Many yoga students find that the best time or the only time they can fit in a yoga practice is first thing in the morning. In the early morning, the outside world is quieter, and a morning practice can be deeply mindful, peaceful, and powerful. And yet there may be danger lurking in the early hours, due to the overnight hydration of the discs of our spine. As we sleep, our discs swell, elongating the spine. There is a good reason we feel so much stiffer first thing in the morning: We have grown! With the elongation of the spine, creep has set in. Creep is the slow lengthening of tissues that occurs when a long-held stress is applied.
Because of creep, the ligaments that wrap and invest our spine are longer but weaker in the morning. The stress on the ligaments is 80 percent higher in the morning than at night.1 We are hypomobile (less mobile than normal) early in the morning, and yet, being weaker, these ligaments are less able to restrain the spine and prevent too much movement. The result is that there is a greater risk now of going too far and damaging the joints of the spine.
Rolling out of bed and heading straight to your yoga mat is not a great idea. Give yourself some time before beginning your asana practice. Even just 30 minutes attending to your morning routine of brushing your teeth and shaving or showering can reduce the elongation of your spine by 50 percent.2 However, to fully eliminate the creep that has occurred overnight and allow the ligaments to return to their normal strength, you need either a longer period of time or some restorative movements.
Figure 1: Early in the morning, up dog (a) can put too much stress into the lower back. Until your intervertebral discs have normalized, cobra (b) is safer. Deep flexions, such as a forward fold (c), may not be great for most people (although some can tolerate them), but cat-cow movements (d) should be safe for almost everyone.
The greatest early morning danger to the elongated spine comes from full flexion.3 Since all but one of the ligaments wrapping the spine are along its posterior side, flexion is the movement that will affect these ligaments the most. Hence, avoid deep flexion first thing in the morning. Begin your practice with standing postures such as warrior I (virabhadrasana I) to help compress the discs while the spine is in a neutral position. This can assist with reducing the discs’ height and relaxing some of the stress on the ligaments. Then add some gentle mobilization of the spine, like cat-cow movements (flowing between marjaryasana and bitilasana), avoiding deep extensions and flexions at first and then gradually adding deeper extensions. If you are fond of doing sun salutations (surya namaskar) first thing in the morning, substitute low cobra (bhujangasana) postures for the deeper backbending up dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) positions (see figure 1 above) and use bent knees for the forward folds.
After Sitting for a While
Creep can also develop when we sit for a long period of time with a flexed spine— whether you’re sitting in meditation for 20 minutes,4 sitting at the wheel of your car for an hour, or sitting at a desk for several hours, if the lumbar spine is flexed, stress will decrease disc hydration, push the nucleus pulposus backward, increase ligament lengths, and decrease joint stiffness and spinal mobility.5
In these cases, the danger is one of hypermobility (more mobility than normal) rather than the hypomobility that we experience upon rising in the morning. The creep that results from holding a flexed posture in the lower back for just 20 minutes does not dissipate quickly. In the first two minutes of recovery, only 50 percent of the joint stiffness is regained. Indeed, it may take 30 minutes for the spine to lose the laxity it developed from the long-held flexion.6
The lesson to be learned here is that one should try to avoid dynamic postures that bring the spine into flexion right after a long period of sitting. Do not go from sitting meditation into deep forward flexion of the spine without allowing some recovery time.
In the workplace, after you’ve been sitting, avoid lifting heavy objects (or any other movements that place a strain on the back) until the back has had time to return to normal or until you’ve done counter-postures. Examples of people at risk include delivery drivers who sit for a long time and then jump up and carry heavy boxes to their clients, and athletes who sit on a bench for several minutes before jumping back into the game. (In the latter case, it is much better to stand at the bench instead of sitting, as standing avoids flexing the lumbar.)
After a long period of flexion, simply extending the spine for a few minutes can help the ligaments regain their protective stiffness.7 Sphinx or cobra poses for a couple of minutes are ideal counter-postures to long-held seated postures that flex the lumbar spine. Using a lumbar cushion will help to avoid lumbar flexion while sitting at a desk or driving. An athlete sitting on the bench or a meditator sitting in meditation can keep the lordotic curve in their lower back by sitting tall, with an erect spine; sitting on a cushion makes this easier. Avoid slouching for more than several minutes at a time.
All of the above is good advice for most people, especially those who suffer from lower back problems or are prone to those issues. However, there are many people whose particular anatomy allows them to move the spine fully early in the morning or after sitting in meditation. You may be one of those lucky few. Even so, our bodies change, and what we can get away with earlier in life may not be so benign later on. Practice with attention and intention and you will be alert to any warning signs your spine may be sending you.
This article is excerpted from Your Spine, Your Yoga—Developing stability and mobility for your spine by Bernie Clark.
1. See M.A. Adams, P. Dolan, and W.C. Hutton, “Diurnal Variations in the Stresses on the Lumbar Spine,” Spine 12.2 (1987): 130.
2. See Reilly et al., “Circadian Variation,” cited in McGill, Low Back Disorders, 96.
3. See S.H. Snook, B.S. Webster, R.W. McGorry, M.T. Fogleman, and K.B. McCann, “The Reduction of Chronic Non-specific Low Back Pain through the Control of Early Morning Lumbar Flexion,” Spine 23 (1998): 2601–7.
4. An exception would be if your sitting posture includes a normal lordotic curve. If the spine is in its neutral shape while you meditate, little creep should arise. However, most people lose most of their lordosis when sitting, due to their slouching posture, and that is when creep occurs.
5. See McGill, Low Back Disorders, 1st ed., 96.
6. See McGill, Low Back Disorders, 97.
7. See McGill, Low Back Disorders, 97.