Five Steps to a Better Back in Ten Minutes

Ten minutes or less. Who can resist that? Often we look for a quick fix for pain, like a pill, a new office chair, or even surgery. On the other end of the spectrum, we start a meditation practice where enlightenment could take lifetimes. Or, somewhere in the middle, we train to get in better shape or run a race, which could take months. I think our attitude toward the endeavor is all about setting up expectations.

Moving toward health is somewhere in between a quick fix and lifetimes of practice. The hopeful, beautiful thing is that all nervous systems can learn, sense, and grow, even in ten minutes a day. With time and attention these short experiments yield lasting positive results. With the right approach, maybe even enlightenment.

1. Lie on the floor ten minutes a day

Make yourself comfortable and attend to the places where your flesh, muscles, and bones touch the floor. Practice doing nothing. It is a skill we rarely nurture, yet slowing down is vital for our health. In this position the vertebrae can rehydrate as the nervous system is reminded of yielding and letting go. This will save your sanity and back in more ways than you can imagine.

2. Rest your abdomen

For dynamic, vibrant human movement we need coordinated, balanced muscles in front and back. The spine must bend forward and backward. Excessive shortening of the abdominal muscles and constant pulling in of the abdomen will pull you down and forward, like a rubber band. This makes your back work harder to keep you upright. Often back and neck pain is exacerbated, rather than alleviated, by chronically shortened abdominal muscles. Fully actualized, safe human movement requires muscles to lengthen and shorten as life demands. Chronically shortened muscles corrupt neutrality and create tension.

To soften the abdomen and lengthen the back, lie on the floor and feel your spine for a moment. Note where it touches the floor. Roll a bath towel into a four-inch tube (more or less) and put it perpendicular to your spine under your sacrum so your pelvis is tilted and your tailbone is in the air. The towel is in the middle of the sacrum, not on the spine. Place your feet shoulder width apart and rest comfortably for five minutes, feeling the hip flexors let go, the belly rest from all its holding, the jaw soften, and the shoulders yield to the support of the floor. Slide the towel out after five minutes, more or less, and, if comfortable, rest flat for a minute. How does your spine feel now?

3. Slide the spine between the shoulders

We move our arms and shoulders around our spine all day long. What if we reversed it and moved the spine around the shoulders? Try this five-minute experiment.

Rest on your back and feel the spine for a moment. Then turn to lie on your front. Put your forehead down and interlace your hands behind the head, or put them on the top of the head with the pinkies on the floor. Whichever position you choose, be sure to hold the head fixed with your interlaced hands.

Bend your knees and gently tilt the lower legs to one side many times. Do not stretch or pull. Feel the spine and ribs slide relative to the fixed head, neck, and shoulders. Pause on the stomach, then gently do the other side. You may try going side to side as long as the head is fixed in the middle. Rest on your back and feel the spine. What changed?

4. Mediation for the neck and low back

The lumbar and cervical arch (low back and neck) have a lot to say to one another. Unfortunately, they often get stuck in a dysfunctional conversation that repeats in a feedback loop so neurotic we can't even hear it anymore. Take five minutes for this health-saving sequence.

(a) Round back

Sit on a flat chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Feel the sit bones. Gently round your back many times into a "C" shape and face the thighs. Feel how all 24 vertebrae round evenly. Make this very, very small. Listen to how much the low back rounds and match the rest of your spine to it. Use the eyes to trace a line down to the knees and up again as you round.

Now switch and round your back and lift your head many times. This means you drop the chest and lift the chin away from the throat at the same time. Look up toward the ceiling. Make this very small and slow. Soften the jaw and the breath.

Then return to rounding the back and neck together. Observe if it's easier.

(b) Arch back

Sit on a flat chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Feel the sit bones. Gently arch your back many times into a "C" shape and lift your face to the ceiling as you slightly protrude the belly. Make this very small, again modifying the movement to match the range of the low back. Use the eyes to trace a line upward.

Now arch your back and drop your head to your chest. Your chest will lift but your chin will drop to your chest. Look down to your knees as your belly protrudes a bit. Make this small and slow. Did I mention small and slow? This is not an exercise for your muscles, but for your brain, and it doesn't take much.Return to arching the back and neck together. Observe if it's easier.

Try arching and then rounding the whole spine in a slow, small movement, tracing a line with your eyes the whole time. Do not fix the eyes as it will inhibit movement.

This simple experiment, done with awareness and kindness, will keep you flexible, mobile, and balanced.

5. Elephant trunk elbows

Sit at a table with a smooth surface. Place one hand on the opposite shoulder and the forehead in the crook of the arm. Rest the elbow on the table. Begin to draw on the table with the elbow. Draw a word or a figure eight or some shape. Make it distinct as opposed to random. The whole shoulder girdle and upper back will have to move as the fulcrum for this movement is in the middle back. Allow the breathing to be soft. Do as big or as small a movement as you are comfortable doing, eventually making more refined movements as you bring finer motor skills to the spine.

Experiment with the other arm.

You can also fold your arms and put the head down on the forearms as you move both arms on the table. You can also vary the height of the table as that will change the place in your back from which you move.

Get up, walk around, feel the flexible upper back.