One can modify the breath to lengthen the lower back in a safe and effective manner to reduce compression of the lumbar discs.
Basic Breathing Mechanics
In yoga, breathing can be manipulated in many ways depending on one's intention: to energise, to relax, to concentrate, or to stretch. For our purpose to lengthen the lower back, natural diaphragmatic breathing will have zero effect. Increasing the volume of the breath to include thoracic and clavicular breathing can provide some increased force to lengthen, but it requires important modifications to provide the optimum stretch for the lower back. So, let's first look at the three breathing processes that affect lung volume:
In its relaxed state, the diaphragm muscle rests in a dome-like shape separating the abdominal and thoracic cavities. When the diaphragm contracts, it exerts a downward pressure on the abdominal organs, forcing the abdomen forward since the spine prevents the organs from moving back. As the diaphragm moves down, lung volume increases but pressure decreases in relation to atmospheric pressure, so an inhalation takes place to balance out the pressure.
On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes back up into its dome-like shape reducing volume and increasing pressure in relation to atmospheric pressure, so an exhalation takes place to balance out the pressure.
Abdominal breathing accounts for approximately 75% of breathing capacity.
External intercostal muscles between ribs are responsible for separating the ribs to create more volume, less pressure, facilitating inhalation. Internal intercostal muscles between ribs are responsible for depressing and retracting the ribs to reduce volume, increase pressure, facilitating exhalation.
Thoracic breathing accounts for approximately 20+% of breathing capacity.
Clavicular breathing involves the lifting of the clavicle bones along with the shoulders to draw breath in the upper regions of the pear-shaped lungs.
It accounts for a small percentage of breathing capacity.
Full Yogic Breathing
Full yogic breathing utilises all three breathing processes (abdominal, thoracic and clavicular) to reach vital lung capacity to enhance vitality and to affect consciousness. However, if the objective is to use the internal pressure created by breathing to lengthen the lower back, it is necessary to modify full yogic breathing.
Breathing Exercise for the Lower Back
Most lower back conditions result from compression of the lumbar vertebrae. In this exercise, our goal is to manipulate the breath to create pressure in such a way as to lengthen the lower back, safely and comfortably.
Lying on the floor with knees bent and feet on the floor, (1) we contract the pelvic floor muscles (the muscles between the sex organs and anus) as if sucking the pelvic floor up within the body, then (2) we pull in the lowest abdominal muscles as deeply as possible as if glueing the skin of the belly to the front of the lumbar spine. These two internal contractions stabilise the pelvis and lumbar vertebrae.
We next apply thoracic and clavicular breathing only. There is no abdominal breathing, because the abdomen remains pulled in to stabilise the pelvis and lumbar vertebrae.
Thoracic and clavicular breathing have the effect of lifting the ribcage up and away from the stabilised pelvis. There is one bony structure (the ribcage) moving away from another bony structure (the pelvis), thereby lengthening the space in-between - the lumbar vertebrae.
Many people find it difficult to restrict abdominal breathing. To verify, one hand can be placed on the side of the ribs and one hand on the belly. Only the hand on the ribs should move during inhalation.
It is very easy to regulate the amount of stretch one experiences by controlling the depth of the breath. If one doesn't feel any stretch on either side of the lumbar vertebrae, one has to breathe deeper to lift the ribcage even further from the pelvis. Conversely, one should not force beyond a comfortable lengthening of the spine. Forcing, even if just by the breath, will have the same deleterious consequences as forcing by any other means. However, with not so many moving parts and by stabilising the lumbar vertebrae, this is as safe a practice as they come, and with 8-12 breaths a minute, one can consciously stretch the lower back 30-60 times in 3-5 minutes effectively sculpting the lower back in a way that provides relief from a compressed state while taking as many breaks as necessary along the way.
Take a class
This breathing stretch is one of twenty-eight practice videos for the lower back now available as an iphone app. See a preview.