Practicing yoga is one of the best things we can do to keep our bodies' healthy, however there's a few common mistakes that can do some serious damage. Forward folds are some of the most commonly misaligned poses that can present the biggest risks for back injury. When we practice with poor alignment, we find ourselves putting excessive amounts of pressure on our lower spine. For this reason, unhealthy forward folds can be underlying factors for things like bulging and herniated discs in our lower spine and sciatica related pain in yoga practitioners. Do you feel tension in your lower back when you move into a forward fold? Are you primarily focusing on reaching your hands to the floor? Do you keep your legs straight when you fold forward? Wherever you are in your practice, understanding the relationship of your spine in forward folds is an important tool to keep your back healthy. This post will explore your spinal discs, why proper alignment in forward folds are important for your lower back and what a healthy forward fold means.
Understanding the discs of your spine
It's easy to see how disc injuries can happen with a little bit of understanding about the spine. The spinal column is made of bony vertebrae, which surround and protect the spinal cord. Each vertebrae is separated by a flexible disc that acts as a shock absorber, protecting the bony parts of your spine from your day to day activities. A good analogy for your discs would be a water balloon. They have a strong outer layer (annulus fibrosis) and a gel-like center (nucleus pulposis). If you press on one side of a water balloon, the water is forced to the other side, very similarly to how the nuclei do in your discs. They're squeezed at different angles depending on the position of your spine. No need to be alarmed here, this keeps your discs healthy. Movement, when done with proper alignment, can be amazingly beneficial for the health of your spine.
The problems start when we put excessive pressure on our discs, for example in a forced forward bend. These problems are exasperated when we do these motions frequently throughout the week, i.e. your yoga practice. This extra pressure can result in the tough annulus that surrounds the disc to stretch or even tear, allowing the disk wall to bulge out towards the nerves of your spine, which can happen abruptly or gradually from simple deterioration over time. Disc injuries (i.e. bulging or herniated discs) can be debilitating and long lasting, making them important ones to actively avoid.
Why are we so susceptible to back injuries in forward folds?
You can think of your spine as a long lever with most of the leverage coming from the lower part (lumbar spine), which is where the most mobile vertebrae are located. As you go down your spine, more and more stress is placed on the vertebrae, from more mobility and more weight to bear. This is why this portion of your spine is especially susceptible to injury, with the lowest lumbar vertebrae the most commonly injured, followed by the second lowest. While your spine can bend backwards and to the side, forward bends are the most likely bend to injure your discs, especially when combined with a twist. In back bends, while the nucleus shifts forward, bulging of the disc is prevented by a strong ligament that the walls of each disc run against. In side bends, it's harder to physically bend far enough to do damage. In contrast, in forward folds the nucleus can shift back freely with very little resistance, with only a weak and narrow ligament to protect the discs from bulging straight back. Here, the discs can still bulge diagonally back towards the spinal nerve, especially when we add in a twist. While gravity offers a bit of relief to our spinal discs in standing forward folds, seated forward folds pose the greatest risk when done with poor alignment.
Healthy Forward Folds
Unless the hamstrings are flexible enough to allow the pelvis to tilt forward and the spine to stay neutral when we fold forward, forward folds will be pretty bad for your lumbar discs if they're not modified. Here, your lower back will be pulled into flexion. Combine that flexion with the added pressure of gravity in seated forward folds, your lumbar discs are probably not going to fare well. Whether just sitting upright or bending forward, the position of the pelvis is crucial for keeping a healthy back.
How do you know if you should modify your forward fold? When your seated on the ground, if your unable to tilt your pelvis forward to keep a slight inward curve of your lower back, you should modify your forward fold (and seated position). Keeping the integrity in your lower back requires a significant amount of hamstring flexibility, which most people don't have right away. So what should you do? Bend your knees! This is a really simple modification that will allow your pelvis to tilt forward to get your spine into a neutral position. The focus should be on lengthening your spine, practicing at the appropriate intensity to do so. Keeping your spine long means that you'll allow more space between the vertebrae, ultimately reducing the pressure you put on your discs. There's no need to have a picture perfect pose at the end of the day, especially when forcing that position may be causing injury. Every body is different. While most people come to admire the deep folds that we see in yoga magazines, it's important strive for the pose that works for your body rather than someone else's. In forward folds, take the focus off reaching your feet and keeping your legs straight to keeping your spine elongated and building stability and balance in your own body. With the appropriate alignment, forward bends should be therapeutic for your lower back rather than damaging.