I salute the sun, then I roll my spine

I intend to live to a ripe old age without losing my mobility or my quality of life. Keeping my muscles supple is one of the ways I’ll do this; eating well, leading an active lifestyle, and having a positive outlook on life will also be contributing factors.

I took up yoga when I was 17. My mum taught a class (and still does) at Kimi Ora – a nearby health resort. Being the awesome mum that she is, she welcomed me to come join her class for free. I used to ride my bike over there (only about 12 kilometres but with a few good hills and one killer one at the end), attend the two hour yoga class, then do a good stint in the sauna, interspersed with plunges in the salt water pool. What a life! (I’d already have put the bike rack on Mum’s car so I didn’t have to bike home afterwards.)

When I first started with yoga some of my initial observations went along these lines: far out my wrists are weak, oh my god my hamstrings are tight, and my balance is pretty crap too. Yes, yoga is about stretching, but strength, endurance, balance, patience, and mental fortitude are all major components as well.

There are many different styles of yoga, with my preference being Iyengar. Iyengar yoga is all about precision. Each posture (or asana) is practised to perfection and the level of detail goes down to what your little toe is doing, where your tongue is sitting in your mouth, and where your eyes are looking, even when they’re closed. Being the perfectionist that I am, this style of yoga suits me just fine. As far as I know, B K S Iyengar, the fellow who developed this style of yoga, is still alive and still practises yoga daily, despite being in his 90s. This is a short clip of him here.

I’ve attended a great many yoga classes over the years and been exposed to a variety of teachers and teaching styles. Somewhere along the way I developed a short routine that I do daily. This is what it looks like, and this is another sequence that I also practise regularly. I haven’t attended a yoga class for ages – I have enough self-discipline to do it at home on my own quite happily. Plus it means that I get to do exactly what I want, when I want, and the way that I want. I know which muscles tend to get tight and how to stretch them.

Often, a feeling of tightness or discomfort in one area is due to the transference of tension from another part of the body. It’s all about self-awareness, or proprioception. Understanding the basics of anatomy and utilising some creative thinking and problem solving skills is also an advantage. Let me give you an example: quadratus lumborum is a muscle that originates from the back of your hip and attaches to your spine and bottom rib. It’s a deep lying muscle and can be hard to get to given that other muscles lie on top of it. A massage therapist I used to see explained that when a muscle tightens, it tends to do so towards the point of origin rather than towards the point of insertion, so if my quadratus muscle on the right tightens more than the one on the left, it’s expressed by a lifting up of the right hip, rather than a pulling down of the spine and rib.

Being right-handed, I have a natural tendency to use the right side of my body more, although I try to be as ambidextrous as possible. Given that I also drive a car, and my right leg is my accelerating and braking leg, I’m usually tighter on my right side. I’m guessing I’m not alone here.

Have you ever noticed that some people’s shoulders aren’t level? As in it looks like one shoulder is higher than the other. If quadratus is tighter on the right and lifting the right hip, the spine will curve slightly to compensate which will cause the right shoulder to drop and the left to rise. I once took my tramping pack back to the shop where I bought it because I was completely and utterly convinced that one strap was longer than the other. Turns out it was my back that was wonky, not the pack. I also spent years of my life putting a block of foam or rubber into my right shoe because I was certain that one of my legs was longer than the other. I now trust that my body was made right; it’s the way I use it that makes it feel unbalanced.

So, back to quadratus. I use my 3 kg dumb-bell to stretch it – sounds a bit weird right? Let me explain. I lie on my back with my knees bent. Keeping my upper back on the ground I lift my hips and place the dumb-bell under my lower back, between hips and ribs, where quatratus is located. I then relax onto the dumb-bell, keeping my hips off the floor. The pressure of my bodyweight on the ends of the dumb-bell hits my quadratus sweet spot perfectly. The muscle releases in increments that I can feel: some resistance then a release, more resistance, another release… This may sound like tortuous pain to you but it actually feels bloody good, and so much better than walking around for days if not weeks on end with niggling little aches and pains that you know you really should do something about but can’t be bothered/are too busy/don’t know how/think if you ignore it for long enough it’ll go away. Sound familiar?

Right, so I’ve found a way to stretch quadratus, but why is it tight in the first place? Yes it’s usually tighter on the right side, but both sides are tighter that I’d like them to be. For me, it’s my hamstrings. Life in general makes them tight, which restricts my range of movement, so instead of bending more at the hips and knees, and therefore engaging my quads, my lower back ends up doing more work than it should. So in this somewhat long-winded and convoluted example the problem is expressed in my lower back, but originates in my legs.

The moral of my story? If you’re lower back is sore, stretch your hamstrings.

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