Last month I wrote about the summer solstice and International Yoga Day and how it’s become customary to perform sun salutation type sequences at this time of the year. Since then I’ve had lots of questions about sun salutations, what are they and are their benefits.
As noted in my previous article, gestures of honouring and paying reverence to the natural world encourage us to appreciate and feel more connected to the rhythms of life and have been part of yoga traditions as they evolved and developed across South Asia for the last 3000 years or more. On a physical level, there are also many benefits to practicing these types of sequences, in fact too many, to list in one article, but one very interesting benefit is the particular way they help to increase fluid in our intervertebral discs.
Although there are many variations, the vast majority of sun salutation type sequences are comprised of flexion and extension type movements, linked together as short sequences which are then repeated a number of times. They are most often practiced in rhythm with the breath, so one movement is made on an inhale, the next on an exhale, and so on.
Intervertebral discs are like liquid cushions that sit between the spinal vertebrae. These fluid-filled cushions support movement through shock absorption and by maintaining space between the vertebrae so they don’t rub together as we move, protecting against osteoarthritis. A disc with good fluid levels is also more resilient and less likely to herniate which can lead to all sorts of painful conditions including sciatica.
Loading of the spine, which due to gravity happens any time we are upright (sitting or standing) and is increased with certain activities like running and bending, pushes fluid out of the discs and they can lose around 20% of their fluid content during the day. Lying down allows the fluid back in and discs re-hydrate when we sleep or rest lying down, like at the end of our yoga classes in Savasana for e.g. However, from the age of around 30 years old, more water leaves the disc during the day than enters when we lie down. It’s estimated that the adult spine loses up to 20 mm (about 3/4 inch) of disc height each day due to loss of fluid and over time, as we age, sleeping helps us regain less and less height – this can lead to a loss of up to two inches by the time we reach 60.
How do yoga salutation-type sequences help to reverse this? Proteoglycans in our discs exert a powerful osmotic pull on water, countering the effect of gravity. The creation of proteoglycans is reduced by sustained pressure BUT stimulated by on/off pressure changes. The Salutation sequences with their repeated flexion and extension movement patterns create the perfect type of on/off pressure in the discs to stimulate the growth of these proteins helping our discs pull in more fluid when we sleep.
In summary, practicing yoga salutation type sequences increases our disc’s ability to draw fluid in and this not only helps us to move more freely and without pain, but also helps us to stay the same height or even regain the height we’ve lost. You may be interested to know that many of my mid-life students tell me they’ve got taller since practicing yoga!
Keep taking good care of yourself, Clair.