Got Lower Back Pain?

Did you know "experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives"(1)?

Having experienced lower back pain myself, I know it really stinks. It affects everything from our mood to our flexibility.

Amazingly, I can now report that I don’t have lower back pain anymore. And I would love to share with you what I’ve learned.

Here are my 4 TIPS for Healing Lower Back Pain:

1. Periodically engage the lower belly and pelvic floor throughout the day.

2. Squeeze your butt and notice how it frees up your lower back.

3. Stand rather than sit while you’re typing on the computer (as much as possible)

4. Practice this yin-style seated twist once a day, being sure to twist WITHOUT moving your lower back, thereby rotating just the mid and upper back.

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1. Periodically engage the lower belly and pelvic floor throughout the day.

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One HUGE contributing factor in lower back pain is weakness in the abdominal wall and pelvic floor. To help remedy this, you could try pilates or other exercise programs that target the belly. They’re great! BUT, I will say - you don’t HAVE to do that. You don’t have to do crunches (they’re not that great for you, anyway).

For me, it’s more empowering, and has been even more effective to just casually in whatever clothes I’m wearing… wherever I find myself… in my house, in the coffee shop, etc… lift the low belly. Engage the pelvic floor. Learn where these muscles are and use them regularly.

To help you get started, think of pulling the pubic bone up toward the belly button. Squeeze the lower belly back and in. But don’t stop breathing! Since the low belly is now engaged, you’ll have to take deep breaths into your chest. This is a wonderful side-benefit! Deep breaths into your lungs while your lower belly is engaged can energize you on many levels.

Then release. Let everything go. And try again - say just 2 more times. If you’d like to make sure your spine is in a neutral position (it probably won’t be if you’re sitting on a couch)… try doing it in Hero’s Pose like this:

Once you learn how to engage your lower belly, THEN AND ONLY THEN… try to simultaneously lift the pelvic floor. Here I mean the muscles between the anus and the genitals. If you think of trying to stop the flow of urine while you’re peeing that might help :)! And squeezing your butt hole might help, too :)

It’s intimate - I know! But it helps, trust me. And a happier lower back means a happier you overall.


2. Squeeze your butt and notice how it frees up your lower back.

When your butt isn’t strong, your lower back has to do the work of trying to keep you standing up straight. The problem is it’s not your lower back’s job! It’s your butt’s job.

Turns out, having a strong butt isn’t a superficial or shallow goal. It’s not just that a “perky” butt might be sexy or desirable… it’s also advantageous biomechanically. It’s part of a healthy functioning body. The butt’s job is to maintain our upright posture.

Go ahead - stand up right now, and squeeze your butt. What happened? I bet you felt your whole body lengthen. You probably even lifted your chest without thinking about it! Yay!

Now keep it up! Next time you think of it, just squeeze your butt.

And if you want a more structured exercise that you can do once a day (in the morning is best, but anytime is great!), try this video about glute bridges. They seriously changed my life:

3. Stand rather than sit while you’re typing on the computer.

If you can get your hands on a standing desk, DO IT! Many employers are educated about the benefits of standing desks and are willing to make the shift, so it could be even easier than you think. And if you don’t have a standing desk, get crafty! I use my dresser sometimes… or a high top table at the coffee shop. And IKEA has a pretty inexpensive one here.

I know it’s not possible for everyone, so if you have to sit just remember to take lots of breaks. Get up once every hour, even if just for 2 minutes, to take a short walk, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, or just stand up and squeeze your butt.


4. Practice the yin-style seated twist once a day, being sure to twist WITHOUT moving your lower back, thereby rotating just the mid and upper back. This one provides unbelievable relief.

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The yin-style seated twist is a therapeutic movement that not only teaches you how to engage the low belly and pelvic floor, but it also remedies tightness in the mid and upper back, which can cause lower back pain all by itself.

Start by sitting on 2 yoga blocks, or a big stack of blankets. Take your pick of sitting options based on the props you have at home, or just whichever one is more comfortable.

Begin with your body centered, arms relaxed on your lap.

Then engage your low belly and pelvic floor and find a deep breath in your chest. You can’t do yin breathing here because you can’t relax your low belly.

Establish a regular, comfortable ujjayi breath in and out through your nose even before you twist. This makes sure you won’t hold your breath when you do.

Then start rotating your mid-back toward the right and let your chest turn, too. Keep your head in line with your chest (don’t turn your head to look over your shoulder).

Remember to keep your low belly and pelvic floor engaged the whole time! This will help make sure you don’t twist your lower back.

Take about 5 breaths there, and return to center. Relax your belly. Let it stick out. Pause for about 10 breaths just noticing how you feel, and then repeat on the other side.

I hope you try these 4 Tips and that they provide you with some relief! If you’d like to learn more in person, check out my upcoming workshops and retreats here.

Here’s to your lower back returning to health!

Namaste & Love,
Sally

6 Ways Yin Yoga Changed My Body

Many of us struggle to be in our bodies, myself included. We don’t like how our bodies look and so we stare hatefully at ourselves in the mirror. We wish our bodies would feel better and we medicate either unnecessarily or necessarily to find comfort. We compare our bodies to other people’s bodies and spend enormous amounts of money to try and fit in. (Maybe you don’t - and if you don’t please forgive me. I applaud you.) 

While I could never tell you that improving your body will improve your life (NOT TRUE), I will tell you that for me, having natural, holistic, and mindfulness-based tools like yin yoga to work with my aches, pains, illnesses, and chronic conditions has been a blessing.

We all have to “deal” with our bodies. If we don’t have natural ways, we often use unnatural, processed or harmful ways to deal with our bodies, like drugs, alcohol, sugar, and pharmaceuticals. I’m not saying I think these things are bad; sometimes we need them and they can be real lifesavers. But I think you get the point - if we could have something totally natural, with no side-effects or mind-numbing outcomes, it’d be a good thing.

Here’s what’s happened to me since starting a regular yin yoga practice over 10 years ago:

1. My immune system is stronger.

This one may not be obvious. I used to think that immunity had something to do with genetics, or simply environmental factors, like if you’re around a bunch of sick people, then you will get sick. Of course, our genetics and our environment have some effect, and sometimes it’s unavoidable, but how relatively SMALL these effects are in comparison to the effects of our diet, lifestyle and movement patterns has been truly mind-blowing. 

Since practicing yin yoga, I’ve noticed that I get far fewer colds and coughs. They still happen, but very very infrequently. And according to Ayurveda and Taoism, this makes sense. By stimulating the flow of chi through the Lung meridian in particular, we improve the filtering capacity of the lungs and are better able to fight foreign bodies such as viruses and bacteria. 

They also explain that our immune system becomes compromised whenever we experience stress. It doesn’t matter if it’s the stress of trying to get out the door in the morning or a major life crisis. Any kind of perceived stress weakens the immune system. And one of the primary goals of yin yoga is to make you slow down, take some time for yourself, and let go of stress and tension, it just happens to work out that the more yin yoga you do, the more resilient you become. 

2. I’ve gotten more flexible.

This one is probably more obvious, but to be honest, I am still shocked at truly how MUCH more flexible I’ve become. 

Let me set the scene. I’d been doing vinyasa yoga for at least 6 years before I found yin yoga. And I still couldn’t touch my toes in a seated forward bend. I had given up all hope that my hamstrings would ever lengthen and when it came time to touch our toes I raged inside with how little progress I had made.

Enter yin yoga. I don’t know how long it took exactly, but I can say with confidence that within less than a year, I could touch my toes. What?!?! How did that happen?

Turns out that much of our inflexibility comes from tightness in the fascia, and not just the muscles. Since vinyasa yoga and other forms of “yang” yoga primarily, if not only, target the muscles, it’s NOT surprising if there are certain parts of your body that just don’t change very much. By holding the passive yin yoga postures, I was able to release deep-seated fascial restrictions and finally breathe a sigh of relief (even excitement) when it came time for forward folding. 

Ps - I’ve also learned an immense amount about the important balance of strength and flexibility through studying yin yoga. I’ve learned that becoming more flexible in every part of your body isn’t the goal. In fact, I’ve learned that you can be overly flexible in certain parts (even your hamstrings!), and that that can lead to pain - especially in your lower back. 

3. My breath doesn’t smell as bad.

This one is totally embarrassing. But I have to tell you because its true, and I’m sure many of you struggle with your breath or the breath of your loved ones.

Let me set the scene again. I was about 24 years old - brand new to yin yoga, and my boyfriend at the time took me out to dinner to (I think) break up with me. Well, he got really awkward and said “how do you tell someone something you think is going to hurt their feelings?” I in turn got even more awkward and said “I don’t know - you just tell them, I guess?”

He took a deep breath and said “It’s your breath.”

“What?! My breath!? Oh my gosh.” I wanted to run out of that restaurant so badly and go hide in a hole and never come out. 

Thankfully he was an Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher and had the most tender and gentle way about him. He explained that he really liked me, and that he wanted to keep dating me, but it was just really bad and he felt like maybe some Ayurvedic and yogic tips could help.

First thing he told me was to stop drinking ice water (I had a huge glass in front of me.) Next thing was to calm the F down and relax. Do some more of this yin yoga, to help you move through the crazy feeling of rejection and self-disgust.

Oh man, it was really hard. Eventually I got over my embarrassment, and over the course of many months, my breath did improve. And we stayed together for many years. 

If it’s not your breath, maybe there’s another thing about you that’s hard to handle. Maybe it’s your weight. Maybe it’s your height. Maybe it’s something you can change, and maybe it’s not. But whatever it is, I have full faith that yin yoga can help you navigate the messy reality of being human. 

4. I don’t have as much acne.

Here we go. Another embarrassing one. Oh, where to start. 

If you’re like me and you had teenage acne, you know how horrible it is for your self esteem. You know how it makes you feel dirty, unlovable, and totally ugly. You probably also know how most over the counter, and even prescription medications either don’t work or have horrible side effects (like drying out your skin, messing with your hormones, or killing all the good bacteria on your skin so that when you ever try to go off the acne medication it all just comes back… and worse!)

For me, my struggle with acne got really bad just as I was heading off to Albuquerque to study Ayurveda in 2006. I had to leave the aforementioned boyfriend and did a whole lot of stress eating in the evenings to try and deal with my loneliness. For me, it was pastries, cookies, ice cream, and cakes. Typically pitta stuff :)

Now I know that the combination of the stress, dairy, and refined sugar were a breeding ground for acne. But back then I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

Enter Sonia Masocco. Life Saver. Herbalist. Friend, Mentor. Expert Natural Skin Care Artist. (http://soniamasocco.com/) I somehow had the good fortune of getting on her very busy weekly treatment table and received the most incredible, luxurious, and all natural facials. But it wasn’t just the facials that cured my acne. It was the same kind of thing that yin yoga does. It helps us love ourselves. Sonia coached me through letting go of my boyfriend, finding other sweet treats to eat instead of the inflammatory ones, and starting a regular meditation practice.

And if it weren’t for my consistent yin yoga practice upon returning from Albuquerque, I’m sure that I would have kept up the stress eating late at night and my skin would continue to break out very badly. 

Thankfully, even just doing one yin yoga pose a day helps me to process my emotions, keep my liver and skin happy, and provide a safe space to feel what I feel. 

You might not believe it yet, but I think with some personal experience you will come to find that yin yoga (combined with a low dairy, low refined sugar, and low processed food diet) actually does wonders for your skin.


5. My posture has improved.

One day I was sitting in a coffee shop and this lovely woman asked me (quite randomly) “What is your passion?” I was surprised at her very interesting question, and answered “Yoga and Meditation. Why?” 

She said, “I could tell by your posture!”

It was one of those life-affirming moments that only yoga teachers dream of. I mean, I guess I never dreamt that people would compliment my posture, but when it happened I really thought - wow, all this asana I’m doing is actually making a difference.

It’s like when someone who hasn’t seen my son Akasha in a month says “Wow, he’s getting so big! You’ve grown 6 inches since I’ve seen you!” and I, as his mother who sees him every day, don’t really notice.

Our posture is something that depends on many things, like our mood, our sitting habits, and our work habits (computer, driving, standing all day). And yin yoga, combined with a strong understanding of biomechanics (which I hope to impart to you in my classes and trainings), gives us the upright, naturally lengthened spine characteristic of a healthy human.

And for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

 

6. My back doesn’t hurt every day like it used to.

This one took longer to heal than the others. I’ve had chronic lower back pain probably since I was in my 20’s (and now I’m 36!). I had been doing vinyasa yoga, yin yoga, restorative yoga, visiting the chiropractor, taking warm baths, taking herbs, getting massages - everything I could think of. And my back pain was still there.

The thing I learned about back pain, and again this has been a relatively recent discovery, is that it has A LOT to do with tight hip flexors. 

My amazing husband, and certified personal trainer (who currently sells flooring to make a living) taught me that. 

He also taught me that lower back pain often has a lot to do with weak abdominals. So all that softening of the belly that I’d been doing in meditation was great - except that if I didn’t strengthen my core from time to time, my back would just stay in an anterior tilt and be taking a beating with all of that compression.

Now I know that if I do yin yoga to help open my hip flexors (like the lunge or screaming pigeon or saddle pose) that my back will usually feel better. And that if I do that in combination with some simple pilates moves, I am good to go!

So simple, yet so profound.

I hope you’ve found this helpful and interesting to read. If you have any questions or comments, or would just like to share your story about how yin yoga has changed your body, please contact me here. Thanks for reading! Namaste & Love, Sally

How Meditation Changes Your Brain

Imagine your alarm goes off at 6:30 am and you roll out of bed feeling tired and cranky. You wish you could go back to bed, sleep later, or take the day off. Your mind is racing, though, and there’s a million things to do. You can’t be late for work. You have to pack the lunches, check your email and make sure you don’t forget to add laundry detergent to your shopping list. So you get up. You get in the shower and go. That nagging feeling of tiredness, brain fog, anxiety and overwhelm never really fade throughout the day, except for maybe when you’re enjoying your cup of coffee, or after dinner when you can finally put your feet up and watch your favorite Netflix show.

Now let’s pretend you have a regular meditation practice. The early morning still looks the same. You’re still tired and cranky when you wake up. You still want to go back to bed, but you hear the little voice inside you telling you “Get on your cushion! You never regret it, and always feel better!”

You get your shower and sit down. You set your timer for 20 minutes. You try to sit tall, but your back hurts. You try to relax, but your mind races. If it’s the first few months you’ve really committed to meditating daily, you want to give up every single time you sit. You feel like a failure.

The remarkable thing is that no matter what happens during your meditation sitting, you start to notice how your day goes better. You notice you feel more relaxed overall. You let things go that aren’t such a big deal. You are more patient with your kids, your co-workers and your friends. You’re less threatened by people who insult you or used to intimidate you. It’s not like life is all of a sudden perfect, or easy, but something has changed, and the only thing you can point to is those often excruciating 20 minutes when you sat still in the morning without trying to do anything else.

So what is that? What happened to your body, your brain, and your perception that made such a difference in your day? Why is it that when you stretch, or go for a run, or do some yoga poses, it doesn’t have quite the same effect?

The idea that the brain can change based on our behavior, our attention, our diet and our lifestyle is called neuroplasticity. Instead of our brains being “fixed”, like the relative fixity of the shape of our bones, our height, and our eye color, the way we think, our emotional responses, and our day-to-day mental and emotional experiences are actually very very mutable and highly dependent on if we meditated that morning or not.

Our brains have many different parts. For our lesson today I’ll cover three important sections, since they are so intimately connected to how we feel mentally and emotionally throughout the day.

The first is the hippocampus. Latin for “Seahorse,” the hippocampus is part of the limbic system and processes emotional responses. It stores long term memory and includes all of our experiences from the past, including people, places, ideas, concepts, history, and all the lessons we learned when we were younger. It stores all of our verbal memories and could be thought of as our autobiographical memory.

Multiple studies performed by Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard, showed that the hippocampus actually grew after an 8 week mindfulness based stress reduction course in meditation.

The second part of the brain I’d like to highlight is the amygdala. Latin for “almond,” the amygdala is also part of the limbic system and is a small spherical bulb, shaped like an almond, at the end of the hippocampus. The amygdala takes external stimuli from all of our 5 senses, and all of the environment, and creates an emotional response. It’s also responsible for arousal, and we could think of arousal as an output of attractive, safe, interested emotions, like the desire to connect and be intimate. The amygdala stores our fear, anxiety and aggression memory, telling us what is threatening based on our past experiences. It’s been called the the “alarm circuit for fear” by NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. We could also think of it like the barking dog that alerts us to a threat and tries to protect us from impending harm. It stimulates increased heart rate, blood pressure, and involuntary muscle tension.

Dr. Lazar’s study of meditators showed that the amygdala actually got smaller after the 8 week mindfulness course, which confirms that very common experience that meditators have, where they feel much less stressed throughout their day as a result of their morning sitting. It’s not like the external stimuli, or the “threats” as they were, went away, but our fear got smaller.

“In the late 1930s, researchers discovered that monkeys with damage to the amygdala and surrounding areas of the brain showed a dramatic decrease in fearfulness. Later, scientists found that rats with targeted amygdala damage would snuggle with cats, their natural enemy.”

          -  Scott P. Edwards in The Amygdala: The Body’s Alarm Circuit

The third and incredibly fascinating part of the brain we’ll look at in regards to meditation is called the corpus callosum. Latin for “tough body,” the corpus callosum connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain and in doing so allows for communication between the two. The corpus callosum is the largest piece of white matter in the brain, and I think of it like the “glue” that connects the left and right hemispheres. One study showed that the corpus callosum is actually thicker in long-term meditators than in people who don’t meditate. (Luders E, Phillips OR, Clark K, Kurth F, Toga AW, Narr KL. Neuroimage. 2012 May 15)

Dr. Sara Lazar’s work has also showed that the TPJ (the Temporo-parietal junction) also grew from meditation. The TPJ is the compassion and empathy center. It’s the part that’s important for creativity and seeing things from other people’s point of view.

A different study, also conducted by the Lazar Lab, compared long term meditators to people who don’t meditate. The meditators and yoga practitioners had more grey matter (more folds) in their cortex, in the “newest” part of the brain. This made them better at working memory and executive decision making, and was also correlated with higher IQ. In addition, they had better fluid intelligence, which means they were better able to take novel information and do something useful with it.

In this study they also proved something incredibly hopeful - which is that your brain doesn’t have to start shrinking as you age. It’s well known that typically, the entire front half of the brain shrinks as we age. As we get older, we’re not quite as sharp as when we are young.

Dr. Britta Hölzel is a German neuroscientist and a mindfulness-based stress-reduction and yoga teacher. In her March 2015 article in Nature, she showed how meditation increases attention.

Dr. Herbert Benson, MD showed back in the 1970’s that meditation induced a “relaxation response” that decreased heart rate, decreased breathing rate, and increased digestive function.

Anthony King at the University of Michigan showed that PTSD symptoms improved with meditation.

In summary, meditation changes your brain in profound and incredibly beneficial ways. From decreasing our perception of threat to increasing our attention, empathy, and creativity, the benefits are as far-reaching as they are exciting. It’s my hope that this chapter inspires you to get on your cushion, give yourself a break, don’t worry if it’s hard, and invest in this great panacea that is a regular meditation practice.