Yoga Anatomy: Avoiding Back Strain in Yoga – How to Prevent Hyper Flexing the Lumbar Spine
In our last post, we focused on the benefits of engaging the quadriceps in forward bends. These include reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings and the contribution of one head of the quadriceps, the rectus femoris, along with flexing the hip joint and tilting the pelvis forward. Tilting the pelvis forward helps to prevent hyper flexing of the lumbar spine through lumbar-pelvic rhythm.
This post emphasizes the role of hip adductors and abductors in flexing the hips, with a cue for co-activating these muscles. Balanced engagement of these muscles produces a stabilizing bandha about the hip joint and pelvis, while at the same time synergizing hip flexion. This contributes to femoral-pelvic rhythm, which in turn aids to prevent hyper-flexing the lumbar in forward bends.
Here’s the Anatomy
First, let’s look at the anatomy. The more anterior adductor muscles (the adductors longus and brevis) draw the femurs toward the midline, adducting them. The pectineus contributes to this action. The tensor fascia lata (TFL), on the other hand, draws the femurs away from the midline, abducting them. Thus, the TFL and adductors (and pectineus) are antagonists for these actions. These same muscles all flex the hip joint and are synergists of this action. Accordingly, co-activating this antagonist/synergist pair can be used to stabilize the hip (through opposing actions) and synergize hip flexion.
(The adductors longus and brevis and pectineus in Dandasana.)
How to Activate the Adductors and Abductors
Dandasana (Staff Pose) is a good pose for learning how to work with these muscles together. I begin by drawing the upper inner thighs towards one another. This activates the more anterior adductor muscles — the longus, brevis and pectineus Then, I press the calves into the mat, fixing them there, I attempt to drag the legs apart. The legs are fixed on the mat and so will not actually abduct, but this cue engages the TFL (which you can feel contract on the sides of the pelvis). Adding a slight internal rotation of the thighs refines this action. The adductors and the TFL work together to synergize hip flexion, which then acts to lift the lumbar region (through lumbar-pelvic rhythm).
Try each of these cues independently. Then combine both actions by gently squeezing the upper inner thighs together while attempting to draw the lower legs and heels apart. Note how the opposing actions of these muscles create a stabilizing bandha across the hip joint, while their common actions synergize hip flexion and pelvic tilt.
(The tensor fascia lata in Dandasana.)
This cue is portable to other poses like Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) as shown. If you can reach your feet in Paschimottanasana, then the cue for engaging the TFL becomes pressing the outer sides of the feet into the hands. If you are working in a modified version of this forward bend (as with a belt around the feet) then the cue is the same as in Dandasana. In Uttanasana, fix the feet onto the mat and attempt to drag them apart (to engage the TFL) while drawing the upper inner thighs together, to engage the adductors longus and brevis and pectineus.
(Co-activating the adductors, pectineus, and tensor fascia lata in Paschimottanasana.)
Combining contrasting elements produces balance and stability. Combining synergistic elements produces movement. Movement creates rhythm. Lumbar-pelvic rhythm helps to prevent hyper flexing the lumbar spine—which can aid to prevent lower back strains in yoga.
If you suffer from back pain, be sure to consult your physician to determine the cause; work under the guidance of a physician to manage your pain.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.
Author, Ray Long MD FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.
3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to videogames and underwater imagery.