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Low Back Pain & Bulletproofing

I once had a client come to see me who had been working in a bustling worker-owned pizza shop for over 20 years. Her spine was visibly twisted and she told me about her ‘back pain episodes.’ These episodes would happen semi-frequently while she was at work (a very physically demanding environment) and she would suddenly be in excruciating pain, to the point where she would almost pass out and struggle to get to her car. She would somehow manage to drive home and would lay in bed for hours if not days before she would slowly manage to get up and make her way back to work.

I was so struck by the life of this lovely person who made the most delicious locally crafted food for her community and yet she was living in a desperate trap with a physically demanding job and an excruciating level of pain. One of the first things that I had her do was stand gently against a wall so that she could start to feel and assess for herself the degree of twist in her spine. It was very exciting to see, just 20 minutes later when she stood against the wall again, how much her spine had re-adjusted from the work we had done.

I’ll come back to her in a moment, but I want to stop here for a second because I think this experience is actually very common. Low back pain is one of the most common ailments and many adults struggle with chronic pain somewhere along their spine that can last for years if not decades. There can often be a mindset of disheartened acceptance, of just living with it, the type of mindset that tells us, “I just have to make it a few more hours and then I can go take a hot bath and go to bed early.”

This makes me want to scream from the rooftops, “Nooooooooo” and it fills me with a drive to help others get out of pain and get out of this trap of, “just living with it.” At the same time, it is totally understandable why so many people just feel like giving up. I myself had sought out help from a long list of skilled chiropractors, body workers, and physical therapists with only moderate results and I know the feeling of hopelessness well.

So what’s missing? I am reminded of this moment when I made a huge discovery about my body. I’m certain that some of the professionals I’d worked with had noticed this, but I personally had never fully realized that I couldn’t twist my ribcage to the right. I mean, if you watched me twist it would totally look like I could twist each way, but when I deepened my awareness and felt where the movement was coming from it was a different story. The two sides felt wildly different!

This little story is, I believe, actually hugely significant. You see, I had been a semi-professional athlete, performer, dancer, and yogi with many thousands of hours of training under my belt, but it had never crossed my mind (nor had anyone ever coached me) to simply observe my natural movement potential without trying to stretch or twist or work harder to make it happen. And this is hugely significant for one reason: self-awareness and empowerment. You see, it didn’t really help me all that much that the chiropractor knew my spine was twisted to the left (I mean, I do hope they actually knew that) but it left me out of options and disempowered, dependent on taking another trip to the chiropractor to get adjusted without really understanding what was going on, and certainly no better off than I had started if the treatment didn’t stick.

Let’s return to the artesian pizza maker for a moment. We left her standing against a wall, re-assessing the twist in her spine. Together we had spent about 15 minutes working on one exercise consisting of a standing stretch with one leg forward. When we walk, our pelvis and ribcage naturally (and ideally) twist a little each way. So by working carefully and specifically with just one leg forward we were able to holistically re-educate her body on how to twist in the forgotten direction. When she stood against the wall again we were both happily surprised by how much she had improved. She left that appointment with a straighter and healthier spine, but also with the self-empowered knowledge about how to repeat that process again for herself.

In the pilates and personal training worlds there is often a big focus on ‘lumbopelvic stability’ which is a fancy way of talking about abdominal strength. When we practice exercises that focus on stabilization we are hopefully building that stability around good alignment. But living life is one big asymmetrical adventure! One foot turns back and forth from the break to gas while the other foot does nothing (for how many hours per week?) we carry a small child on mostly just one hip or a heavy bag on one shoulder. What this means is that everyone has some degree of misalignment in their body, the perfect ideal of alignment is generally just that- a theoretical ideal.

Although these ideas can get a little complex, it’s really not rocket science. What I am saying here is that we can all use to gain some basic self-awareness about our unique posture and alignment tendencies. Someone who can’t twist their pelvis left is going to need something different than the person who can’t twist their ribs to the right (for example) and if you’re short on time and trying to do your best to stay pain-free efficiently and effectively than you’re going to be much better off if you have the skills and knowledge to know what stretch that is for yourself.

Armed with this knowledge you can efficiently take 5 minutes to stretch before performing your core stabilization exercises. You could also do that same stretch before going for a jog or doing some strength training.

These are the elements that make up my approach to bulletproofing. It’s a lovely word, because who doesn’t want to be bulletproof, am I right? Life demands it of us. You can’t simply quit your job even if it’s making you literally pass out from a “back pain episode” and that sweet toddler still wants to get picked up even if you're struggling to bend over. My approach to bulletproofing then is a 3 part process consisting of self-empowered awareness and mindfulness, therapeutic and restorative exercises, and finally strength and cardiovascular fitness.

I am currently putting the final touches on two different offerings if you or someone you know would benefit from bulletproof training. Bulletproofing Basics is a one-hour intro to the fundamentals, while Bullet Proof Your Back in 3 Weeks, is a 3-week program that takes you deliberately through each phase of the process. Comment below with the word “interested” and I’ll make sure you’re the first to hear when the dates and details have been confirmed. Forward to a friend in need!


'If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.' - Joe Pilates


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