Tag Archives: back pain

Yoga Union opening new studio next Friday

Yoga UnionI’m very excited to hear that Alison West, senior Iyengar teacher and co-founder of Yoga for NY, is expanding her NYC presence. Yoga Union Center for Backcare & Scoliosis will remain open on 28th Street, and the new Yoga Union will open across the street.

Offering both the largest number of rope wall stations in New York City, as well as ceiling slings that allow practitioners to take the discipline to a “higher” level, Yoga Union provides a unique setting for “Cross-Over Yoga,” where students can take both Structural and Flow classes.

They’re having two events next weekend:

Opening Party and Kirtan
Saturday, September 10th
7:00 PM

9/11 Memorial Yoga Flow Class and Meditation with Alison West
Sunday, September 11th
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Congratulations Alison!

Personal Training Part Three: Everyday

Ankle weights are awesome
Ankle weights are awesome!

On Saturday I ran back to Crunch for my final session with genius personal trainer Claes Passalacqua. It’d been a really long week; I needed a kick in the pants as well as the final secret series of hip and back fixers.

We started off with the Core strengthening exercises and the Glute strengthening exercises, just to warm up. Except this time I had to do the Glute series with ankle weights. Good. Lord. It felt like my leg was trapped in concrete; I could barely move it around. It felt like someone else’s leg. That I’d set on fire. We also added an inner leg lift, similar to ones I’d done for knee pain, that brought the sensations full circle.

The real magic, however, came when I stood up. The nerves and muscles firing up and down the back of the leg created this insane feeling of gravity in that leg, as if my heel was being suctioned to the ground, and my hips were being sucked out through my leg bones. It was like a huge flush of water, an avalanche, dropping through my legs. For all the yoga I’ve done, for all the teachers that have pulled my heels or hips towards the floor, THIS made me understand what “grounding” really feels like.

We built on that. The final series adapted these Core and Glute alignments to more “normal” postures, to train the body to use these new-found muscles in everyday living.

  1. Standing tall — left side against the wall, with a kickball to cushion the hip. Right foot on a stair-stepping bench (could substitute a thick book), left leg dangles parallel to the right. Arms up, shoulders down. Ribs in. The challenge is to balance using the glute, not the quad, calf, or foot. Microbend the knee, send the hips back, keep the weight in the heel, hold for a minute. Crazy strength is discovered. Do both sides.
  2. Sitting down — in front of a bench (or bed), lift one foot six inches off the floor. Arms up, shoulders down. Ribs in. Lower the hips towards the bed, keeping the feet parallel. Use the glute not the quad. Rest, stand up with both legs, and repeat 10 times. (For extra challenge, try to come back up. With the core and the glutes you can do it!)
  3. Bending over — stand with feet hip-distance apart, lift the right foot about six inches off the floor. Microbend the other leg, send the hips slightly back. Left hand on the hip for balance, lean the heart forward and touch the left toes with the right hand. Repeat 10 times. (Similar to the Hamstring Circles recommended in Ironstrength)

I’m kind of sad to be done, even though my hip and back pain can certainly stay hidden wherever they are. I’ve got the homework I asked for, and all kinds of new sensations to play with. I’ve learned all kinds of things about yoga from cross-training, especially this strength training, and I highly recommend some intense muscular exploration for anyone who does yoga. And, I cannot even describe how immense a relief it is to have not an injury, but a plan. Thank you so much Claes!

Personal Training Part Two: The Gluteus Medius

Gluteus Medius (cut)
Gluteus Medius (cut)

Happy holidays, for and from me. My back and hip pain are just about gone; I’ve been doing the physical therapy exercises that Claes Passalacqua gave me just about every day. Week one, I’d learned his Core series, week two he increased the core work, added some spine and shoulder stretches and introduced some gluteus medius work. I had to suck it up and buy a foam roller (the thing takes up half the room), but I have not woken up with a frozen back in weeks. So. Happy.

Exercising while laying on the foam roller is interesting, it forces you to balance using deep core muscles. It can also be used to massage (roll out) the IT band and the quads, so it’s a good investment.

Claes says that a lot of people have week gluteus medius muscles — the quads and the hamstrings are often overdeveloped, while the hip ab/adductors and rotators are often weak. Especially if you do running or cycling or other exercises in a repeated linear plane. And if the muscles attached to your pelvis are imbalanced, they’re going to tip or twist your hips — hello back pain. We often think of “the Core” as just our abs, but it actually includes your inner thighs, outer thighs, and butt. The medius helps your legs move away from each other, back, or rotate outward. Mine was so weak that I was yelling OH MY GOD by the middle of the exercises. (I guess they’re used to that at Crunch?)

And check this out: just a few days after my session, the Times posted an article on “Dead Butt Syndrome.”

“A new thought in running medicine is that almost all lower extremity injuries, whether they involve your calf, your plantar fascia or your iliotibial band, are linked to the gluteus medius…”

So, for posterity (and healthy posteriors), here’s Claes’ Gluteal series. It helps hip and lower back pain, and is great for runners and other linear athletes. Do it every morning, it only takes ten minutes. Combine it with Jill Miller’s Lower Body Series (deep tissue massage) once a week and you will have the happiest hips around.

1. Pilates stance — lying on one side, legs straight, hips slightly bent for balance, bottom hand supporting the head, top hand on the floor in front, keep hips perpendicular to floor, feet slightly turned out (unless it makes your hip click like mine)

  • 10 leg lifts, foot flexed — just up 12″ or so
  • 10 leg lifts, foot pointed
  • 10 heel touches — foot flexed, tap top heel in front and behind bottom foot
  • 10 infinities — make figure 8 with top foot
  • 10 circles forward — imagine you’re drawing on the far wall with the toe
  • 10 circles backward

2. Fetal position — lying on one side, bend the knees to 90Ί, support head with bottom hand and balance with other

  • 10 book covers — lift top knee about 12″
  • 10 seesaws — rotating hip/femur, tap top knee down (heel up), then top heel down (knee up)
  • 10 circles forward — small, imagine you’re drawing with a pencil
  • 10 circles backward

So! Miracles do happen. Hips and back are healing! Just have to tackle (I mean nurture) the shoulders and wrist and I’ll be swinging again.

Look for Claes at Crunch and beyond…

Personal Training! The Core

Find your Transverse Abs
Find your Transverse Abs

I’ve been quiet on the class front lately, looking for some help with my nagging aches and pains. Vinyasa would be a joke; even Anusara is no fun. I’ve got a classic zigzag pattern: right foot, left knee, right hip, left shoulder, right wrist. So I’m pretty sure the injuries are related, cropping up due to imbalance. (As you injure one side, you avoid it, and often overwork the other side.) And of course my lower back is getting torqued, too.

It makes me skip yoga practice; there’s too many things to worry about. I know there’s a ton of teachers I could go see, but I have to admit that the money is a concern… I spend SO much money on yoga already. I just go running instead. Not the best solution but at least it keeps me halfway sane. And I found the time to pick up a regular meditation practice again.

But then I couldn’t skip a workshop with Jill Miller, who was in from the West Coast. (I’ve written about her here and here.) She felt my total lack of resistance in an intense side stretch and said that I need some resistance training. (Like with rubber bands. Barf.) But I agree; I am extremely flexible, and not very strong any more. I told her I was overwhelmed. I stare at my mat and don’t know what to do. She recommended Claes Passalacqua: “He’s a genius.” So I met with him yesterday…

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The Threats of Twisting

Dont make me do it!
Don't make me do it!

If you’ve had low back pain, you know how incapacitating it can be. One wrong step, and some mysterious stranger stabs a knife between your vertebrae. If you haven’t, and you’re practicing yoga, please read this article from My Yoga Online:

The Threats of Twisting

The one thing I would add is an insight from Leslie Kaminoff (again): the lower back does not twist. Really. There’s only 5Ί of rotation possible in the lumbar spine. It just follows the direction of the sacrum. We can get a feeling of twist there, by engaging the abdominal muscles and feeling them wrap around the spine, but most of our twisting happens in the thoracic and cervical spine. So T11-T12 is a common place for injury, since it’s the first really rotating spinal joint. Make sure you’re spreading your twist throughout the spine.

Yoga for Back Pain: Pilates

The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler
The Pilates Body by Brooke Siler

Today I did Pilates at home. I count it as yoga; a lot of the Pilates moves are lesser-known yoga moves you can find in the older texts. And, as much as yoga insists you should engage uddhiyana bandha (navel lock) throughout vinyasa practice, you can go for years without doing it right or at all. It’s supposed to keep your energy turned inward, and it definitely protects the lower back as you’re swinging your legs and torso in all directions. Beth Biegler, my anatomy teacher, said that injury results when the limbs are not supported all the way to the center of the body; we tend to use just the most immediate muscles.

Anyways. I’ve finally started to figure out my lifelong bad posture and my recent (year or two of) back pain. I’m tall, so I tend to slouch, which rests all the weight of my torso onto my lower back. And, because I used to wear saggy pants, I tend to push my belly outwards (to keep my pants up! I hate belts), leaving the spine unsupported in the front. Then, an Iyengar teacher finally told me I was doing all my backbending at just one vertebrae. L4, I believe. My lower back had started to hurt, but Vinyasa teachers told me “You have such a beautiful backbend!” and I ate it up like a sucker. So I went to the Iyengar camp-of-perfect-alignment for a while, and they scared me straight.

Pilates is like an obstacle course where you get points for each exercise you complete — with your core muscles fixed firm. It doesn’t matter if you kick your leg highest, or fastest, or beautifulest — just keep your navel touching your spine. (Like the Operation game, in opposite.) Slowly you build that habit while you’re walking the legs, or bicycling them, or bending over, or twisting. Obviously, that soon transfers into your normal life. After a week of Pilates (when it was too hard to do “real” yoga in the morning), I noticed I was even picking up my toothbrush differently. Joseph Pilates says, “After 10 sessions you will feel a difference. After 20 sessions you will see a difference. After 30 sessions you will have a new body.”

I can’t speak for the machine classes, I’ve never tried them. Supposedly they are very helpful.

This book is a really nice sequence. I did 3/4 of it this morning, and it took 30 minutes. My butt aches from the leg circles. But it’s not really supposed to hurt, one of the big principles here is to detach from “no pain, no gain” and its masochistic tendencies. When you learn correct postural habits, your daily activities are full of gentle exercise. So it’s often much easier to convince yourself towards this book than a sweaty vinyasa class, at least if you’re an expired Type A personality like myself. The illustrations are also cute and helpful: manhole covers resting on your stomach to press it down, or springs stretching the leg up and away.

If you are suffering from acute back pain, I dare to say this book not only assuages symptoms through gentle stretching, but prevents future injury by building core strength.

In addition, I actually prefer this book to studio classes, as it has ALL the directions for each pose, versus the piecemeal delivery forced by any group class. (It is hard to read and move sometimes… podcasts are the future.)

One more practice to add to the infinite list!

Morning Practice

Since I got back from the retreat, I’ve actually kept up a morning practice. I always do pranayama:

  • 3 rounds Breath of Fire (60, 75, 90 reps, and 60, 75, 90 second retentions)
  • 5–10 rounds Alternate Nostril Breathing (inhale 4, hold 16, exhale 8 )

Sometimes I add my favorite sequence ever: the Kundalini Spinal Warmup. It is great for days when you can’t bring yourself to practice vinyasa, or you’re really stiff, or you’re tired and can’t think, or your back hurts, or you have shoulder problems. Sitting in easy pose:

  • Hands on knees: Flex spine forward and back, with Breath of Fire (20 seconds – 2 minutes)
  • Hands on shoulders, elbows out: Rotate spine side to side, with Breath of Fire (20 seconds – 2 minutes)
  • Hands clasped in front of heart (Bear Grip), pulling on each other: Rock alternate elbows up and down, with Deep Breathing (20 seconds – 2 minutes)
  • Hands still clasped in front of heart: Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Raise clasped hands above the head. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. (3 times)
  • Hands on knees. Inhale and hunch shoulders up to ears; exhale and drop them, with Breath of Fire (20 seconds – 2 minutes)
  • Hands on knees. Tip chin to chest; inhale and roll head around in a circle, lifting from the jaw as it reaches the back. (5 times clockwise, 5 times counterclockwise)
  • Sit on your heels (Rock Pose) and interlace your fingers above your head, index fingers extended to the sky. Close the eyes and focus between the eyebrows. Inhale and think Sat (truth); exhale and think Nam (named), using Breath of Fire. (2 minutes)

I always skip the last one for some reason.

Another great wakeup exercise is Spinal Jump Rope. Sitting in Easy Pose, with the hands on the knees:

  • Focus on the navel. Gently start to spiral the lower back clockwise, making each loop a bit larger than the last. Inhale circle it forward and exhale circle it back. Visualize the navel like a sparkler tracing a circle in space. Continue for a couple minutes, then gently slow back to center and do the other direction.
  • Focus on the heart. Same as before, but making gentle circles with the upper back.
  • Focus on the throat. Same as before, but making gentle circles with the neck.

I did this a few weeks ago and couldn’t stop. My spine got really warmed up and the movement became completely unconscious. I was like a circling Sufi or something. Really weird.

Today I added 5 Sun Salutes; we’ll see if that sticks.

A Simple Sequence

Here is my practice sequence from last week. I’ve been trying to rest a hip strain (the massage therapist and acupuncturist said it needs 4-12 WEEKS of rest), so this gentle sequence from Dr. Amrit Raj was much appreciated. (He was in town for a “Yoga & Ayurveda” workshop at Exhale.)

This is a light sequence, safe for anyone. We did about 10-20 reps each one. The numbers in front are just my mnemonic device. Start off sitting, with legs extended.

10 – Flex toes about 10x (inhale point, exhale flex)
9 – Flex feet about 10x
8 – Circle ankles about 5x each way
7 – Flex knee about 10x each side (clasp foot, bend knee to chest, then straighten leg)
6 – Flex hips about 10x (butterfly position — inhale up, exhale forward)
5 – Round spine and roll forward and back about 10x
4 – On stomach, hold bow pose about 30 seconds
– Rock forward and back about 10x
– Rock side to side about 10x
3 – Clench fingers about 10x (sitting, with arms extended up)
2 – Flex hands about 10x
1 – Circle wrists about 5x each way
0 – Circle shoulders about 5x each way (with arms bent, hands on shoulders)
1 – Turn neck left, right, up, down about 5x
2 – Turn eyes left, right, up, down about 5x

Then 5 minutes of alternate nostril breathing
Then 5 minutes of meditation

I did this every morning last week, and by the middle of the week a chronic charley horse in my foot was completely gone.