One day, early in my teaching career, a woman came to class complaining of lower back pain. She said that the discomfort was either from running (her chosen form of exercise) or from picking up and carrying her 2-year-old son.
I asked, “Have you tried breathing into your lower back?”
She looked at me as if I had two heads and said, “How the heck does one breathe into their lower back?” I had her get into child’s pose, a wonderfully restorative position. I placed my hand on her lower back and told her to lengthen her exhalations and to feel her lower belly filling during her inhalation. I suggested that while filling with air she allow her abdominal muscles to fully release and to watch for a simultaneous sensation of release in her lower back. I told her that she would begin to feel her lower back round up into the palm of my hand.
Soon enough she began to feel the movement in her lower back muscles and was amazed to discover that breathing into her lungs could create a much needed relaxation so deep down in her body. As a teacher of mind/body awareness, moments like these are the most gratifying. I had given this woman a way to undo tension that she would be able to use again and again in her life. Who hasn’t found their lower back in a bind from time to time?
How is it that the muscles of our lower back can be released through the breath? The answer lies in our anatomical design. The diaphragm muscle, the main muscle of breathing, has a connection, through accessory muscles, to the fourth and fifth vertebrae of the lumbar spine known as L4 and L5. The diaphragm muscle is shaped like a jellyfish. Picture a jellyfish, with all those tissue-like sheaths draping down from its dome. The accessory muscles of your dome-shaped diaphragm are like those sheaths, and they attach to muscles at the front of your hips and lower back. When we learn to allow for the full, free movement of our diaphragm, we allow for movement and release in other parts of our body.
We create discomfort in our lower backs in many ways: standing for long periods of time or sitting at our desks with poor posture. For instance, when we neglect being mindful during rigorous activity or exercise or when a stressful situation triggers our fight or flight response. Whatever the cause, it is helpful to know how to use the breath as a resource for relief and healing. Don’t be discouraged if it takes time to access release through breathing; it will happen eventually, and it is an invaluable tool for de-stressing. Making these connections between breath and body heightens sensitivity and prompts us to take better care of ourselves. Utilizing restorative postures such as child’s pose, and knowing how to apply breath, is a great way to eliminate tension and makes us less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress.