Yoga for snow shovelers

Monday, Jan. 12, 2009 1:17 AM
1) Cow: Susan Atkinson demonstrates the cow, a yoga stretch that begins on hands and knees. From the
original position, drop the belly, open the chest and look up. Alternate the cow with the cat posture five times.

Yoga, a millennia-old philosophy originating in India to unify mind and body through physical and mental exercise, can serve a much more utilitarian purpose, says a Durango instructor of the ancient art.

The same stretching exercises that some physical therapists and professional football teams incorporate in their training or rehabilitation can spare snow shovelers injuries to back, hip and leg, Susan Atkinson says.

"Snow shoveling is good exercise - aerobic exercise for the heart and weightlifting for muscle strength," Atkinson said. "The bad news is that snow removal can cause excessive stress on the heart and spinal structure, which is a cause of lower-back pain and vertebral disc damage."

In addition to using the right equipment and dressing for the occasion, loosening muscles before shoveling snow is paramount, Atkinson said.

"Tight muscles are more prone to injury than warmed-up muscles," Atkinson said. "Do yourself a favor by warming up muscles in your neck, shoulders, arms, back and legs for 10 minutes."

The reaction of Joan Pope, a yoga instructor and occupational therapist in Durango: Right on.

"I'm partial to yoga because it's gentler on the joints and builds strength around them as well as increasing flexibility," Pope said. "Yoga is good not only before doing a strenuous activity but also afterwards because it relaxes stress in the back and shoulders."

A lot of shoulder injuries occur when the body is used in an unaccustomed way, Pope said. Snow shoveling is a prime example, she said.

"One mistake snow shovelers make is shoveling from the same side," Pope said. "They should switch and shovel from the other side. But if you do yoga regularly it keeps you flexible and you'll be ready for more strenuous activity."

Kathy Curran of 4 Corners Yoga has taught yoga for 30 years, 22 of them in Durango.

"My specialty is exercise to relieve the effects of snow shoveling," Curran said. "Shoveling is hard on arms, joints and the back."

Last week, Curran installed a ropes wall - 18 pairs of ropes from which people with an aching body can hang to relieve soreness in arms and back.

Hanging upside down is good for back pain, she said.

"Snow shoveling or gardening in the summer are asymmetrical actions," Curran said. "Yoga brings the body back in balance. It's amazing how yoga fixes pain."

Atkinson demonstrated exercises with names such as cow, cat and downward dog. Others go by less evocative names.

Atkinson took up yoga when she injured a foot teaching high-impact aerobics.

She found yoga was less stressful, which allowed the foot to heal.

Yoga is a better warm-up than calisthenics for exertion such as snow shoveling because yoga positions are assumed gradually rather than suddenly, Atkinson said.

Good body mechanics protects against injury, Atkinson said.

"The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends that in lifting snow the shoveler should squat with legs apart, knees bent and back straight," Atkinson said. "Lift with your legs and don't bend at the waist. Move your feet rather than twisting, keep hands at least 12 inches apart on the shovel, preferably one with a bent handle, and never throw snow over the shoulder.

"Listen to your body," Atkinson said. "If you feel pain, stop and seek care. The saying 'No pain, no gain' doesn't apply to yoga."

Many people avoid yoga because they think their bodies aren't flexible, Atkinson said.

The fact is that people who tend to be inflexible are the ones who need yoga the most and who get more benefits from it.

"The reason you do yoga is to develop a more flexible body," Atkinson said.

Yoga on a regular basis can keep the body flexible and strong, said Atkinson, who offered a tip for the faint of heart:
"Consider buying a snow blower."