Our family spends a lot of time in playgrounds. When we travel or play our music shows, The Morris Family Band always leaves a little time to find a nearby playground. Concord is loaded with great playgrounds. You may even have one in your own backyard. The Monkey Around Playground at White Park celebrates its 25th birthday this year – 25 years of reaching, hanging, climbing, running and jumping.
On any given day, you’ll notice the kids, of course. Take a look at what they’re actually doing with their bodies. Every reach, every swing, every hang is spinal extension. It’s back bending, my friends! And if you look around at the adults, most of them are sitting, watching, and (quite often) staring at their phones. That forward rounding of the back is spinal flexion, and it’s the most common thing we do with our bodies after our “playground years.” We sit in chairs for hours on end, we sink into our wonderful soft couches, and we hang our heads down and stare at those amazing devices we all carry. Even active exercise, like hiking and running, biking and gardening, involve forward bending. These things are part of our modern life. It’s important to counter all of that with some extension, stretching and, most importantly, back bends.
All backward bending heals the spine.* It must be approached slowly, with patience. It’s helpful if it is guided by a trained teacher, who can see what your body is doing and guide you safely. At our studio, we heat the room to increase circulation, warm up muscles and facilitate safe stretching. All it really takes is a willingness to try, a calm approach and a little “playground” curiosity. Here are five great reasons to get started with yoga, and back bends.
1. Improve your posture: Your nervous system needs a healthy pathway to send its messages. All this sitting, all this flexion, pushes the protective disc material of our spine backward, toward the spinal nerves. Back bends help counteract the damage of forward posture by bringing that disc material back where it belongs. Back bending helps realign the vertebrae, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and strengthens the muscles of the back. It’s the best thing you can learn to do for your body.
2. Breathe better: Back bends help open the shoulders and chest – an area where many of us hold tension. Most folks have shoulders that are rolled in and a head that is cranked forward. This makes our breathing shallow and compresses the lungs. Adding a little back bending to your daily life will open the shoulders, open the chest, and help you get the breath you deserve.
3. Stretch your hip flexors: The hip flexors are the muscles that allow us to lift our knees and bend at the waist. They’re found deep in the abdominal cavity and cause pain for many individuals, especially if you run, bike or garden. The pain from tight hip flexors can be felt in the back, hips, groin, butt, even the back of the legs. Back bends help stretch the hip flexors and help us move better in all directions.
4. Heal your aching back: This one is so important, I’m saying it again! Most people, when their low back hurts, lean forward and try to “stretch it out.” This will exacerbate the back pain in the long run. You spend all day forward bending. More of the same will get you more of the same. Whenever someone tells me that their back hurts, I immediately tell them to start practicing back bends.
5. Find the edge of your comfort zone: The moment we lift up, and bend back, we meet the edge of the “comfort zone.” We come face to face with our physical limits and our minds are challenged. We are offered a choice to drop out, to force our way through, or to develop patience. If we stick to the task, we learn how to slow down and breathe. The practice of back bending takes energy and perseverance, discipline and care. You are worth it.
So stand up, my friends. Look up, reach up, and you are on your way to adding back bends to your wonderful life. Find a yoga studio today. Ask a few questions, then get in there and start right where you are. Take a walk to a nearby playground. You may not be ready to hang from the monkey bars yet, but the sight of those little monkeys running around at White Park will help lift your spirits. People need people, my friends.
*(Just a reminder as you read this – this is not a substitute for good medical advice. If you have any concerns about starting your back bending journey, always consult a medical professional first.)
(Mike Morris is the owner of Hot House NH Yoga & Pilates.)