Minding the Gap: Try These Techniques for Your Back Pain

About a year ago, I was riding the train in London with a good friend of mine from France.

If you’ve ever been on the tube in London, then you know the automated lady who says “mind the gap” when the doors open (referring to the gap between the train and the platform).

At some point, we started to get a kick out of the whole phrase “mind the gap”, and it became a standing joke throughout the trip (I still don’t understand why we found it so amusing). We would find ourselves saying “mind the gap” in almost every situation—it’s amazing how versatile those few words can be.

“Dude, how does this have anything to do with my back pain? Why are you talking about gaps in London?”

I swear it’s relevant. Let me explain…

Shortly after returning home, I had an epiphany about the gap.

I was doing my daily “de-funking” (which involves me moving around awkwardly until the muscular tension dissipates) when I had the sudden realization that I really need to “mind the gap”.

I burst out into laughter—this was the culmination of what I thought was just mindless joking between my friend and I. I regret that she missed the punch line.

Anyway, here’s the deal. Have a look at your skeleton:

photo courtesy of Science Museum London

Do you see that huge space between your rib cage and your pelvis? It’s very important. There’s a lot going on in that area.

This “gap” is the bridge between your upper body and your lower body.

Sure, the spine connects the torso to the pelvis, but without all of the muscle tissue in this gap, you would collapse. The muscles surrounding this area are what make you a biped—we ought to pay attention to them.

Not surprisingly, much of our chronic back pain is directly related to tension and dysfunction within this critical “gap”.

Here are 3 simple things you can do to help loosen this area up. If you can keep the gap soft and relaxed, you will discover your true core—the body’s center of strength, resilience, and vitality.

(FYI—your core is not your six-pack abs. That’s enough crunches for now.)

OK, here we go:

1. Get to know your diaphragm

We’ve all heard some variation of “it’s all in the breath”. There is a growing body of research about the importance of proper breathing for overall health. Here’s an easy-to-read article if you’re interested. But gaining mastery over your breath is a particularly challenging endeavor. If you’ve ever felt annoyed (or enraged) when your blissed-out yoga teacher keeps saying “just breathe through it”, rest assured that you are not alone.

Take a look at your diaphragm:

diagram courtesy of TeachMeAnatomy

The diaphragm is a thin, half-dome shaped muscle. When you inhale, it flattens out, pushing down on the abdominal cavity. When you exhale, it relaxes back into the half-dome position.

If you’re a tactile learner, it will be extremely helpful to really feel the movement of your diaphragm. Relax your belly and place your fingers underneath the front of your rib cage. As you fold forward, your abdomen should soften up, allowing you to tuck your fingers up into the ribcage.

Bend your knees and fold forward as deeply as necessary—the most important thing is for your belly to be soft and relaxed. Hang out in this position until you’re really able to move your hands along the inside wall of the ribcage. Don’t be afraid to apply a bit of pressure and sort of massage this area of your upper abdomen. Move your head and neck around to release the spine. Relax the hips and the pelvis, and use your awareness to scan your entire body for areas of tension, discomfort, or gripping. This includes your eyeballs, your jaw, your tongue, and your throat.

You might be surprised to find how relaxing something as insignificant as an eyebrow can bring on a huge release in a seemingly unrelated area.

Feel the expansion and contraction of your abdomen as the diaphragm moves up and down with the breath. Imagine your diaphragm becoming as flat as possible with each inhale. Pay special attention to the sides and back of your abdomen—these are usually the most restricted areas of the belly.

2. Rub your belly

Seriously. Sit comfortably and start rubbing and massaging your belly. Push into those organs (gently and carefully) as you breathe. Understand that your abdomen is three-dimensional. There should be expansion and retraction at your sides and your lower back as you breathe. Bring your hands to the sides and back of your abdomen and apply some gentle pressure. Use your breath to push against the pressure you are creating with your hands.

Releasing your abdominal muscles can greatly reduce your back pain.

Try rocking side-to-side and front-to-back. You can twist and look over either shoulder, you can bend over and bring your head towards your knees—explore the nearly infinite movements you can make with your torso. Try moving your head and neck as well—this helps the nervous system to relax. It is very likely that you will experience agitation, tightness, or even pain. Keep moving, keep breathing, and be gentle. Continue to scan your entire body for areas of gripping and holding. If you are clenching your jaw or furrowing your brow, it will be very difficult for your abdomen to relax. Everything is connected.

3. Release your lumbar area

Place your hands on the sides of your abdomen with your thumbs pressing directly towards the sides of your lumbar spine. Lean from side to side and feel the contraction of the muscles under your thumbs.

Gently squeeze your abdomen with your hands to get a better idea of how this area feels as you move. The quadratus lumborum, erector spinae, and psoas pass through this area and they play a critical role in moving and supporting your body—it’s crucial that they be supple, strong, and healthy. Try rotating, twisting, bending forward, bending forward while twisting—the possibilities are endless.

The key is to become aware of what sorts of movements cause these muscles to contract. When you feel the muscles tighten, try gently moving back and forth between that threshold of contraction and relaxation and notice how the muscles begin to release, allowing you to move further and stretch deeper.

Keep your hips and pelvis relaxed, and pay special attention to your feet and your knees, ensuring that they are staying light and springy. Move your toes and try bending your knees to take some pressure off your back. Keep asking yourself “how can I make this movement easier, smoother, and less strenuous?” The goal is to create as much space between the ribcage and the pelvis as possible—we want to maximize the size of the gap. Keep using your awareness to scan your entire body. Again, relaxing seemingly unrelated areas could bring great relief to habitually restricted parts of the body.

As you continue this practice of “minding the gap”, you will notice your posture becoming naturally upright. In other words, you will not be contracting every muscle in your back just to keep it straight. You will feel lighter and more buoyant. This is a result of the superficial muscles around the gap relaxing, which allows the deep muscle system (your true core) to activate and hold your body up in space. The relationship between the superficial and deep muscle system is an entire subject in and of itself, but bringing movement and softness into this part of your body can be the first step towards repairing your superficial muscle tissue and developing your deep muscle tissue.

A robust deep muscle system means greater range of motion, relief from chronic pain/tension (that includes back pain), and a drastic increase in strength and stamina, among many other great benefits.

So, what seemed to be a trivial experience on the London tube turned out to be a clear message to pay attention to a very significant yet underdeveloped part of the musculoskeletal system. The gap contains some serious muscle groups and they have a tremendous impact on our overall health and wellbeing.

If you’ve ever been on a train in a busy city, then you are no stranger to the sort of tension that can develop. People are in a hurry, it’s a stampede to the door, it’s hot, and some drunk peed in the corner last night and the smell is horrendous. When you’re on a train like that, nearly every muscle in your body is contracted.

photo courtesy of wizzed.com

Sometimes our lives feel like that train, and our body responds accordingly.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. When you find yourself on the hell train (literally or metaphorically), take a minute, consult your diaphragm, and listen to that nice British lady when she tells you to “mind the gap”. Freedom is just on the other side.

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