Like many people, I have developed a weakness at the base of my spine precisely where the lowest vertebra of the lumbar spine, L5, meets the first vertebra of the sacrum, S1.
Many people experience pain at this intersection, where the flexible lumbar vertebrae curves up and back, and the inflexible, fused sacral vertebrae curve down and forward. When this structure becomes overstressed, the disc between the vertebrae gets compressed, or squished, and bulges out, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve and causing pain. When severely stressed, the disc herniates, or protrudes outside of the spine. Fortunately, my disc has not yet degenerated to that point. Nevertheless, my disc had degenerated enough to make it hard for me to bend forward, to walk, and to stand.
As luck would have it, this condition flared up during the year in which I trained to become a yoga teacher. At first I could not figure out why I could not relax comfortably in Shavasana or move into and out of Virabhadrasana without extreme pain. After ten years of pushing myself in yoga practice, I had to pull way back and accept the limitations of my body. I consulted a physiatrist, who sent me to a very good physical therapist, and took a break from all forward bending for two months.
All the forward bends that I thought were so good for my spine were actually worsening my condition, because the movement encouraged the disc between L5 and S1 to bulge out further. In addition, other muscles in my core began tighten up as they overcompensated for the weakness at the base of my spine. My psoas muscles, which runs from the middle point of the spine over in front of the sacrum and down to the femurs, the large thigh bone, were overly consctricted and working like a tight rubber band that bent me forward at the base of my spine. Furthermore, deep in my back musculature, the quadratus lumborum that run from the top of the lumbar spine down to the sacrum, were also overly tight. In consultation with my physical therapist, I developed a yoga sequence to release these muscles, strengthen my abdominals, and regain some of the flexibility I had lost.
For the first two weeks I did nothing more than simple press-ups, a variation on Bhujangasana, or cobra, in which you press your arms into the mat until they are straight, raising the chest and hips but leaving the legs on the mat while releasing all muscles in the buttocks. I still begin every session with ten repetitions of this simple back-opener.
For weeks three and four I tightened my abdominal muscles with uddiyana and mula bhanda locks as often as possible–especially when moving from a seated to a standing position, or while seated and standing. Basically: all the time.
Here is the sequence I started with. It helps me a lot. A word of caution: if you have severe back pain due to sciatia, a herniated or degenerated disc, please do not practice these exercises without consulting your physician or physical therapist.
Also, as always in yoga, let pain be your guide. If you begin to feel an intense, burning or cutting pain, immediately cease what you are doing. Seek sthira and sukkha, discipline and sweetness, a balance between exertion and ease, in every asana.
Bhujangasana variation. 10x. Lying face down on floor, bring your hands along the body just beneath your shoulders. Press your palms against the mat to lift your chest and hips up, keeping your buttock muscles loose.
Benefits of bhujangasana: strengthens and stretches the spine, opens chest and shoulders, relieves pain from sciatica and herniated discs.
Shalabasana (Locust) 4x Lying face down on the mat with arms along the body. Strongly pulling your shoulder blades together, lift your chest and thighs off the mat, lengthening the crown of the head away from the feet and the feet away from the body. Hold here for three breaths.
Benefits of Shalabasana: Strenthens the lumbar spine; helps the psoas muscle to release, posterior hip and thigh muscles, opens the shoulders and chest.
Dhanruasana (Bow) 3x Lie face down on the floor. Bend knees and grasp ankles, one at a time. Pull your chest and thighs up while squeezing shoulder blades together. Hold for three breaths.
Benefits of Dhanurasana: stretches the psoas, flexes the lumbar quadratus, strengthens the spine, opens shoulders, chest and throat.
In between each pose, Rest in a passive neck stretch–bringing your head all the way to the floor, turned, alternately to the left and right, for three full breaths.
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge)3x From a supine position on your back, bend your knees and bring your heels towards your hips, keeping the feet hip-width apart. Lift your hips by pressing your upper back against the floor and lengthening the stomach and spine. Tuck your shoulders underneath your back and grasp your fingers together. Release your buttocks muscles and hold yourself here by pushing your feet against the floor. Hold for 3 or 4 breaths. Exit by unclasping the fingers and slowly lowering the spine to the floor, one vertebrae at a time.
Benefits of Setu Bandhasana: strengthens middle and upper spine, stretches psoas; relieves low back tightness. It also may alleviate symptoms of depression by increasing circulation to the thyroid gland.