This is really the theme of the Mellow Yoga class I’m teaching. Hundreds and/or thousands of years ago, the yogis developed the physical postures, or asanas (which we Westerners call “yoga” as though they are the sum total of all that yoga is), not so they could reach enlightenment by standing on their heads, or to get “yoga arms,” but to allow them to sit comfortably in meditation for hours.
That’s it. The original purpose of the yoga we know was to allow practitioners to sit for a long time without pain or discomfort. I remember in teacher training, before I had much of a meditation practice, thinking this was kind of a bummer. Why wasn’t the point to get your body to do awesome stuff? That seems like more fun. But the ancient buzzkill yogis were more interested in spiritual enlightenment than, apparently, I was.
But, in developing my Mellow Yoga class, I’ve really latched on to this idea that yoga was designed to help us sit comfortably. Because sitting is what we do. We’re generally not meditating at work or in the car (and these facets of our lives may well hinder, more than help, our journey toward enlightenment) but we do certainly spend a lot of our time sitting. And it takes its toll.
When we sit for extended periods, a constellation of unhealthy structural things begins to happen in our bodies:
The muscles and connective tissues around our hips tighten and shorten.
These are your hamstrings, your inner and outer thighs, the muscles in and around your butt, your quads, and your hip flexors, just to start. And those are just the muscles. The connective tissues, like your IT band in your outer thigh and your iliopsoas, where your leg tissues connect up to your spine through the holes in your pelvis, are perhaps the more major culprits here. When your connective tissues are shorter, you have less range of motion in your hips, and this increases tension on the lower back, which is bad news bears.
Tension increases on the back.
Increased tension in your lower back from your tightened hips means that your back is brought into a load-bearing role, for which it is not anatomically prepared. Your vertebrae in your backbone are meant to protect the nerves in your spine, not to bear weight. No wonder so many adults suffer from back pain. Compounding this is the hunch forward we all do over our keyboards at our desks. The weight of our head is being supported by the neck and the arms are supported by the upper back, and all this extra tension radiates down toward the middle of the spine, just as the tension from the lower back radiates up to meet it. All those pictures on back pain heating pads at the drugstore? The guy is reaching back to massage the tension in the middle of his spine, around where the ribs end. No wonder it hurts– the backbone isn’t supposed to be bearing much weight!
I’m using a three-pronged approach in my classes to counteract the damage we do from sitting.
So where should we support our weight? The abdominals.
The muscles in your core are there to support the weight of your torso, so your back doesn’t have to. Strong core muscles will also help you sit and stand straighter. We do ab exercises in every Mellow Yoga class (ok, it’s not *that* mellow). When the core muscles are stronger, they bear weight when we sit, stand, and walk, taking the pressure off the back. Core is important.
We do poses that stretch, strengthen, and open the muscles and connective tissues around the hips.
When these tissues are a little longer and more supple, we have more range of motion in our hips, which helps prevent common injuries, but also relieves tension on the lower back.
We do poses that stretch, strengthen, and release tension in the muscles and tissues around the spine.
By stretching gently in backbends, and releasing and lengthening in forward bends, we relieve tension in the spine and allow it to move more freely.
With more open hips, a relaxed back, and stronger abs, we, like the ancient yogis, can also sit for hours without pain or discomfort, whether we’re meditating or writing memos.