Rolling up from a standing forward bend can damage your spine121
Recently I’ve watched a video on YouTube by a popular yoga teacher and couldn’t help but wince every time she instructed her students to “roll up to stand one notch at a time”. Why was I wincing? Because every time I heard that I was imaging what was happening to the student’s lumbar spine and it wasn’t pretty. This “roll up move” is so popular in yoga classes; it can’t be bad if everybody is doing it, right? Hmm, let’s take a look.
Here is your spine. Your lumbar spine curves in to accommodate for the weight of the structures above it (cervical and thoracic spine; ribcage, head and their contents). Between the bony vertebral bodies you have spinal discs. The nucleus of the disc acts as a shock absorber, absorbing the impact of the body’s daily activities and keeping the two vertebrae separated. The disc is like a jelly doughnut: the strong outer layer (annulus fibrosis) is similar to the dough and the gel-like center (nucleus pulposis) is the jelly. For example, if one presses down on the front of the doughnut the jelly moves posteriorly (to the back).
Here is what happens to your discs in a yoga class or in your day-to-day living (see below): they get slightly squeezed from different angles depending on the position of your spine. This is actually a good thing because it keeps them nourished and healthy.
The problems arise when we put too much pressure on the disc. We all know that to have a “disc problem’ in any form is not preferable, to say the least. And it is certainly not advisable to do things that can potentially create “disc problems”.
Let’s now look at our forward bend. The degree of the forward tilt of the pelvis will depend on the condition of your hamstrings.
When the hamstrings are tight (especially if you insist on keeping the legs straight) they will prevent the pelvis from tilting forward, which means that the bend will come from the lumbar/thoracic spine. In the neutral position your lumbar spine is concave (curves inward), in forward bend you are placing it in a convex position (bulges outward), which means that the discs will be squeezed at the front, creating “anterior disc compression”. Already this is risky for your lumbar spine. That’s why if your hamstrings are tight we usually recommend that you keep your knees slightly bent to allow the pelvis to tilt further forward.
Now imagine rolling up from this position. You are asking your lumbar discs to bear the weight of your head (heavy), cervical/thoracic spine (heavy), ribcage (very heavy) plus brain, organs, etc. Wow, that’s a lot of work for few little guys! Because of your body’s position in relation to gravity your core musculature cannot help much. So now your lumbar discs are being squished by the vertebrae at the front and nucleus (jelly center) is being pushed back with tremendous force generated by the weight of your upper body. And for what purpose exactly? So that you could stretch the back of your body? There are better ways of accomplishing that in a safer way.
Interestingly, if you change your position in relation to the ground, the load on the discs will change also. Consider a “roll-down”. Here you are working WITH gravity, not against it, which diminishes the pressure on the discs. And more importantly, here you can use your abdominal muscles to decelerate your decent, which means that your spine is now supported by your core musculature.
Here is the bottom line: rolling up into standing position can create anterior disc compression. And it doesn’t matter how loose or tight your hamstrings are. If your hamstrings are tight you are risking disk compression any time you bend forward (bending your knees will diminish that risk significantly). This is one of those things that probably won’t show up after one yoga class, or may be even 10 classes, but it can create disc problems down the line. Why risk it? The risk here far outweighs the potential benefit.
Well, if we don’t roll up, then how do we come up into the standing position? We do it by leading with the chest and strengthening your lower back muscles instead of trying to stretch them.
Here is how: Prepare to move up into standing. Start by leading with your chest, moving the upper body up until you return into the neutral lumbar curve (about parallel to the ground). Continue to move up with your upper body and your pelvis moving as a unit now to maintain the neutral curve in your lower back. Lifting up in this way will strengthen your back. If this is a new move for you, keep your hands sliding up your legs to minimize the load on your back. Once you become more comfortable you can move the arms out to the sides or all the way forward (most difficult).
Watch this short video to illustrate the point:
Subscribe to Blog via Email
One of the readers commented that rolling up with straight legs would be like lifting up a TV (or a box, whatever). I think this is a fantastic analogy! Look up “safe lifting technique” and you will find the information that boils down to 4 key points:
- Bend the knees
- Keep the spine neutral
- Keep the feet wide and planted
- Keep the load close to the body
We don’t need to worry about #3 and #4 (our load IS close to the body and hopefully nobody is keeping the feet together), but #1 and #2 seem to be essential. So bending the knees is important (or at least not locking them) and then returning into the neutral spine.
Here the posterior (back) structures will be working in the first part (you strengthen your back this way); and in parts 2 and 3 your legs/glutes will be doing most of the lifting, since the lower back will remain neutral.
To lift up safely (with or without the load): Stable stance – slightly bent knees – neutral spine
TO ALL MY WONDERFUL COMMENTATORS
Thank you for your feedback, guys, I really appreciate it! I love reading your comments whether they are pro or against the roll-up. My goal is not to tell you what to do, but to encourage you to THINK about every choice you make, because it matters! And judging from the passionate responses I got, it matters to you, too. Awesome! I’ve made my case, please feel free to make yours. Then the folks who read the post and comments can make an educated choice for themselves. Thanks again for joining the discussion!
Hi Olga! I teach rolling up… but I do so with knees quite bent and shifting the weight backwards.
I have done so since I learned it from Chi Kung masters, and I ask people with back pain (especially those prone to pain during flexion) to avoid coming up this way.
I believe there is enough reason to be cautious about this move. But I also think our spines are much more resilient than we give it credit for.
I understand the work of Dr. Stuart McGill has influenced a lot of our thinking in this regards. His work in regards to “disc delamination” (or weakening of the discs upon continuous flexion) has been done with circumstances that aren’t always replicated in real life. As far as I have been able to tell, most of his evidence for this delamination process was done in a lab with conditions that are far from the reality of typical motion.
I recommend this article that gives a great counter-argument for the new “anti-flexion” sentiment: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/to_crunch_or_not_to_crunch
I will agree with you 100% in terms of the images you are using: rolling up without the benefit of the hip rotation is usually detrimental (and it generally feels aweful).
Doing it with your knees well bent can provide the benefit of opening the facet joints, and may create some positive “resistance training” to the spinal extensors, due to the weight bearing. Furthermore, shifting the weight backwards will load the hip extensors and shift most of the stress below and above the lumbars, leaving the most vulnerable area for disc herniations out of the picture.
You can try it in your own body and will notice that if you bend the knees and shift the weight to your heels the sensation is quite different 🙂
Hope this adds to the conversation 🙂
I actually have no problem with a crunch in supine position (unless it involves yanking forward, of course 🙂 The biggest difference here is that abdominal muscles are actually engaged in a crunch. You cannot effectively engage your abs while rolling up. I checked out your link and while I agree with his argument, the first image of that muscle dude is a bit scary 🙂
It’s an interesting point about “resistance training” for spinal extensors; I am not sure how that would work considering the fact that when you begin your roll up all the posterior muscles are in stretched out position, which means that they cannot contract effectively. I guess I just don’t see enough benefit from the roll-up that I cannot achieve elsewhere without the risk, that’s all. Thank you for contributing! It’s always nice to hear from you.
GREAT, balanced perspective, Michael! As a Vinyasa yoga instructor, therapeutics and anatomy geek who travels the world teaching people how to use their Deep Front Line (muscle-fascia meridians, the work of Tom Myers/Anatomy Trains), I always roll my students to stand. This is used in many therapeutic yoga modalities. However, as you said, it’s crucial to bent the knees and not overuse the abdominal wall, lest we cause too much pressure on the SI and lumbar spine.
In fact, anatomically, if you track through the deepest core body, recruiting feet down, bent knees, inner thighs up and back to deepen and widen the sitting bones, then articulating the psoas action of moving front sacrum and spine in and up as we gently roll to stack the pelvis and then add in more QL or deep lumbar support from the back is easeful, effective–and actually can mitigate SI issues and back body line tension that can come from overuse of the erectors and hamstrings in yoga–or from coming to a standing position from the back body, which is made more for movement than support anyway. Most people don’t know about the full Deep Front Line nor use or instruct it, in order, to our advantage in every pose, much less this one.
Here’s to the middle path….:)
Thank you for your comment Sadie! Is there a way to roll up more safely? Probably. Is this level of detail in instruction and body awareness beyond the capabilities of many students, especially beginners? Definitely. So it all depends on the populations that you are working with, their experience and ability to engage this area or that on demand. Personally I would never teach it in a video intended for general public, for example. I am all for developing more subtle body awareness, but there are safer ways to do it. And I would love to hear more specific anatomical detail about roll up being beneficial for SI issues, since I’ve never seen it in my 10+ years of teaching. Thank you for contributing!
Actually, I find that beginners are even more able to grasp the beautiful balance of rolling up without ROUNDING up, which is I believe more specifically what your article advises against. This gently supportive rolling up using the feet, center of gravity and the psoas in order, is the hallmark of master therapeutics experts like Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy and with 35+ years of experience in the field. If done properly, this instruction to bend the knees, plant feet down, keep the femurs and sitting bones back and wide, then articulate a gentle roll up at the front of the sacrum and spine, actually ends up freeing SI and lumbar pain, and back body tension in thousands of my clients. I hear it over and over….
Whatever works for you 🙂 I have great respect for Leslie Kaminoff; could you direct me toward a video or some other resource where he explains this method please?
Having trained with Sadie and other viniyoga/Kaminoff students, I found doing this kind of roll-up has eliminated dizziness and low back pinching associated with less skillfully taught roll-ups. Also, my beginners and seasoned students alike LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this way of coming up. I don’t believe the anatomical instructions are too difficult at all. Plus, there are many tactile ways to help the students if they’re still not getting it. The people who are mired in a particular way of coming up to stand are the ones that are HARDEST to get to do it right, in my experience.
Beautiful! Thanks for the insights Sadie …
The whole reason I practice Yoga because it honours personal discretion and ultimately the experience and of each Asana is entirely left to the Practitioner.
Developing discernment as a Student is so important – in the end once experienced – every Practitioner has to decide what works for their body.
(I love the perfectly described Ragdoll with the femur bones back and wide.)
in most yoga we do less flexion/rounding of the lower back, we do a lot of hip hinging, lot of neutral spine in most of the poses, some extension when we do belly down back bends or bridge + as a result the lower back is not getting its full potential rom, as we are suppose to be able to flex the lower lumbar to about 40degrees, thoracic about 45 degrees. Studying more from a biomechanics teacher, she found that many yoga students (myself included) have developed too much extension in lower lumbar/sway back and have lost ability for flexion. She started me doing what she calls limber lumbar sequence in which I do these rollup AND roll downs in a specific way as I had stopped doing to much flexion because of SIJ issues. This has HELPED my SIJ issues as well as strengthening all around the pelvis, abductors, adductors, glutes, ab’s. I don’t do the roll up daily but do incorporate them at least once a week, helped my sway back so much(as well as strengthening the transverse abdominus, obliques, rectus as well) Pretty much do them as Sadie has suggested. MY LOW BACK + SACRUM are happy, as my erectors (too many locust variations) are so strong/overused and my thoracolumbar fascia was extremely tight, lot of the vini yoga sequencing does not address this fascial area. As teachers we need to know more about fascia + biomechanics. The “roll ups” + “roll downs” has relieved so much low back/sij issues in individuals who have MORE/sway lumbar curve, not as great for people with LESS/flat lumbar curve in my experience.
Rolling up even with knees bent still stresses out the discs and the ligaments in the posterior spine that hold us upright over time. Even with the knees bent it isn’t a great idea. It is better to teach people how to stand and bend with good alignment then to stretch out the back of the body which is already usually far too over lengthened in the first place. Coming up with a neutral lumbar spine, and knees bent actually strengthens the erectors and helps you learn to bend over and come back up in a way that is healthy for the discs and that is a skill that will help you your entire life.
Whilst I see your point, the entire article does address crunching supine position) not rolling from standing against gravity. The biomechanics would differ considerably, leading to greater lumber compression. My proviso would be to avoid it, if a herniated disc is suspected and caution for beginners.
Michael Brandwajn, thanks for writing that reply as I’m far to tired tonight….The human body was made to move in this way and I teach it with bent knees as you explained. I agree, coming up the way it is picture here is akin to picking up a TV with straight legs, but with bent knees, core engaged I’ve never seen a problem
Hi Rudy! Thank you for your analogy – I think it totally proves my point! I’ve added few things to the post to examine it. Thank you for contributing!
Hi Olga, Its me, Linda Prosche from your training and I am so delighted to see this picture of you. this is awesome
Hi Linda! It’s good to hear from you! Are you on Viniyoga facebook group?
Thank you for writing this. I wish more teachers (and students!) knew this. Very informative and easy for the layman to understand…
Thank you! I am very glad that you found it useful!
I would be careful with making blanket statements like “You cannot effectively engage your abs while rolling up.” This varies from person to person. I have danced my entire life (have multiple degrees in dance), have been teaching yoga since 2008, and am an Occupational Therapist–While it is true that rolling up with fully extended legs is/can be very hard on the low back–it really depends on the anatomy and age of the person. Additionally, if one bends the knees over the toes (as Michael suggests) and keeps the weight evenly centered (triangular arch support system of the foot) in a parallel (or close to it) position, allows the spine/UE to hang over the LE, and then engages the abdominals to activate the shift of the pelvis and spine (that work in tandem) one can perform a safe roll up. It’s all in body mechanics. Of course people who have osteopenia/osteoarthritis should not be doing ANY movements that over stress ANY joints. I believe that always moving with a flat back (while strengthening the spine) also can create excessive tension in the hip flexors and does not always teach students the power of the articulation of the spine or the joints of the LE. Pushing this as the ‘gold standard’ can be a diservice–as many will always need to bend the knees on the way up and down–I see many many students who hyper-extend their legs when performing sun salutes, in the effort to keep the back ‘flat’. However, any forward fold can cause damage to the spine (flat or curved) if the abdominals are not properly engaged. Overall the core has a powerful role to play throughout the entire practice–and I would hate to deprive my students the chance to experience a roll down/roll up as I feel it can dually offer powerful decompression of the spine and engagement of the core if set up correctly–
Hi Vani! Thank your for the clear articulation of your argument. I completely agree about core being an essential piece throughout the entire practice – I wrote a whole blog post about it few weeks back. And I also agree that experienced practitioners who are aware of the subtitles of movement and have great control of their bodies might be able to roll up with more precision. My concern is about an average practitioner, who’s probably been sitting all day, not necessarily aware of the core musculature and comes to a yoga class bringing all his movement habits with him. Should we teach him core engagement? Absolutely. Is this the best way to do it? I don’t think so.
Exactly. If someone sits all day then their self care routine definitely shouldn’t involve a flexed lumbar spine. Abs engaged or not it would only exacerbate the position that is likely causing them discomfort.
Thank you for your thoughtful contributions to out roll-up discussion Ann Clair! I couldn’t agree more with your argument 🙂
I am not sure that I fully agree with this article. We want our spines to be able to move into flexion, extension, side bending and twisting. Albeit- the right amount of that. A little bit of movement in many different places and in a variety of shapes. Limiting the spine from doing any of these is neither ideal nor healthy. However in a standing forward fold, if you cannot maintain a neutral lumbar curve (tight hamstrings for one), then you are putting excessive force on the discs. If you can bend your knees, allow the legs to hold you up- rather than your back, encourage your pelvis to tilt forward and then let your lumbar spine come into neutral- then this is actually beneficial to the spine. It allows the back to release from a chronic idea that it needs to hold you up in space as well as creating space between the discs. Another aspect to all of this that is SUPER important to remember is that we want our bodies and nervous systems to have a “choice”. If the body only know ONE way of moving, then it is limited. If however we can introduce different pathways, choices and patterns, then we can begin to expand our understanding of what choices we tend to make, what choices are available to us and what choices we really want to be making. Staying rigid in body and thought is well- RIGID.
Lauren, I whole-heartedly agree. I believe that it is essential for the spine to move in every direction (without extremes, of course). Also love your idea of “choice” – indeed examining our patterns, both movement and behavior, is a huge part of a yoga practice!
I teach this with a different energetic concept and approach: I encourage students to press the souls of the feet down, noting the corners, back and base center of the heels press downward into the yoga mat. Then slowing on inhale building into the energy of the rising of the body from the feet up. Feet rooting downward and knees gently bent as part of the natural flow and transition to rise up. From the bottom up, on slow prolonged mindful inhale. Slowly, progressively upward, slowly progressively downward on exhale….’breath into breath-moment into moment’…Sherri Baptiste. I teach that they feel the gross and subtle energetics of the rise upward from the inside upward, with cuing them to adduct, contact, subtly awaken energetics and lift certain muscles along the way while internally awakening to support the rise and awakening of the core to support the back.
Its an energetic approach that keeps the ‘Baptiste Inspired Students’ breath based, safe and evolving in their practice without injury. Yoga
Thank you for sharing, Sherri! Sounds beautiful. I love to work with energetics, too and bring movement to life with breath.
Hi Olga – thanks for sharing your perspective on rolling up to stand. I personally love rolling up to stand, and do think that it can be done safely by most reasonably healthy people (if a student has osteoporosis/penia or a recent disc herniation they should definitely skip it). However, I agree that it can easily be done unsafely even by healthy people – if they roll up with their legs straight and the pelvis in a posterior tilt, which would likely place too much compression on the anterior aspect of the intervertebral discs in the lumbar spine (as you illustrate above). But as Michael mentions, if you bend your knees first and shift the weight back into the heels, it allows the center of gravity of the body to be positioned over the legs throughout the roll… decreasing the amount of compression.
You mention that you can’t engage your abdominals when rolling up. I’m assuming that you’re talking about the more superficial abdominals, which are on the slack because the trunk is flexed. However, you wouldn’t want to engage these anyway, as the spinal erectors are concentrically contracting to extend the spine. For more spinal stability/safety, you could (and should) engage your pelvic floor and transverse abdominals, which will in turn help to engage the deep core stabilizers (the multifidi and rotatores). Ideally students would learn how to contract these muscles in simple postures/exercise first, such as Tadasana, Sukhasana, All-Fours position, etc.
You also mention that there are better ways to stretch the back of the body. There are certainly many ways to do so (all of which are risky if the pelvis is posteriorly tilted excessively), but there is something very satisfying about stretching the posterior trunk with gravity-assisted traction that can’t really be replicated anywhere else. IMO.
I just want to say also that I like the look, feel and content of your blog – especially the many illustrations that you included, and am happy to have stumbled upon it 😉
Hi Jason! Thank you for your post – I pretty much agree with everything you said! Can the roll up be done in a safer way? Possibly. But this is not what I observe in yoga classes I attend. I am with you on the TA engagement, please refer to my post on “zip up’ for my declaration of undying love for the progressive abdominal contraction 🙂 In regards to roll-up for me it comes down to a simple risk vs benefit ratio. In my book the risk here outweighs the potential benefit. That’s all.
Overall I think this is a good article, thank you Olga! Of course I would never instruct students to roll up with straight legs, but I’m not convinced it’s a bad idea with bent knees… Anyway, I was just wondering what the implications of this are for Plow Pose? I’d be curious to hear what you think. Thanks!
Thank you for your comment, Alicia! My take on Plow as the same as any forward bend, that flexes the spine, like paschimattanasana, for example. Forward flexion of the spine is not a problem if we move into it with awareness and core engagement, adapt for student’s physical limitations and then come out mindfully. Body’s position in relation to gravity is different in Plow and you can engage your core muscles more effectively here for support. I hope that answered your question.
The standing forward bend is a beautiful release for the spine. Gravity acts to open up the discs taking compression out of those at the bottom of the pile at the level of L4 and L5. The upper body weight gives natural traction to the lower spine. If the upper body can really relax, the arms will tend to elevate the ribs and the weight of the viscera will fall onto the diaphragm helping it to draw up a little, again the effect will be felt in the gentle drawing in of the abdomen and pelvic floor, again it should be noted that this happens naturally you don’t have to do it.
There is often a debate about the ‘safe’ way to move into a forward bend. So I think it’s worth pointing out here that forward bending is not dangerous, it is a natural function of the spine. Some conditions of the spine like disc herniations will make it painful and unadvisable, but these are pathologies, and the healthy spine should have no problem folding forwards. If there are problems in the back then to bend the knees is very sensible. However to go forwards with the back straight and stiff as a poker, defies common sense. Everywhere you look in nature movement is rounded and curling, watch a child pick something up from the floor and I’ll guarantee the back will round not straighten. When we come into a forward bend from standing let the back round naturally and if the knees feel the need to bend let them, the same is true when you come back up, rounding the back and softening the knees if necessary will put less strain on the back than coming up flat backed.
Why Yoga Works.
This passage from Peter Blackabys book, on the whole, seems to suggest a very different approach to that demonstrated here by Olga.
Hi Gideon, thank your for your comment! I completely agree with you about the benefits of the forward bend, standing or sitting or whatever – super useful. Watching a child move is certainly inspiring and can give us valuable insight about organic movement, but I would argue that what the child needs and can do physically is very different from what many adults need and can do. So to me that doesn’t prove the point. ‘Do what feels natural’ is a wonderful concept, but please remember that we all develop movement patterns as we go through life and some of them are not useful at all and cause problems. Those patterns need to be examined and corrected if necessary. If we do what feels natural, we are likely to reinforce those patterns.
Hi Sequence Wiz,
I like your response, yes you of course are right about movement patterns and habits. Yes it is advisable to correct unhelpful ones and explore helpful ones. Having worked with Peter Blackaby I think the use of the term ‘natural’ in this instance describes movement that is ‘organic’ and creates the most amount of ease and the least amount of strain. However I still think that rounding the back convexly with slightly softened knees and then uncurling might in many instances be more beneficial than the way your model demonstrated it. She came up with an extended concave curve. This way just might encourage hyper lordosis if it is repeated too often. I’m in agreement with Joe Eddie, who posted further down this page, that exploring the full spectrum of movement could be useful. What we really need is some scientific data to inform us better on this issue. Do you have any? In reality we don’t really have any firm evidence one way or the other really, except from our own experience as teachers and practitioners and that is subject to a vast range of variables and interpretations.
From a physics/engineering perspective, the compressive for on the disk as a whole is actually increased by engaging the erectors enough to come up with a “straight” back, as opposed to just rolling up. Note that muscles can only contract, not exert a lengthening force. So coming up without engaging the erectors more than strictly necessary, compresses the disks the least.
The only problem that I can see would be if there are edges on the front of the vertabrae the would pinch the front edges of the disks if they are not kept separate by engaging the erectors. Or if there is some other non-obvious mechanism at work. Is that the case?
Hmm, Dale what do you base your first statement on? Honestly, I don’t know what this “straight back” means. I am talking about returning into the neutral lumbar curve. In forward bend your erectors are stretched, you contract them to return into the neutral lumbar curve where your discs have much more even, distributed pressure on them. After that you use your legs to move the upper body and pelvis together, maintaining a neutral lumbar curve. A lot of problems in today’s sedentary society come from the fact that folks have very weak erectors, which makes the lower back more vulnerable. It is super important to strengthen them, using poses like cobra, for example. I have a blog post about the “magic three” yoga poses that explores Cobra in depth. Coming up into standing is another good opportunity to strengthen the back. Yes, they might need the support of the arms at first if the erectors are weak, but eventually they will get stronger and the lower back will be happier.
Reblogged this on yoganala and commented:
Thankful for a great share
Thank you for reposting this!! I was unable to open the original posting. I do agree that in certain people, rolling the spine up from uttanasana can be detrimental. I applaud you for bringing this issue up in your blog, and for posting such great visuals. Many yoga teachers still do not have a good understanding of the mechanics of the movements of the spine, nor the the overall structures. I also agree with many of the other respondents: that it’s possible to effectively come to a stand in by rolling up, without placing the spinal structures in a harmful position. Again, individual awareness of the mechanics of the body, as well as slower moving can make this an effective mode to stand. Keep up the great postings!!
Thank you Diane!
Reblogged this on Eat. Drink. Yoga. and commented:
Just came across this post, and BOY I just remembered that I USED to do this and some how over the course of the last month or so, forgot. I have been experiencing some minor back aches that I haven’t felt in a while, could it be because I’m rolling up instead of lifting? Hmm.. Thank you for the info!
Thank you! Probably I wouldn’t go as far as to say that rolling up is the main thing causing your back aches (usually it’s a combination of factors), but it certainly doesn’t help! Make sure you spend time strengthening your back – it will thank you!
Use a video of someone moving into and out of a deep forward bend who is not flexible. Most students cannot move like your model. It is more useful to see how less bendy folks can do this safely.
Great suggestion! I will be sure to do that in a few days.
I’ve been rolling my spine up for years, over a decade. Even focusing on keeping my abs relaxed. Sometimes with straight legs, sometimes with bent legs, sometimes with legs apart, sometimes close, sometimes with toes turned out, sometimes in, depending on the unique skeletal structure of the individual. It’s never injured me or them. Never. Granted we don’t do it while lifting a TV. Thank god my spine is not actually a jelly donut, and is instead a network of tough connective tissue….which is in an ongoing state of contracture which needs to be released with these movements. There is a strong theory that chronic back pain does not occur from an injured spine, but from fear. Fear which is enforced by “broken spine” and “delicate spine” theories, such as the jelly donut model. If one treats their spine like it is fragile it will become fragile. Look up the work of Dr. Jon Sarno. Or Victor Barker (“Posture Makes Perfect”) whose main therapeutic (successful therapeutic) work was doing exactly what you are warning us about. Or just go to a “less-developed” country where people work in the fields all day not squatting but rounding their backs with legs nearly straight. These people statistically do not have chronic back issues. Highly developed countries, like America and Canada however are riddled with chronic back pain. For the statistics on this and many more that support the fear-based education on the spine being the cause of back pain, check out “Back Sense” by Siegel. Another strong theory of where chronic back pain comes from is Robert Schleip, the pioneer of Continuous Passive Motion, which revolutionized hospital care for immobilization in hospitals. His theory is that chronic back pain comes from Contracture of the Thoraco-Lumbar Fascia, because it rarely receives proper traction as we sit in chairs all day and are often encouraged to never round our backs….always bend with with the knees, never round the back. The Jelly Donut model is an antiquated theory. It helps explain the movement of the Nucleus Pulposus but when one starts believing that their spine is as fragile as a jelly donut, then one starts to over protect the back which is ironically the main cause of back pain. At least according to those theories. They are just theories. Truth is no one really knows. With all the scientific efforts and billions of dollars put into research, back pain is still a mystery. So these theories that I quote are just theories. But so is this Jelly Donut model, and bulging disc pain theory. Just theories. I’m going to keep running with what works for me and my students.
Hi Joe, thank you for your comment. Ha, ha – “Jelly Donut Theory” – that’s catchy! I used this image to demonstrate the movement of nucleus pulposus, that’s all. It’s interesting that two main arguments that you bring up somewhat contradict each other. The argument about people in less developed countries rounding their backs and having less back pain is probably true (I don’t know the statistics), but it is exactly because they are much more physical then us. We are riddled with back pain because of the sedentary lifestyle and underuse which makes our backs more fragile. And how do we normally sit in front of the computer? With the back rounded. As far as fear being the reason? I disagree. I know plenty of people who never think twice about their back until it goes out, so was is it fear that got them there? No, neglect more likely. And honestly, I do not believe that reasoning “I’ve been doing it for years, never had a problem” works for any issue – just because you haven’t had trouble, doesn’t mean that others won’t.
Dear Sequence Wiz
Before you disagree you need to study Dr. Sarno’s theory and read his book. After I fractured and compressed L1 I was told Kyployplasty would help my pain. Had the surgery and it did not. I was told to do what you suggested in your article to relieve back pain. No twisting on and on. No relief. A 2nd surgeon has suggested spinal fusion, this will only help my pain. A healing facilitator gave me Dr. Sarno’s book and within 48 hours my back pain began lessoning. Dr. Sarno doesn’t believe in what you’re advocating and hundreds of thousands of people are alleviating their back pain practicing what he suggests. To the point of getting out of having to electrically wheel to work to jogging.
I read you article and went straight to the ‘about’ to see your credentials in order to write an article such as you have. Your article induces fear. You disagree with techniques you haven’t studied or read. Which represents a closed mind and for a teacher you need an open mind.
Hi Miles, thank you for taking the time to comment. I am not sure what Dr. Sarno’s work has to do with this article. He talks about psychological factors in back pain, correct? What does that have to do with the roll-up? Here we talk about the mechanics of movement that can be potentially problematic; nobody is trying to question your experience with alleviating back pain. Readers will read what they choose into any article; the article is not about fear, it’s about being mindful about how one uses his/her body. Isn’t that what Dr. Sarno advocates, too? Mindfullness? I am happy to hear that your back pain is resolved.
The dense connective tissue over time that you speak of helps the spine stay up right will break down and weaken if constantly pulled on. Doing forward bends and rolling up to standing over time weakens these dense ligaments and contributes greatly to injury and poor posture.
Oh, I see the argument is underuse. I totally agree with that. And I certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to only relax into a rounded back. Development of core strength is equally important. I’ve never known of any Yoga teacher who taught that we should only relax and round our spines up. True, just because it’s never bothered my back any of my many students in the past several years or any of my colleagues backs or any of their students in the past several years, doesn’t mean it won’t hurt someone else. That’s the truth for any model of exercise one follows. What’s good for one person, may very likely injure another. What I disagree with most in your article is that you seem to feel that the roll-up movement is bad for everyone and that your method is good for everyone. If only there was a one-exercise-fits-all approach, life would be much simpler.
I do not see any contradiction in my argument. Please enlighten me there.
I absolutely agree that sedentary lifestyles, that immobility is the biggest problem in backs. Rolling up from a forward bend is movement. Sitting in a chair with a rounded back or a straight back or a extended spine is bad for you because of immobility. It’s not the way you sit it’s the lack of movement and the ensuing contraction in the fascia that occurs. Plus, sitting in a chair is rounded with compression vs rounded with traction….fundamentally different. But again the major issue is that the chair encourages immobility. I certainly do not think that we should only round-up. If that was the only exercise one did it would hurt you. That’s why yoga offers rounded spine movements and extended spine movements and twisted spine movements and lateral flexion movements. Yoga at it’s best offers ways to move the spine in all of it’s range of motion. Limiting ones range of motion is asking for continued immobility in a sense.
And as far as the emotional causes linked to back pain I again encourage you to look into Jon Sarno, there is a great 20/20 episode on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsR4wydiIBI).
And your anecdotal evidence “I know plenty of people who never think twice about their back until it goes out, so was is it fear that got them there?”, well that’s pretty weak. Besides, according to this theory, it’s not necessarily the acute pain that is emotion based but the ongoing chronic pain. The inability to release the seizing-up. Everyone gets pain sometimes but the inability to move past it, gets tied up in emotional patterns.
Again, I’m not saying this is the definite truth. But it’s a theory that makes a lot of sense to me. As does the Schleip theory that it is contracture of the TF fascia from lack of traction, traction which is often avoided as they are often told never to round their spine, especially not in relaxed way….which is exactly what it takes to put traction in their TF fascia and spine. This is why Tai Massage is so affective, you are not meant to resist the practitioner, your relax and give into their pressure and manipulations, which often include……rounding your spine.
If you are curious about how emotions can hold pain in the spine, I would also recommend this article from Men’s Health: http://www.menshealth.com/health/chronic-back-pain
Oh and an addition concerning your earlier “addition”. How is doing a rounded spine roll up anything like picking up a TV from the same position? You just added a huge load to the exact same movement. The analogy makes no sense. Ive never heard of a yoga teacher asking their student to execute the rolling up with a large appliance of any sort in their arms.
Hi Joe! Clearly, you have very strong views on the subject which differ from mine, which is perfectly fine with me. I do not present my suggestions as an “absolute truth”, that would just be silly, don’t you think? And I do agree that some cases of back pain could be linked to emotional stuff, but some are just structural. There is a cool video on YouTube about dealing with chronic pain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4b8oB757DKc Best of luck with your teaching; sounds like there is thought behind your choices and that’s what really matters.
a rounded spine unloaded roll up or or a loaded rounded spine lift are not exactly the same, but they share the similarities of the rounded spine position. The forward flexion position alone is controversial, which is where the concern can lie. Is it going to cause problems and pain overnight, no probably not, but accumulated over years? Evidence may say so. Obviously with a heavy load, very bad idea in almost all circumstances. Unloaded slow roll ups or some easy unloaded cat/cow flossing into spinal flexion can certainly be restorative, but the problem lies within the individual context of each person executing rounded spine movements, in where they could also be a poor idea, or one that slowly compounds over years, or decades. While I think we can all appreciate where you’re coming from, I think it would be unwise to ignore some of the work of the leading spine researches out there (Stu McGill, The Joint by Joint Stability/Mobility Approach, etc) on the issues with forward folds.
As a society we’ve come a long way from ancient yoga teachings in where sitting 12 hours/day (often in forward flexion, forward head) wasn’t a norm. Many postures and movements today need more clarity as to the how and why of using them. Forward flexion (rounding) can reach a breaking point and this has been shown through research, excessive forward flexion is one exact mechanism of causing disc and spinal issues. So, in a society that already is so “forward”, have pelvic tilt issues, etc, one can make a good argument that it’s probably wise to avoid a ton more of it, even if it’s something so simple as a roll up. Just because you or people have gotten away with it with no noticeable effects doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bring clarity or more context to the issue. Doing things with locked knees and forward flexion has also through research shown to be a gray area that can go south quickly or over time. Many yoga teachings preach stability of the thoracic spine and mobility of the lumbar spine, which is said to be the exact opposite of what the body needs. If you have a tight immobile T-spine, it will then search for mobility in the lumbar spine. A mobile lumbar with excessive movement and lack of stability is correlated to injury and disability.
There is then the issue of learned movement patterns and the habits created. Many will argue with research and evidence that your spine only has so many bending cycles that can be worn through depending on the duration, amount of times, and intensity at which you round the spine forward. A lack of training hinging at the hips and sitting the hips back with a rigid core as you reach to the floor can program a faulty movement pattern as a lifelong habit. Your yoga movements become your everyday movements, in other words. For many individuals in today’s world they are only one faulty rotation, fold, or extension of their spine from injury. Much of this is attributed to sedentary behavior and lifelong posture faults, but many positions in yoga can then become controversial just based on that. Injuries in yoga happen all the time, as they do in other walks of life and disciplines of fitness.
Everyone then usually defends their own practice, beliefs, lifestyle, and passions, but usually the answer is much more complex. Flexion blew out one of my discs quickly in life, upon avoiding for years, i’ve never been more mobile and pain free. Some can probably claim the opposite, but the point is that the answer isn’t black and white.
Thanks Yogi. I look forward to checking out this youtube clip. Always interested in hearing other opinions. Just to be clear, the reason I am mostly showing passion here is in not to prop up my own techniques but in response to the blog’s main assertion which is a harsh criticism of practices that are clearly foreign to you. Instead of focusing on tearing down and attempting to make Yogis fearful of styles and techniques different than your own, maybe you should focus more on the benefits of your approach. That really sums up my opinion. I’m sure that at the heart of it, you are simply trying to be helpful. And I appreciate that. Best of luck to you as well.
Humm, most of the counter arguments seem to be based on some exceptional circumstance. Yeah, I’m sure someone who’s been doing dance for decades can do things I can’t. I loved the reply, “we were made to do this, like picking up a TV with straight legs.” I think we were invented before the TV… and we are really not assembled very well for upright postures. Must have been made in China. I almost wish you’d post your articles without comments. There are people out there who have lots of opinions and little training in physioanatomy.
Thank you for your comment Jake! Interestingly, responding to those counter arguments helps me better articulate my point and really only reinforces my original statement 🙂 It’s fun to have a discussion with someone who has a different opinion as long as we actually listen to each other and refrain from personal insults (had some of those, too). Thank you for reading!
as someone that was injured initially by a yoga practice that was obviously designed for people that were already at a certain level I’m so grateful to read articles that help heal and prevent injury.. I have since learned important anatomy lessons like this over years of practice and becoming a teacher. But my initial practice always included a straight leg roll up (or at least not with a cue to bend the knees) I learned the hard way what doing poses without proper alignment cues and doing things before you are ready can do to the body. I’m all about practicing in a super mindful way (this is not fear is being aware) to build up to that state of relaxed ease… Thank you for spreading the word!
Hi Aminda! I completely agree. Yoga is never completely safe, but we can certainly make it safer by paying attention to important details like that. And being mindful is certainly not the same as being fearful! Thank you for your comment.
This blog is amazing. No one talks about or makes the points that you do, given that they are so important… more people involved in yoga should be exposed to this. Love it. I’m big on practicing yoga for alignment, flexibility, mobility, strength but in a progressive safe way.
Thank you, DP! I really want yoga and yoga teachers to be taken seriously and I believe that it is not possible with “anything goes” mentality. So yes, I second your ‘progressive safe way’ wholeheartedly!
So refreshing! Glad to be seeing / hearing of more and more yoga instructors who GET it!
Thanks for ringing my attention to this, I was unaware that there was a debate on this practice.
Interesting theory and maybe relevant for people who suffer from the painful and incapacitating symptoms of lumbar disc bulging or herniations, have short hamstrings and thoroco-lumbar fascia and are overweight.
I remain however unconvinced. Where is the evidence? Rolling up is such a common practice in so many forms of human movement, does anyone complain of injury of discomfort that bending the knee does not alleviate.
To get a realistic picture of disc pressure, not only the instantaneous pressure but more importantly the time pressure is sustained must be considered.
To my mind roll-ups place a short lasting anterior compressive load which is distributed over all the spinal discs and immediately alleviated when the spine returns to a neutral postural position.
Your article would have seemed reasonable if you had identified the contra-indications to roll-ups and mentioned intelligent alternatives. I guess the trend of creating buzz with conjecture is working as usual.
Hi Noah, thank you for your comment! It is not my intention to convince you, but rather, just like you said, to bring your attention to this issue. I actually agree with your notion that this is a “short lasting anterior compressive load”, and with your statement that it is more relevant for particular populations. The thing is that you never know who is in your class and what is going on with their spines. They might not disclose this information or do not know themselves. To me roll up is just like any other behavior that we engage in consistently that can create issues over time.
As far as evidence, this article lists 13 studies on spinal flexion: http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/to_crunch_or_not_to_crunch and this book is full of references to various studies: http://www.amazon.com/Low-Back-Disorders-Second-Edition/dp/0736066926/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392816856&sr=8-1&keywords=lower+back+disorders
As far as creating buzz, I have to smile at that one. I never expected that my little article would generate such attention. I was trained that way, everyone in my tradition teaches that way and to me it’s just common sense: if the potential risk outweighs questionable benefit, why do it? And thank you for calling the alternative I presented un-intelligent. In my teaching it’s been very effective in strengthening students’ lower backs, but every teacher decides for himself, or course.
As a fkexion addicted society I feel there is no need to bring spinal flexion into our practice. As back pain is on the rise so is our flexion addicted lifestyle. You are right on and there is so much science behind what you say that to teach otherwise shows a lack of education. I teach back health and extensions and core strength is critical. Sit-ups a big no no as well. Thanks for getting on the bandwagon.
Thank you Kimberly! I certainly agree that there is wa-ay too much flexion going on in our day-to-day lives and our backs are paying for it. I do think that there is time and place for flexion in our yoga practice, we just need to do it mindfully and for a reason. Thank you for your comment!
If working With, not against gravity through the spinal roll – meaning an extra deep bend to the knee and deep push into the feet while simultaneously engaging from the lower pelvic abdominal muscles through an exhalation – then it does become possible to easily and correctly set the natural curvature of the spine, without risk of anterior disk compression through a spinal roll. If it is not being taught in this method, it is simply because the teacher doesn’t clearly understand what they are instructing, or they are too lazy to teach it correctly.
Thank you for comment Mollie. I am a little confused on how one can do a roll UP working WITH gravity, aren’t we moving away from the ground? If we do reverse our position in relation to gravity (as in seated-to-supine roll DOWN), then I agree, the effect is completely different.
Hi there. Thanks for your post. One thought… in the last bit about safe lifting technique you mention that “We don’t need to worry about #3 and #4 (our load IS close to the body and hopefully nobody is keeping the feet together)…” but I find that in yoga classes a LOT of time either a teacher has specifically asked students to stand with their feet together or students think it is correct/necessary to do so. This may not be the case with a “roll-up”, but I see it all the time with students who are doing surya namaskar with tight hamstrings and flexion in their spine — even if they think they may be doing the transition from urdhva hastasana to uttanasana (and back) with a neutral spine. This is to me quite important! We do need to be educating folks to widen their stance, esp. if there is tightness in the legs/back.
Also, just a nitty gritty thing about that picture of the woman lifting the box. In that “good” depiction, she should really have her heels planted on the ground! The drive into the floor to lift the weight comes greatly from the posterior chain, which means the heels need to be down to transmit force.
Hi Whitney, thank you for your comment! I completely agree about the stance, I am not a fan of keeping feet together. Sounds like an article in the making! Let me know if you decide to write one, I’ll be happy to share it. And I agree about the heels in the lifting picture – one day I’ll get around to making my own image. Thank you for your contribution to the discussion!
You don’t have to post this but here is a blog I wrote on feet together.
I noticed my photos have vanished so I need to go back and fix that.
[…] is a lovely illustration of this that I found in an article published by Olga Cabel, a yoga teacher who is also not a fan of rolling through the […]
Do you feel the same way about the traditional pilates seated roll up?
Hi Trisha! When we are in a seated position, body’s position in relation to gravity is different. I do recommend the roll down action to strengthen the abdomen. As far as the roll up, my main concern would actually be about the neck. When the students don’t have enough abdominal strength to pull themselves up, they will tense up their necks in an effort to lift up. If you can help them avoid tensing the neck, then it should be OK. And of course if their movement is jerky, rather then smooth, it’s probably not the best choice for them. I hope this helps!
I totally agree with your comments about spinal roll ups and I also cringe when I see people moving this way. I created a style of yoga called Yogalign which has a central theme of optional spine alignment in every pose. Most people do not realize that the connective tissue forces that ‘string’ the spine in the necessary tension for upright alignment become loose when we flex the spinal column in positions that require muscular effort of the abdomen. Our trunk muscles main function is to stabilize the spine and keep the rib cage aligned above the hips. Many yoga forward bends and of course the rollup enlist the abdominals to flex
the spinal column. The bane of aging in the modern world is falling forward and losing the natural curves in the spinal column. Why do any yoga pose that flexes the spinal column under pressure loads? See my website at http://www.yogalign.com . I would like to communicate with you and share what I have learned about changing posture at the nervous system level. It is so refreshing to hear others speak the anatomical truths. Michaelle Edwards, Hanalei, Hawaii
Hi Michaelle, thank you for your comment! I am familiar with your work and really appreciate your efforts! I even quoted you in my other post: http://sequencewiz.org/2013/12/17/shoulderstand-to-teach-or-not-to-teach-that-is-the-question/ Let me know if you’d like us to coordinate somehow!
Hi Olga, Really enjoying your website. A chiropractor with over a decade of experience just took my teacher training as he wanted to learn more about posture reeducation for working with his clients. He tells me that he has noticed that yogis tend to have a very flat spine and weak core muscles and I feel its because people do not have to engage their muscles in many poses but they just hang from their joint structures. I am already working with women in their 20’s who have destabilized sacral platforms. I hope the yoga world wakes up before someone very powerful starts to tell the press how dangerous it can be. The media may throw the baby out with the bathwater if you know what I mean. Some Yoga teachers adjust people in ways that would cause PTS and massage therapists to loose their license to practice. Since yoga is basically unregulated, its a free for all.
Can you contact me via my email at email@example.com?
It would be great to collaborate at some point too.
I think we can all agree that the general population has a hunched over posture lacking energy. So, why would we teach this hunched over roll movement? It’s not just the movements we’re teaching in Yoga, it’s the ancient energetics. The forward bend is transformational if taught with energetics and the bent knees option. If you ground your feet, pushing them down. You automatically engage your core muscles to protect the spine in a forward bend. Rising up, the prana energy moves upwards into the heart, opening the energetic heart! Is there a better alternative to teaching our students to open their hearts?
Thank you Katherine; I agree!
Thanks for the informative article. The safest, easiest and perhaps most satisfying way that I have experienced to roll down and roll up the spine is the active isolated stretching (AIS) developed by Aaron Mattes: Bent Knee Trunk Flexion. There is a demonstration of the stretch on the website of Yoga and AIS instructor Adarsh: http://www.smartstretch.com/videos/full-back-sequence-spin-stretch/
To do the stretch, begin from an upright seated position with flexed legs out in front about 1/2 meter. On an exhale, firmly contract the abdominals as you curl your chin towards your chest, further rounding your nose towards the naval and allowing the spine to flex forward and down.
I am curious to see what others (e.g., Olga) think of the stretch.
Also, if I am rolling up the spine from a standing position, I start with really bent knees, slowly straightening them as I roll up. This seems to release potentially hazardous stress on the lower lumber, particular where it meets the sacrum.
This is amazing!!
I always wondered of I was doing it wrong and I was. By lifting with my chest slowly, I can literally feel the difference in how my bodies weight was being distributed when I stood up. It takes slightly more effort, but my goodness I feel so silly now I know how much pressure I was putting on my lower back.
I am glad it was useful, Ali! When you lift up by leading with the chest, you are also strengthening your lower back; and who doesn’t want a strong lower back?!
Having read this article, I looked on the web to see if I could find a valid reason – beyond “relaxation” or being “in touch” with your body – to do a spinal roll. I couldn’t find one. I also tried to see if physiotherapists recommended doing them. I couldn’t find anything. So I think I’m going to stop doing spinal rolls!
One thing I don’t understand, though, is why it would be OK to roll down? Isn’t it just as bad? (Picking something up badly is just as bad as putting it down badly)
Hi Kate! Thank you for looking into reasons for the spinal roll – I am yet to see one that outweighs the risk! When you roll down because of the boy’s position in relation to gravity, the direction of force applied to the disks is completely different. Rounding the spine occasionally is not a bad thing; it helps to keep your spine supple and brings circulation into the discs. It is problematic when you round the spine AND ask it to bear big heavy load at the same time. When you roll up, gravity pulls you INTO the spinal flexion, which, along with the weight of the head and upper body puts too much stress on the discs. When you roll down the gravity pulls you OUT of spinal flexion, which you resist with your abdominal contraction, strengthening those muscles. I hope this makes sense. And if still in doubt, don’t teach the roll down either! Thank you for your comment.
I’m not going to add too much to this debate about rolling up or not rolling up. As a physical therapist, though, I will say that I have seen *yoga* students mess themselves up quite a bit doing *both* variations.
But there are two pieces of misinformation you owe it to your readers to correct if you want to write responsibily about biomechanics and anatomy:
1) It is entirely possible (and fairly simple) for an otherwise healthy student to roll up with adequate lumbar support by engaging the pelvic floor and transversus. If yoga students are not doing it I would say that is failure in the teaching not a failure in the movement.
2) In adults, the intervertebral discs do not receive circulation. Your claim that spinal movement increases circulation to the discs is misinformation. The vascular structures that nourish the discs deteriorate after infancy and in adults, discs are nourished almost entirely by osmosis. It is unknown how static and cyclic compressive forces influence this osmosis.
I agree with everything said in this article. I don’t roll up in my own practice. And I understand that some teachers argue that they can make rolling up less risky but for the bodies I see the least risky option (and I believe all movement that takes us outside of anatomical neutral falls on a continuum of risk) is the way that you described. I have been to workshops and classes in some of the countries top studios with big name teachers and have never heard rolling up taught with as much detail as some of the arguments in this comment section. In fact I rarely hear instructions for rolling up that would really help negate some of the riskiest parts of the movement. You can find the same benefits that were argued for rolling up in other poses in practice with out the same risk. Really good article.
Thank you Nicole! I had to chuckle when I read “never heard rolling up taught with as much detail as some of the arguments in this comment section“, because this has been my experience as well 🙂 It always comes down to whether we teach the student that’s in front of us or some remote idea. Love your comment, thank you for taking the time to write it!
What about cat-cow? Does that hurt the spine?
Hi Olivia! No, cat-cow is perfectly fine. Here your spine is supported both by your arms and by your legs. This movement is very good for mobilizing the spine to keep it supple and flexible.
Thank you very much for answering so quickly.
I started to get back problems that might be due to a bulging disk and found your post very informative.
Thank you! Yes, you need to be extra careful. Don’t give in to roll-up peer pressure in a yoga class 🙂
My physical therapist had me doing mini cat-cows when I had a severely herniated disc. If I could do full cat-cows I am sure she would have had me do those. I suspect I had the worst herniated disc problem she’d ever had to treat, as my physician and the MRI technician all said that. So cat-cows are probably the best yoga move if you suspect spine issues. After surgery I subbed anything that was too difficult or looked to be hard on my spine with cat-cows and child pose.
Love this post and Love your blog!!
In the ‘rolling down’ version you offer from a seated position, you’re supposed to also roll back up or did you mean to just roll down once without rolling back up? So if yes rolling up also- with a rounded back or neutral? And that’s against gravity again, no? But in the roll up phase here in this version the load on the lumbar area won’t be as big? And if I do it with legs straight, is it the same idea as in standing- more pressure on the discs than with bent knees?
You wrote- “If your hamstrings are tight you are risking disk compression any time you bend forward…” so if the hamstrings are not tight, there still will be flexion in the spine when you bend forward.. so then, whenever you bend forward and create flexion in the spine, you’re risking disc injury or only when the hamstrings are tight?
So we shouldn’t bend forward so much? It is one of the movements the spine is meant to do, no? Or is it that when we’re bending forward we should do it with a straight back/ neutral spine? Or again, maybe it depends on the body’s relation to gravity?
Thanks a lot! 😀 😀
Thank you Katia! It shouldn’t be a problem to roll up in a seated position, since you will have to actively use your abdomen to do it, providing support for your back. I would be more concerned about the neck here, since most folks tend to jerk with their heads if they don’t have enough abdominal strength to lift them up.
Forward bend is a natural movement of the spine and we certainly do not want to loose that ability. All I mean is that we don’t need to keep the legs straight when we bend forward; a little bend in the knees will go far in protecting our backs. I explored this idea in this post about safe forward bending, may be that will help better answer your questions? Thank you for your comment!
excellent articles and feed back
I am sorry to say, but people ( in the west ) have been trying their best to understand the body and most people really can’t understand it…Neither is the scientific knowledge sufficient ( that seems to have been put logically here ) out here not your analysis of the spine, neither the tools. Most of us wince because we do not understand the body and what each posture does.
Since a lot has been said here already, I will suggest reading a book called Anatomy of Hatha Yoga.
And yes no body can damage their spines by rolling their back upwards, no matter how much gravity and weight of head or hands put pressure on the spine. Only exception is they have had severe back injuries, but even then they will just find it hard to come up. Thats all.
thank you – thought provoking article and comments
I have recently been experiencing chronic lower back pain, I went to the osteo, and then to chiropractor/physio/manual therapist about the issues i was having… After a thorough body analysis, he simply asked me to bend over to pick up my socks, which i painfully did, he said ” is that how you would normally bend over to pick something up?” I was like well yea… What he later asked me was if i was a dancer or gymnyst at all, now or as a child, I was/am not . I have however been practicing yoga. So it was established that my muscle memory, and yoga routine of rising as the article suggests, is actually doing my back and micro ligaments no good! I was suggested to move in a more organic and natural way, becoming more concious of how my body moves, especially bending to stand!?! I have since been doing a lot more, bent knee roll ups through my spine in my practice , being consciously aware of moving from my deep core space and have been feeling a whole lot better for it! I teach bent knee roll up to stand and I feel moving organically within our postures is so very important so as not to form habits, (like i have) and create better balance in our body’s muscles and ultimately in our entire physical structure 🙂 just my five sense worth 😉
Thank you very much for the article, it was very informative. I would love to hear your opinion about the relationship between tight hamstrings of a person who doesn’t stretch them at all and lumbar vertebrae & discs. Is it true that if your hamstrings are super tight, it pulls the discs quite strongly and in the long term, the discs are squeezed at the back even when standing straight? In this case, isn’t is advisable to make the person bend forward to compensate for the pulling and disc squeezing at the back and also rolling gently up, adding to that anterior disc compression? Thank you so much!
Hi Emilia! In my experience very tight hamstrings can over time contribute to the lumbar curve becoming more flat, which, theoretically, can have an effect on the lumbar disks. I don’t see how the disks would be squeezed in the back; they would be more likely to be compressed at the front, which we call “anterior disk compression” and this is exactly what the article is about. So in my opinion rolling up would be more likely to exacerbate the situation then help it, since when your hamstrings are really tight, most of the curve in the forward bend would come from your lumbar spine. If you want to work with tight hamstrings I would suggest something like this practice, that approaches the issue gradually without excessive forward bending. I hope this helps!
Thank you for this wise examination of a prevalent practice. Almost 30% of my clients as a yoga therapist have diagnosed degenerative disc disease from a sedentary chair sitting lifestyle and the squishing of those doughnuts in ANY leg position is contraindicated. These are the diagnosed cases, think how many who pop into Hatha class at the behest of their uninformed physicians are compressing discs and risking rupture.
I don’t think most beginners have the comprehension of their spines, at least over the last 40 years of observing people’s practice, to articulate with abdominal engagement. And many long time practitioners need a major assessment of their forward folds because ego is a lousy anatomy teacher. As teachers, class size may prohibit individual examination of potential damaging alignment. Being clear and ruling out the possibility is always best.
Sharing this one freely.
Thank you Beth – beautifully put! And your comment that “ego is a lousy anatomy teacher” – I should tattoo it somewhere (or at least put it on a T-shirt 🙂 )
Great article. I have several lumber discs bulging and sometimes it’s quite a problem. Yoga has always helped (I am an E- RYT-200) my back mobility and strength. Having said that, I can telll you first hand that with a lumbar herniatioin or “just a bulge” rolling up is not a good idea. It is painful and can cause further damage. On one occasion it put me down for over a week. I don’t roll up slowly or gently anymore. This may be OK for a young completely perfect spine. But who has that anymore? Not even you equates to healthy. Many people do not even know they have bulging or herniated discs. So why chance it at all? Thanks for the article!
Clearly one size does not fit all.
I teach according to how Sadie Nardini taught me and in a general yoga class of healthy students it works a treat. I have seen them become much, much stronger and aware when they have the knowledge and ability to connect to their deep core line.
If they already come with a back injury in “my opinion” they should have a 121 where other alternatives and appropriate poses are given with an intension to eventually move towards, if possible, using the deep core line.
The deep core line moves you and strengthens you evenly along the chain of muscles as a whole instead of locating one area of the body to do the job.
It is an awareness journey as some people roll up starting from the back instead of starting from the feet which is hugely different. Linda
Thank you for that great direction on transition in and out forward bend, I value the wisdom of my fellow teachers with such high regard, I am aware that the message for yoga which we delivery must be made with utmost respect and care.
Dear Olga. Thanks for this article. The more I read from your site and try your videos The most I get convinced there are many changes needed in the way yoga is Taught every day … I have a specific question about another comment that suggests reading the book “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga “. I have it and even though It seems to be a comprehensive sutudy of anatomy I have not found myself to agree With its teaching Sometimes When I consult it. Do you know it? Would you offer your comments on it? 🙂
I do understand the implications of rolling up and how that can be counter-productive, long term. However, the video that you showed — which is beautiful, by the way — can also be done incorrectly. If you teach it that way, which I call a Reverse Swan Dive, you’re implying that the student already has a strong awareness and use of their core to balance the hips and pelvis and root down through the feet to prevent arching of the low back, which in turn, could also cause long-term issues (and maybe even pinching/pain at the time).
This is bs. Moving the spines good for it. Rolling from the spine is a different pattern than hinging at the hips but a perfectly good one and an often week and neglected one. It is the same action that is need for rolling on the ground as in a forward roll or doing a press to handstand. There is no reason it should be injurious, in fact adding weight to them can be quite beneficial.
The comments section is a hilarious example of a bit of knowledge Dale Carnegie shared in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People: Never tell a person they’re wrong. Great points and clear knowledge of anatomical mechanics in your blog, yet people have a hard time questioning themselves, what they teach, or what they’ve been taught. Keep up the great work!
In Pilates classes the role up is taught with knees slightly bent – that’s all you need to do. Bend your knees to do it.
If rolling up from a standing forward bend can damage your intervertebral discs, then so can putting on your shoes, picking up an object from the floor, sitting on the toilet taking a dump, etc., etc.
This is ill-informed, misguided anatomical fear-mongering that discourages people from doing natural movement that could be educational, beneficial and healing.
I teach spinal roll-down, roll-up ALL THE TIME in my private sessions and workshops, and have NEVER had a problem with it.
I am weary of having to debunk this sort of thing every time I teach about the spine. I challenge the author of this article to provide scientifically verifiable evidence for any of the claims being made.
As a teacher and therapist who has osteoporosis ( a result of celiac disease) I use Olga’s cautions for myself and many if my clients and students over 60.
I love your work and Gary and Olga’s work and glean much from all of your thoughts on movement. I do, however, lean toward eliminating the roll up and rounded forward fold as therapeutic.
Hi Leslie, Thank you for your comment! It was lovely to meet you at the Yoga Therapy Summit; too bad we didn’t get a chance to discuss this issue in person. Let’s look at the facts first, shall we? When we roll up, we reverse the lumbar curve and create lumbar flexion, even if we bend the knees. Reversing the lumbar curve means that the anterior portion on the lumbar discs gets compressed. In addition, “this lifting strategy (spine flexion) has quite dramatic effects on shear loading of the intervertebral column and the resultant injury risk”. (Stewart McGill “Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation”). He continues: “Let’s examine the specific forces that result from flexing the lumbar spine. The recruited ligaments appear to contribute to the anterior shear force so that shear force levels are likely to exceed 1000N (224 lbs). Such large sheer forces are of great concern from an injury risk viewpoint. However, when a more neutral lordotic posture is adopted, the extensor musculature is responsible for creating the extensor moment and at the same time provides a posterior shear force that supports the anterior shearing action of gravity on the upper body and handheld load. The joint shear forces are reduced to about 200N (about 45 lbs). Thus, using muscle to support the moment in a more neutral posture, rather then being fully flexed with ligaments supporting the moment, greatly reduces shear loading.” (page 101) There are plenty of scientific resources sited in his book.
The difference in the spinal load here is striking. Whether or not you agree with Stewart McGill or his methodology, we cannot just dismiss his results (I certainly cannot). The question is – will that kind of load cause damage? This is a great question that nobody has a clear answer to. For healthy spines (and if done rarely and mindfully) – probably not. But how do you know whose spine is healthy and whose isn’t it? When I am looking at the students in my class I simply have no idea about the condition of their discs. As you are well aware, a lot of times those conditions are asymptomatic, until somebody sits down to tie their shoes and then cannot sit up. Then they get an MRI and discover bulging or herniated disks, or other issues.
Ultimately, nobody knows for sure what causes disk damage for each individual person – trauma? degeneration? genetics? habitual movement patterns? It’s probably some combination of the above. For me the bottom line is that the risk of putting this kind of pressure on the disks outweighs the perceived therapeutic benefit of the roll up. There are many other ways to stretch the back, if that’s what we are after. The argument of “I’ve been doing it many times and had no problems” doesn’t convince me. We are well aware that we might be doing things one way for years and feel very strongly about it only to discover that it was potentially not the best way to proceed.
I appreciate your passion and conviction regarding this subject and glad that we can have a civil discussion about it. I cannot wait to hear how you would “debunk” Dr McGill’s findings.
Wow, what an amazing article and collection of responses. Really great to hear such passionate and interesting arguments from all sides. It certainly is a lot to think about, do further research on, etc. Thanks to everyone that provided links! I am a yoga teacher and always teach the extension first, as Olga suggests. I teach it in a progression, with the first time instructing it with bent knees, hands pressing on thighs to assist spinal extension, etc. Then each time after that we progress a step (the next time knees still bent, but hands to the rim of the pelvis and elbows up to assist, then perhaps knees straight, etc) and I let students decide which version fits their body the best on any particular day, but always done taking the spine to extension before straightening up the pelvis/spine from the hip joint. Thank you for starting such a fascinating conversation!
There is no exact number of times it takes when “rolling up the spine” to cause an injury. Is it 100, 1000 or 23 times? No one knows, and they are lying if they think they do. Whilst this article presents a point, it displays zero evidence except a basic picture of a vertebrae. It is ESSENTIAL that we recognise that rolling the spine up is not the problem… It’s the repetition over time that MAY (or may not) cause injury. Most people above the age of 40 have a bulging disc and are seemingly unaware of it as it causes no trouble. Doing yoga poses repetitively everyday pays a price. Just like the jogging craze of the 1980’s/90’s we all know someone with a knee or hip replacement due to hitting the pavement 5-6x per week. You may ask “but why risk it?”, any movement carries a risk. But what’s more risky, moving in a variety of ways or not moving at all?
Rolling the spine is not the issue, otherwise our body wouldn’t have been made to do it.
short video link out of order
Thank you for letting me know! We’ll look into it.
HI I would be grateful if the video could be posted that’s currently a broken link? I would love to learn how to come up form a forward bend safely, and I don’t get it from the description – thank you!
Thank you Sarita! I fixed the link. It helps to practice that technique in other forward bends, too. If you get a chance, check out my Instagram account @ok.yoga where I explore different variations of yoga poses and how to do them. Right now we are focusing on Uttanasana.
I always teach without the roll up. I used to have a lot of back issues and the roll up was very painful. I would painfully crawl up my legs and felt yoga was bad for my back. I later took a yoga training thru YogaFit and was taught the dead man lift style ascent from forward fold and my posterior chain became so much stronger. My back is essentially pain free. I can feel the muscles in my erector spinae. They have become so much more defined thanks to using the lift described in this blog. I have taught the lift above to mothers, which is so important. Mums pick up children, clothes and toys from the ground on an endless basis. Saved many a mother’s back. Please listen to this post. It is the very best way to come out of forward fold and take your yoga off the mat.