to counter this by activating the abdominals, using them to pull up on the front of the pelvis. However, the elegant solution is simply to position the legs so that they are vertical, at the same time aligning the center of the upper body (and whatever we may be carrying) over our legs.
    With our pelvis balanced on the top of our legs, and our upper body balanced on top of our pelvis, our psoas can relax and we may just be able to wave goodbye to one cause of lower back pain.
    To make our legs vertical we stack our hip joints over our ankle joints. To learn to feel our ankle joint (or sense it) we can rock back and forwards while standing, at the same time noticing the change of sensations in the region of our ankles. We can zero our attention on the spot where there is a lack of motion or feeling. We can calibrate where we imagine we sense our ankle to be by touching the inner or outer ankle bones.
    Next we can learn to feel where our hip joint is by alternately pushing our pelvis forwards and backwards, rocking it similiarly to when we where learning to feel our ankles only this time our awareness is centered on the junction between our thighs and our pelvis. For me my thighs feel heavy, dense, while the inside of my pelvis feels almost empty in comparison. Feeling the inward slanting “top” of my thighs I can then try to zero my awarenss on my hip joints. To calibrate I can tough the “head” of my thighbone. (actually this is the malleosus, not the head, but I mean the sticky out bit that we can feel just below the crest of the pelvis.)
    Now that we have an idea of how to sense where our ankle and hips are we can now practice sensing where they are with respect to each other.
    Again rocking back and forwards on our feet with our feet about hip width and parallel, we can stop when we think that our hips are over our ankles. We can then use a mirror to check. We can then repeat till we get better and better at being able to feel when our hips and ankles are aligned with gravity.
    From there we can work at verticallizing our upper body.
    Be aware that if we make our legs and spine vertical then most of our weight will be centered on our heels. We will be balanced on our heels. This is similar to the situation I am hopefully getting my students towards when they do headstand. All of their weight centered on the crown of their head. It actually feels scary when we first find this position in headstand and the same can be true when standing on our heels. However if we relax and trust, it can actually feel quite freeing. And if we don’t like it, we can always lean your upper body forwards a little, just enough so that some of our weight shifts towards the front of our feet. Meanwhile we can continue to keep our legs vertical so that our psoas can stay relaxed.