I’ve been wanting to write this article for a while, but hesitated because I had a REALLY hard time finding images to illustrate my point. Given that I’m not an anatomical artist, that was a serious limiting factor. Then I found this great article at gutstength.com. It covers other stresses than just torsion, too. Plus excellent diagrams.
Our bodies can take all sorts of force.
In fact they are designed to, to some extent. It’s only a problem when the force applied is greater than the body can take, and that is determined by your individual body (and especially the state of your skeleton).
If you have osteoporosis, for example, you are going to want to be much more careful with your bones. Same thing if the curves of your spine are altered, for example you have developed an excessive hunch in your upper back from 20 years at a computer.
All yoga practice is about your spine: if you have a healthy back, you will be healthier. Your nerves will run freely up and down your spinal column, you won’t get muscular tension from poor posture. And you will be more able to resist outside forces on your body.
I want to talk about two forces today: torsion, or twisting, and loading.
Loading, simply put, is applying weight. If you bend your spine forward, then hang your arms in front of you, that is loading. If there is a heavy box in your arms while you do that, that is quite possibly a messed up lower back about to happen.
There’s a reason good lifting technique has you do the work with your legs, a straight back, and engaged core. Repeated loading and unloading of the lumbar spine is how countless people end up with a bad back. I feel that we should just avoid it. You can move your spine in that way, but on hands and knees so your arms are holding you up rather than loading you down. And once you have a damaged lumbar spine, you are unlikely to ever find that movement comfortable.
Torsion is twisting. Our thoracic spines (basically the area of the spine associated with your ribcage) are designed to twist. However, if the vertebrae are compromised or compressed, you will have much less room to twist before everything gets jammed up.
Our lower backs (lumbar spines) are not really designed to twist much. If we try to twist more than we honestly can, and ESPECIALLY if we yank ourselves into those twists using our arms, the result is torsion on the bones. If you have bones spurs or other issues in those bones, that twisting can result in fractures. More about that tomorrow.
See the great illustration?
This brings me to the perfect storm that is loaded torsion.
Quoting again from the excellent people over at gutstrength.com:
Torsional loading, which we usually just call torsion, is when forces acting on a structure cause a twist about its longitudinal axis. This is what happens in your spine when you twist your body from side to side, for instance. When you bend laterally to pick up on object in one hand there is a bit of torsion going on in the spine. Likewise when you carry something heavy in one hand. Among sports, golf is one big fit of spinal torsion. The stresses that occur during torsion are much more complex and hard to measure, including shear, compressive, and tensile stress. Anatomically, due to the facet joint orientation, the lumbar spine is more susceptible to torsion than the thoracic which has more tolerance to twisting. The cervical spine, or the head-neck area, which has no intervertebral discs, may be quite vulnerable.
Perfect storm people. Yoga injury 101.
This Parsvottonasana is loaded because the lower back is rounded and the arms aren’t resting anywhere to support some of the load. With one leg forward and the other is back, there is almost certainly also torsion going on, because of the asymmetry.
Pretty much all of us carry one shoulder or hip higher than the other, and most of us have a rotation in our spines too, either from how we use our bodies or how we developed. Which means every time we bend forward in a squiffy way, there a bit of torsion going on.
That’s why I strongly object to loading a forward bend, ever. You don’t know whether there is something wrong in your spine, until you have pain. I speak from experience.
Forward bends can bring great relief to the tight muscles of the back and hips, you just need to do them RIGHT: keep your lower back lengthening, don’t go too far forward. You might check out this tutorial as well.
It’s also a very good idea to learn from a well-trained, competent yoga teacher, especially if you already know you have issues that might flare up.