Notes on a Healthy Lower Back

Lower back trouble runs in my family; my father had several back operations and all my siblings have had difficulty here. I am by no means a medical professional, but through my studies of body movement as it relates to human development, I have come to believe that many back difficulties are primarily a cultural problem, stemming from our habits of unhealthy movement, mostly in terms of sitting (more about that in a moment).

In my experience the best exercise systems you can use to take care of your back are T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Yoga and
FlexAware. In terms of specific exercises, and movements, squatting and lying on the floor can work wonders, and yawning and stretching is wonderful stuff (with more and more research coming out on it all the time; search for “pandiculation”). In terms of remedial movement, the Egoscue method has helped many people I know and I consider Pete Egoscue’s book “Pain Free” to be indispensable.

I’ve found that as long as I am keeping up my daily T'ai Chi practice, I can avoid lower back trouble. (T’ai Chi offers scores of other benefits as well, too numerous to list, and even after enjoying it for a few decades I'm always finding more.) Yoga helps in a different way, helping me to find the little corners of the body where I'm holding all kinds of gunk, and allowing it to be released. FlexAware improves range of motion and alignment, and coaxes tight muscles, ligaments and tendons to relax. The principles that all of these methods use are to always stay within your range of comfort, never push yourself hard, and to cultivate awareness and relaxation within the gentle effort of movement.

Squatting is how most people in indigenous cultures hang out: cooking, working, conversing, having tea, etc. Years ago when I was pregnant for the first time, a friend's mom, who was also an anthropologist, told me to start squatting and to do it as much as I could. I took her advice, which was a challenge at first, but soon I was squatting comfortably for several minutes at a time. This yielded immense benefit during labor and delivery. (I delivered both of my children while squatting on the floor and at each hospital was the first person ever to do so). Watch a very young child. Look at photographs of people around the world in traditional settings. Squatting is healthy and natural for humans, and it’s great for the lower back.

Lying on the floor, or on the ground outside, does a body more good than I can comprehend, much less relate. For your back, lower, upper and middle, it can really work wonders. It’s no surprise that much of Yoga and FlexAware practice, and many of Egoscue’s exercises are done while lying on the floor.

Healthy sitting:

People of cultures who do yoga and seated meditation went through the process of figuring out sustainable sitting centuries ago, so we don’t really have to repeat the effort. Many meditation books offer guidance on healthy sitting.

One healthy way to sit involves getting the angle of the pelvis is just right so that the weight of the body transfers to ground through our “sit bones” (ischial tuberosities) and the spine feels as if it’s effortlessly floating up. This is easier to do if you’re sitting at the front edge of a straight chair or have a rolled up towel on the chair seat, preferably with your hips a little higher than your knees, and in such a way that the legs and feet are bearing a bit of the body’s weight. If you’re straining or making yourself rigid in order to sit upright, try adjusting something, starting with the hips. Play with this; where can you find a good balance of alignment, effortlessness and flow?

Useful strategies

Regular chairs
Reston, VA Alexander Teacher and Tea Master Elliot Mitchnick taught me that propping up the back legs of a straight chair can change the angle of the seat enough to help the pelvis find the angle described above. You can use two books of equal thickness or blocks of wood. Elliot sometimes uses one piece of wood long enough to go under both back legs of the chair.

Alternatively, you can adjust the seat of a straight chair by folding a chair cushion in half and sliding it to the back edge, where the seat meets the back of the chair. You may also try a rolled up towel or tablecloth in this spot. Experiment!

After you find a good way to support the pelvis, you can check on the legs and feet. Some chair seats dip in the back, creating a front edge that “cuts” under the thighs (creates a line of pressure across the thighs), impeding free circulation in the legs. Try to counteract and eliminate this pressure point through the adjustments mentioned above. It’s also helpful to sit with the feet and the knees hip-width apart and to have the feet flat on the ground and pointing straight out (as seen from an imaginary line straight through the middle of the foot).

You may also use these techniques to find a good position for meditating in a chair.

In the Car
Someday car seating will make sense for the body. In the meantime, Washington DC Occupational Therapist, and Feldenkrais and Alexander teacher Anne McDonald taught me to place a rolled towel on the car seat where the seat meets the back. This can help a lot on long drives particularly, but I now keep a towel here all the time.

Other Ways of Sitting
Get on the floor! I could go on for pages about how good it is for us to spend time on the floor and ground, but I’ll save that for a later spew. For now, just try to spend at least a few minutes a day on the floor. Roll around. Stretch. Have fun. Enjoy experiencing ground.

Seiza may be translated from the Japanese as “correct sitting.” Do a google search to see how people sit seiza and to find seiza benches. You can sit seiza by just sitting down directly on your calves, with your feet out behind you, but this can be difficult for people who are unused to it. To make seiza sitting more approachable, put a pad or a folded blanket under your knees and shins, and place a large pillow between your legs (with your knees are a bit apart--a meditation cushion works well for this) or on top of the backs of your ankles (with knees are together). You can also try a seiza bench.

Experiment with the wonderful world of alternative seating. Visit a store which specializes in things to keep backs healthy and try everything out. In particular, look for Balans chairs and chairs which use large inflated exercise balls as a seat.

Helpful References:
The Chair by Galen Cranz
Carolina Morning Designs has great products and articles:
Pain Free by Pete Egoscue
Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken
Instructions for building your own seiza bench, and for making a meditation cushion may be found at :