Chronic back pain has been a major contributor to the opioid epidemic, is a leading cause of missed workdays, and affects people’s quality of life. No one wants chronic back pain but do you know what having a healthy back entails? When I asked people I know, I usually got some combination of “strong” and “good posture”. Everyone knows an unhealthy back has some level of pain and dysfunction and wants to avoid that, but how do we protect ourselves from chronic pain and keep our back healthy? Today’s post is all about how to use aqua yoga for a healthy back.
How does aqua yoga contribute to a healthy back?
Your spine is meant to move in six base directions – flexion/extension, twist both directions, side bend both directions (1). Spinal movements can be combined in infinite variations but starting with the three planes of the body, these six are the basics. We do these six movements in every aqua yoga class. If you want to step back a minute here, and read more about aqua yoga in general first, read my Ultimate Guide to Aqua Yoga.
Through improving strength
Muscles work in pairs. When a muscle contracts, it’s called the agonist and is usually getting shorter to make movement in a joint happen. The antagonist is being asked to lengthen for that same joint to move. Running man shows this in action. His quads are shortening and contracting to move his leg forward and his hamstrings have to lengthen. The hamstrings will need to contract and the quads lengthen to bring the leg back.
What happens when one of these actions is happening with a lot of load? That’s what bodybuilders do – stress muscles selectively for a certain look. Repetitively performing actions, especially with poor form, can cause pain. When you’re overusing one set of muscles and not strengthening the opposing set, that can also turn into a painful condition over time.
How do these muscular principles apply in aqua yoga?
In aquatics, because we’re moving through the medium of water we use our agonists and antagonists in a much more balanced fashion.
We also get a much more balanced muscular response to work. That means we’re less likely to get muscular imbalances that contribute to the postural deviations below.
Through building body awareness
Is one of these postural variations where you live in your body?
Each variation has its own set of complications, but you can’t apply a solution when you don’t know the problem. Svadhyaya is learning about yourself through yoga. Your physical self, your emotional self, your intellectual self, all the layers of your being. When you practice aqua yoga and see where your mind wanders off to, or how your breath changes, or how your body reacts to the postures, you’re learning about yourself. All that data can be information you apply to changing how you use, and relate to your back. If you return to the standing posture graphic you could probably relate an emotional state to some of those postural variations. They each have a breath pattern. They each overload different muscles in various ways. Working on any of these elements will affect a change to the whole. The more you learn about yourself, the more opportunities you have to change, including how you use and relate to your back.
I believe these three main points are what contribute to aqua yoga giving you a healthy back.
- movement in all the planes of motion.
- balanced muscular effort.
- increasing your knowledge of yourself and changing the relationship you have with your body.
What does the research say about aqua yoga for a healthy back?
As always, my disclaimer is there is no published research on aqua yoga, so we have to infer research from related topics. According to the National Institute of Health, yoga is increasingly one option people use to manage back pain. Part of this increase in yoga’s use is due to both its low cost and it’s a low-risk intervention. Both those factors are contributing to the increase in yoga’s acceptance. Aqua yoga is especially low risk and is usually lower cost even when compared to land yoga due to a shortened class length. Hopefully, we’ll see more people take up the practice and research will catch up.
A Brazilian study showed pain improvements for people with non-specific low back after completing a deep water running program, compared to people who only participated in regular physician care. Deep water work has more cardio benefits for participants than aqua yoga. It is also no impact, so in the case of low back pain, there’s a strong correlation. Studies that compare land to aquatic exercise are important because people want to know is yoga better than other choices.
Aquatic exercise twice a week vs. three times per week doesn’t make a difference in patient reported quality of life. Never getting exercise compared to a regular program makes a huge difference and has been well documented elsewhere.
No one wants chronic back pain but do you have the tools to stay out of pain?
Because I get so many requests for back health and because there are so few resources for aqua yoga I’ve created two new sequences specifically focused on back work.
They are available as laminated sequences or audio downloads.
I hope if you have back pain you’re encouraged to try aqua yoga with the support of your health care team. If you currently think your back is in great shape, congratulations, and I hope you use aqua yoga as a source of continued back health. Wishing you a healthy back!
Sources for anatomy images