The math would reveal that I have done over 100,000 spinal adjustments over 18 years in chiropractic practice. To me, yoga and chiropractic complement each other like syrup on pancakes, or cilantro in fresh salsa, if you prefer a lower fat pairing analogy. Sometimes, things are just better together.
Spinal health, or the health of any joint in the body, depends upon motion. All joints must move through a particular plane with relative ease. The more restricted the motion of a joint, the less motion is allowed, thus decreasing the health of that joint. Think of joints like two plates (representing bone surfaces) sitting on top of one another with a thick layer of grape jelly between them. Imagine how easily those two surfaces could slide around on top of each other and how they would essentially stick together because of the surface tension of the viscous jelly. That concept would represent a healthy joint: two surfaces moving easily in all directions with opposing surfaces smoothly articulating.
Now, imagine wrapping those same plates in a giant balloon or latex type of material that is strong with elastic properties that apply equal pressure on all sides holding the two plates together even more. The latex represents a joint capsule. In a best case scenario the joint would stay together this way for life, healthy and happy. However, joints are subject to life forces. They endure the forces of injuries, repetitive stress, poor posture, imbalanced muscles structure, and many other disease processes. To keep it simple, when the forces change, the joint will no longer have a happy, healthy environment.
It is easier to comprehend how injuries damage a joint than to understand how subtle changes wear out joints over time. For example, it is easier to see the sudden hurt of a marital affair than, perhaps, it is to see the slow process of growing apart over time. Like marriage, our physiology is complicated. For example, an old whiplash injury may have damaged the ligaments and muscles on the front of the spine and resulted in an altered motion pattern and scar tissue. That tissue change effects the overall health and motion of the cervical spine immediately and usually with premature arthritis.
Sometimes when there is dysfunction there is pain, and sometimes not. Injuries heal in phases. Constant poor posture, slumping and slouching are other culprits of how deconditioning and unequal forces strain joints. When muscles get tight on one side of a joint and loose on the other side, an imbalance occurs that slowly and surely begins to damage the joint surfaces over time. This results in degenerative arthritis forming in and around the articulating bony surfaces.
As human beings we like cause and effect because we can often relate better if we can see an immediate effect to our actions. Unfortunately, most back pain is not the result of an incident as much as it is the weakening of the structures prior to the incident. That is why yoga is as much prevention as it is related to the long term improvement. Notice that I did not say cure because it just doesn’t work that way. “Pain free” does not mean “well” any more than a smiling couple indicates marital bliss.
To be healthy, you must move your joints through full ranges of motion. You must do all you can to improve and sustain good posture, core strength, and body awareness. Yoga as a practice moves the body through these necessary ranges of motion. The poses and transitions strengthen the muscles surrounding joint surfaces and improve body awareness. There are many great poses to improve back and joint health, but more important is to have a regular practice of healthy movement. A regular yoga practice supports healthy joints. Almost any style of yoga practice that respects healthy joint motion and integrity is a step in the right direction. A good pose for one person may be the wrong pose for another. Some people are hypermobile (their ligaments are too loose) and thus yoga requires more strength and the awareness to back away from deep poses that create joint strain. Other folks are stiff and a difficult yoga pose may create such a challenge for a student that in their efforts to achieve a posture they sacrifice the alignment at another joint rather than respecting their personal limits. Yoga, first and foremost, needs to respect your personal joint structure and physiology on any given day.
After a long career evaluating joint motion I can strongly say that your yoga is more important to your body, your health, and your limits than is any particular pose or type of yoga practice. I have seen more benefits related to posture, balance, spinal strengthening and stability in yoga than any other physical exercise program. I am not discounting other sports, therapies or activities at all! I am simply stating that the body awareness, the mindfulness of movement, and the movement of yoga itself lends itself to joint stability and healthy mobility. As a chiropractor, this is my ultimate goal: to help back and other joint conditions heal, stabilize and reduce as much future wear and tear as possible. To me, yoga is as good for backs as gravy is for mashed potatoes. The perfect coupling.
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