Stop killing your back! Warm-Up Vinyasa for your spine.

It's cold in Colorado right now (January) and going into a warm yoga studio sounds like heaven. I try to arrive early so my body can soak-up the ambient heat. In fact, Hot Yoga studios depend on the warmth to create a more flexible physical state so as to deepen the experience. It is common knowledge that heat = more flexibility. I often relate our muscles to rubber bands - if you freeze a rubber band it will warp/break when stretched. But what happens if you twist that rubber band first? It will micro-tear/shatter.

I read instructors bio's when I have a chance and usually try to go to instructors who have an anatomy background - strictly for safety sake. But moreover, especially when taking from a new-to-me instructor, I have a warm-up ritual, a no-injury vinyasa for my spine.

Don't get me wrong, recent studies show that warm-up muscle stretching is bad for the body. This is true. I am not talking about pre-workout muscle stretching. Muscles need to be activated for joint stability prior to exercise, not put into a state of inhibition or compensatory memory. I am talking about optimal joint preparedness, ligament and tendon priming. Additionally, we need to activate the co-contraction of our inner core and the multifidious muscles. These help separate the vertebrae one from the other, creating space for twisting safely.

We all have an inner-monologue before, during and after a yoga class, some times self-depriciation, sometimes adjudication of others, and I would venture that you or the person next to you is thinking warm-up practitioners are just "showing-off" and I am not saying there isn't a bit of "look at me" going on, but if you tip over the age of 40 and really know your body, that pre-practice practice is all self-preservation against injury!

Why did I implement my warm-up asana practice? I cannot count how many times I go into a class and they start with a seated spinal twist, often with a cue to keep your hips even and parallel. This is setting you up for back pain, shoulder pain and neck pain or worse back, shoulder and/or neck injury.

Why...because on a very mechanical level your spine must extend and flex before it can rotate.

This is such common knowledge that simple scientific papers assume kinesiologists know this must happen and don't even bother writing it into papers. Therefore, in order to help your students gain proper joint mobility it is imperative that you flex before you twist the spine.

When an instructor fails to mobilizes extension and flexion of the vertebrae prior to rotation (twisting first), it's like fingers on a chalkboard to your vertebrae, forcing one vertebrae past the other, they'll do it but not without friction ...errrrrratchhhh...

Below I have listed my no nonsense warm-up series:

Sit on a block, take 3-5 pranayama breaths, notice the movement of your shoulder blades. Exhale fully and hold your exhale for a count of 4. Notice the contraction of the ribcage.

Move into table, start with cat/cow - 3 rounds, then C-shape the spine right and left.

Child's pose with arms extended, elbows bent for comfort, and rock through shoulders, breathe

Return to table, extend right leg and sweep to the side, inhale extend arm to the sky with a spinal rotation, thread the needle, repeat left side (leg can also stay in table for traditional thread-the-needle)

Return to table, downward facing dog with bent knees, 3 breaths, walk dog and notice shoulders (take for only a short while if shoulders are uncomfortable)

Step forward into Uttanasana/forward-fold and drape for rag-doll, knees bent to unload the sacrum, stay here for a little while, notice the gravity pull on your vertebrae in this inversion.

Rise for Tadasana, support yourself and bend knees as you roll up, three breaths, notice the inhale and exhale, hold the exhales for 4 counts.

Hopefully you will now be ready for whatever your teacher twists you into.


A good reading source for the spine: