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By Nick Potenzieri

Nick began the study of yoga in 2001 and has been fascinated by the practice and its teachings ever since. In 2005 he began teaching, received a certification from Sri Dharma Mitra in 2008, and most recently in 2019, completing the Teacher Education program at the Iyengar Institute of New York where he continues to apprentice and study with Senior Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Matt Dreyfus.

Location: OYH Yoga Studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn
Classes: The Aligned ONE

1. What are some common activities in daily life that lead to back problems? Any advice on how to switch up your routine?

Living will give you a back problem. It’s true. We all bend over to pick things up (got kids?), we all carry heavy things (Trader Joe’s anyone?) and we all love to dance, ski, swim, hike, drive, cook…everything that requires the involvement of your whole body has the potential to give you back a problem.. Living a full life puts a demand on the body.

For me this puts into perspective the fact, once told by a physician, that everyone has some kind of spinal issue. So realistically the potential is always there for something to go awry. Yet the body is a marvel, and seems to be able to compensate in so many wonderful ways that will often keep us symptom free. Until it doesn’t.

Daily activities, where repetitive movements occur, might cause those issues to crop up. Simple changes in HOW YOU DO what you do can be very helpful. If you shovel snow in the winter, change up which way you hold the shovel. If you wear a back, get one that goes over both shoulders. If you favor your right side, on any activity, balance it out with movement on the left side. Balancing movement in all activities is key.

In addition, being sedentary for long stretches can be a problem as well. So when you sit at the computer all day get up and move a little. One key factor is to sense a problem BEFORE IT becomes a problem. Which is a very yogic concept. To see issues before they happen. In addition, to do things in moderation, regardless of the activity, and in a balanced way can be vital to your personal well being. Unless you’re in pain, keep your routines. Live the life you want to live but add in things that support that life. That is what yoga and so many other nourishing practices are for.

2. If we must spend the majority of our time sitting (or in other not so great activities) what are some lifestyle changes that can enhance a healthy back or complementary yoga postures to provide relief?

If you spend too much time sitting you have to do 2 things. As I already mentioned, you must get up and move, and move regularly. Stretch your arm over head, behind your back, get up and go for walks, clean the fridge, sweep the floor. Just do something to break up the monotony. It will reinvigorate your body and refresh your mind. I know someone who takes conference calls doing power’s walks in prospect park. What a great thing!

When you sit, your body is basically in a forward bend for all that time. Hip flexors get tight, hamstrings shrink and lower back become stiff and weak. For those who sit down for long periods of time, and who among us doesn’t, need to practice backward extensions (or back bends). The body needs to open up in the opposite direction. Restorative back arches are great. When the body is supported in restorative poses, both relaxation and a gentle opening can occur at the same time. It can be very refreshing.

3. Are there specific yoga poses or sequences recommended for back pain relief?

To some level, all poses are good for back pain relief. They can help provide balance, stretch, and strength to one degree or another. It is HOW you practice them that matters. You lessen the rage of motion, increase the space you make within then pose or stay in poses longer to give time for space and openings to happen. That last point is key. People often say I do this or that for my back, which is great. The thing to look at is how long did you do that thing? And did it work? Was it effective?

There has to be some way of sensing if what your doing is giving you the result you’re looking for. Find out what works and what doesn’t without causing any further problems.

4. What are common patterns within the yoga practice that can potentially exacerbate back issues / cause them to develop? What are ways to modify or be aware of to avoid?

The foundation of one’s yoga practice needs to be strong and well formed.

Any issues that would crop up would come from a foundational aspect of the body or the pose are compromised. Form first should be the motto. When looking for patterns in one’s practice, start by looking at the base of the pose. Find out if there is STABILITY then ease can come. In any yoga pose you practice the basic position of your arms and legs will give you great understanding of the shape and direction of the pose. Often the ego gets involved to try and take things further and deeper.

Unfortunately, when this happens we lose sight of what is keeping us steady.

With regards to modifying you have to go by the first rule of yoga, which is to do no harm. So If there is pain, don’t do it. So many students want to “manage” what’s going on and just keep going. That is once again the egos approach and so understandable because we are all human.

Also, when you attend class don’t keep the issue to yourself. The first modification to make is that when you go to class TELL YOUR TEACHER what’s going on. Ask them for modifications. Teachers want to help, that’s why they are there.

5. Should I focus more on stretching or strengthening exercises for my back pain?

In part this depends on the particular part of the back you’re working with. A good guide would be to apply the yoga principle of balance. If an area is weak it needs strength and stability. If an area is hard or overworked, then it needs softness, ease and the ability to create space. That’s why yoga asanas are so amazing because both stability and ease are always a play with each other, thus providing a guide to what needs to be applied where. Yoga poses need to be utilized as a tool that can be applied to the body, not just an activity to do.

Also, when working on back pain, address the whole back. If you have a lower back issue, work on your upper back as well and vice versa. They are often very related.

6. We’ve probably all experienced tension in the back and neck muscles from time to time. Are there ways to proactively release these muscles before the need for a massage?

First thing you can do is to address the issues before they arise, sense the red flags sooner as we often don’t notice them.

For the lower back 1. Put your back on the floor. 2. Let your back rest on the floor. 3 Let yourself be on the floor in a way that soothes you as well as letting your back settle your back. Before any practice you do, massages included, the body needs to rest first.

For the neck you have to address the arms and shoulders first. Most try to treat the neck by moving the neck. You must move your arms to open your shoulders, connect to the upper back and create space in the chest. Simple things like taking the arms over the head and behind the back to extend and lengthen. Keep the shoulders mobile and functional.

Also seated twists of any kind are great to relieve stiffness, misalignments in the back in general as well as open the breath.

7. Have you personally experienced back pain? Are you inspired by personal experience to share this information? Can you share a little of your experience?

I have two collapsed discs, one in my cervical spine and one in my lumbar spine. When they were diagnosed, I was told they had been there for a long time. They were something I had done in my teenage years but never became problematic until later in life. I personally think it may have had to do with going backflips during high school in the parking lot of the local Dennys. But who knows? I began yoga in my 30s which is one reason why I believe they were not a problem for so long. When they finally began to give me pain it was my yoga practice that gave me tools to address them directly and recover from them quicker. This ability to deal with issues in my body through the practice of yoga has been such a gift to both my physical and mental wellness. I can breathe huge sighs of relief knowing how to apply what I have been taught by my teachers to my body in very practical and simple ways. I think that’s what I love the most about the practice, the simpler I am with my practice, the more direct and accessible the solutions are.


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