How to Educate and Improve Your Lower Back*
Causes of Lower-Back Problems
Many people—especially women—experience lower-back problems. Such problems can result from heels on shoes, improper lifting of heavy objects, overweight, and copying adults with poor posture when very young.
Shoes. Heels on shoes lift the backs of the legs, causing the body to tilt forward. To compensate, the top of the body must lean backward, thus accentuating the lumbar curve of the spine (“swayback”). In the mid 1970s, I made my first pair of shoes (my feet are so wide that even the widest store-bought shoes will not fit). In those days, I thought that heels were a necessity, so I glued on heels. When one of the heels came off, I decided to remove the other heel. It took me months to get used to no heels, but I noticed a resultant lengthening of my Achilles tendon and hamstrings. Since then, I have worn no heels except when it snows, and then I wear store-bought boots with heels. Now, I find that heels are very uncomfortable, and I can feel that they throw off the alignment of my whole body. My recommendation: Wear shoes with the thinnest heels. Many people wear kung-fu slippers, which are widely available (Asian World of Martial Arts) and have no heels or arches (built-in arches are another unnecessary feature).
The adverse postural effects of heels on shoes. Note how the pelvis is thrust forward, causing the curve of the lower back to be accentuated. Also, the front of each foot is bent upward, and most of the pressure is on the ball of the foot rather than distributed over all the weight-bearing regions of the sole.
An Exercise for Reeducating Your Use of Your Lower Back
You will need a pillow and a small towel. The height of the pillow should be such that, when you lie on your back with your head on the pillow, your cervical spine is in its optimal alignment. Roll up the towel. Lie on the floor with the towel under your lower back and your head on the pillow. Start by surrendering to gravity, relaxing every part of your body. Relaxation is essential to achieving an awareness of what parts are involved in activating a movement. Next, gently press your lower back into the towel by using the muscles around that area of the spine. Only a tiny amount of movement is necessary. There may be a tendency to use other parts such as your lower abdomen, pelvis, legs, etc. However, the goal is to use only the muscles that are involved. If you habitually accentuate the curve in your lower back, this problem stems from your lack of awareness that you are over-using these muscles, so the object is to gain this awareness. After a while, try lifting your lower back away from the pillow slightly. Then try arching your spine to one side and then the other slightly.
When you feel that you want to stop, roll over onto one side, and, using your arms, come up sideways to a sitting position. This way of rising off the floor minimizes tensing the muscles around the spine and jumping back to your habitual way of using those muscles. Then slowly come up to standing, and feel your whole body. It is also useful to recreate that heavy feeling you get after taking a hot bath.
It may take some time to learn how to move your lumbar spine independently, but once you have learned to do so, you will become aware of habitual tension in that region and have the tools to release that tension.
See related article: Alignment
See related article: Robert Chuckrow’s Stretching Routine
*Adapted from Robert Chuckrow, Tai Chi Walking, YMAA Publication Center, Wolfeboro, NH, .
©Copyright 2009 by Robert Chuckrow
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