Yoga may relieve the agony associated with back and neck problems. It also boosts strength and flexibility, increases relaxation and encourages tight muscles to release. A 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that a 12-week yoga practice decreased chronic low-back pain better than traditional treatments. Yoga accomplishes this by addressing the five different movements of spine: it flexes, extends, bends to the side, rotates and lengthens, also called axial extension. Show your spine some love by practicing yoga poses that target the back and neck and work the five movements of the spine. As with all yoga poses, it is important not to push past your body’s physical limitations.
Bend forward and touch your toes. That’s flexion, a movement of the spine that boosts circulation to your brain and vital organs, and stretches your leg and back muscles. Yoga poses that emphasize flexion include Cat pose, Standing Forward Bend and Child’s pose. To enter Child’s pose, kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels with your big toes together and your knees separated about the width of your hips. Reach your arms in front you, palms facing down, and lay your torso in between your thighs, with your forehead resting gently on the ground. Exhale and inhale several times, expanding wide throughout your ribcage and back.
Extension is a movement of the spine that involves reaching your spine upward while your spinal discs expand in front and compress in back. Yoga works extension with backbend postures such as Cobra, Bridge, Camel and Wheel. These extension postures stretch and strengthen the secondary curve of the cervical and lumbar spines, and are natural stress-reducers. Cobra pose both protects against injury and relieves stubborn back pain. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight out behind you and your chin pressed gently into the floor. Place your hands next to your chest, with your palms facing down and your elbows bent. As you slide your chest forward, roll your shoulders back and lift your chest as high off the ground as possible. Your hands should remain in place, your arms should be bent, and your low ribs should remain on the floor. Look slightly down or in front of you, but not up. You don’t want to strain the neck by lifting it up and back.
Your spine is in lateral flexion whenever you bend to your right or left side. Your spinal discs expand on your left and compress on your right when you bend to the right, and vice versa. Bending to the side also strengthens your oblique muscles, improves your balance, and encourages a flexible spine. Side Angel, Half Moon and Triangle are a few of the poses that work lateral flexion. It is easiest to enter Triangle pose from Warrior II. With your right leg out in front, reach your right hand and torso to the right, directly over the right leg. Don’t face the torso forward, but keep it faced out to the left. Bend from your hip, resting your right hand on your shin, ankle or the floor on the outside of your right foot. Stretch your left arm up to the ceiling and follow with your gaze.
Axial rotation involves twisting, or rotating your spine. You twist and turn your body throughout the day, and if the spine is not kept in great shape a quick movement, such as a look behind you, could become a disastrous injury. Yoga implements many different twisting postures that lubricate the spine and increase your range of motion. Revolved, or Twisting Triangle, is an advanced pose, so be sure to listen to your body as you are practicing it. It is also helpful to use a block when first learning Revolved Triangle. It is easiest to approach Revolved Triangle from a straight-legged Warrior II pose. Square your hips to the front and point your right leg forward and your left leg back. Your left foot should be rotated to the side at a 90-degree angle and your feet should have a heel-to-heel-alignment. Keep your lower body stationary, as you twist your upper body to the right and bring your left hand to the outside of the right foot, ankle, or shin. Bring your right arm up to the ceiling. Only look up at your fingertips if your neck says it is okay. Hips should remain level and parallel to the floor. Repeat the pose on the left and enjoy a flexible, pain-free spine.
Axial extension is a movement of the spine that straightens and lengthens your spine, allowing you to expand your breathing, stretch your back muscles and lengthen your spine upward. Downward-Facing Dog is an inversion pose in which the spine is in axial extension. This pose lengthens the entire body while expanding and strengthening the upper back. To enter Downward-Facing Dog, come to your hands and knees, as though you are about to crawl. Curl your toes under and shift your bottom up into the sky, raising your hips and straightening your legs. Your feet should be hip-distance apart. Spin your thighs inward and press your heels to the floor. As you lift your legs, press your arms into the ground. Check to see that your arms are directly under your shoulders. Make sure your fingers are spread wide and your palms are flat to the floor. If you have a wrist injury, grip the floor with your fingertips rather than pressing your palms flat. Let your head hang freely, releasing all weight from your neck, and let that overworked spine stretch.