and in Yoga
by Doug Keller
The multifidus muscles come into play when you are: standing still, bending forward, twisting to either side, picking things up or lifting heavier objects, walking.
They are not active when you are: bending directly to one side or the other (no twisting of the spine involved), bending backwards when there is no resistance (such as when bending backwards while standing), lying down.
These muscles are at work through a specific range of movement, and also need to know when to let go. In a forward bend the multifidus muscles contract as you bend over until you are about 40°-70° –and then the back muscles normally relax as the ligaments take over.
From our description of the kind of actions in which the multifidus muscles are active, it’s fairly easy to see that the majority of the basic hatha yoga āsanas will help strengthen them. The multifidus muscles are given a workout most when you are practicing forward bends and twists, as well as basic standing postures. They’re also strengthened when you do simple back-bending actions which involve resistance from gravity, such as in prone positions like Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana) in which you lift and extend your legs behind you.
If you do suffer from low back pain, you of course have reason to be careful before attempting such poses. Thus we should start with a couple of simple suggestions that are safest for relatively inexperienced students, and then look more deeply at the basic actions of the bandhas that can be incorporated into a more seasoned yogi’s practice.
The first step is a fairly familiar warmup that can be part of any practice:
1. Start on your hands and knees, placing a folded blanket under your knees if necessary. Keep your head in line with your spine and begin with a natural, neutral inward curve in your lower back.
2. As you exhale, extend your leg back, bringing it in line with your spine, the leg parallel to the floor and big toe pointing straight down. Keep your hips level and steady, and your abdomen firm to keep your lower back from moving.
3. Hold for a second, and then lower your knee to the floor as you inhale.
4. Alternate between the two legs, doing a few repetitions on each side, until you can work up to doing either a total of two minutes work, or twenty repetitions with each leg. Once a day for two or three days a week is plenty when you’re just starting out.
If you can manage this amount, then you add more weight and resistance to the exercise by including arm extensions:
–As you extend your right leg back, raise and extend your left arm forward at the same time, palm facing downward. Don’t lift the arm so much that it causes pinching in your shoulder or increased arching in your lower back.
–Lower your arm and leg down at the same time, and follow the same program of repetitions. As this becomes easier, light ankle weights can be added (starting with 1 lb. each); the weight is appropriate if you can manage 30 seconds of doing the exercise or 10 repetitions.
–Balance is of course more tricky in this version, and it has the added advantage of toning your lower abdominals and obliques as you work to steady your balance!
The next logical step is to take the same action into Downward Facing Dog Pose: step one foot a bit closer to the midline and lift the other leg until it is in line with your upper body. Keep your big toe pointing straight downward to keep your hips level. In this case there is no need to twist: your focus is on working the muscles at the back of the spine symmetrically. Firm your lower belly, gently pressing the muscles below your navel toward the spine, drawing them upward slightly as your tailbone lengthens back.
This last action in Downward Facing Dog Pose introduces us to the actions of the bandhas in conjunction with the multifidus muscles. This is where the deeper yoga begins.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications