Back extension in yoga is often considered to be a cause of back pain and injury, and this is often true, as it is very easy to injure the spinal structures in extension. Abdominal strengthening is one of the best ways to support the spine, because some of the abdominal muscles attach directly to the spine and when we contract our abdominal muscles as we move, the spine is braced and protected. Strong spinal muscles also create spinal stability.
A variety of abdominal strengthening exercises is usually done in all yoga classes but these kinds of exercises can have the opposite effect to what is intended: pain and restriction in the middle and upper back.
There are 2 reasons why this occurs:
- abdominal muscles oppose spinal muscles: the spine creates extension and the abdominals create flexion and they should be strengthened in equal amounts, whereas many teachers will do 5 or 10 minutes of ab-exercise but no Salabhasana or any of its variants in a class. An imbalance between the front and the back of the body develops and the back pain experienced is caused by the spinal muscles working overtime to try and keep the spine extending upwards, as abdominal muscles pull it down into flexion
- the types of abdominal exercises: mostly, some type of abdominal crunching is used, and students are told to lift their shoulders off of the mat. This position makes the muscles at the front of the neck strong and shorter and pulls the head forwards. Strong and tight abdominal muscles in the solar plexus area have a profound effect on the posture because the shoulders are pulled forwards, rounding the upper back and causing pain
Core body strength is necessary for a safe yoga practise but it may be helpful to explore other ways of doing this: Navasana, Parvritta Navasana, Purvottanasana, Vasistasana, Anantasana, Astavakrasana, Bakasana, Parvritta Bakasana, Jathara Parivatarasana, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, to name a few.
Sharkey, 2008, The Concise Book of Neuromuscular Therapy
Kendall, McCreary, Provance, 1993, Muscles, Testing and Function
Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance
Boyle, 2004, Functional Training for Sports
BKS Iyengar, 1966, Light on Yoga