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Keep the Joy in Walking

Updated: Jan 9

Lots of folks took up walking during the pandemic as an alternative to group classes. Even more folks turn to walking once they give up running, tennis or higher intensity sports. And there are a good number of golfers who walk the course rather than use a cart.

Walking gets us outside, often with friends or significant others. It brings us joy. Why then does it also often bring pain? From achy hips to sciatica, sore knees or low backs to foot pain, walking has its fair share of injuries. "But I thought walking was supposed to be good for me," they say. If you have already scaled back from more intense sports, and even walking hurts, it can be quite discouraging.

The image above accompanied an article from the Baylor College of Medicine, extolling the benefits of walking for health, especially to reduce future knee pain incidents. The article paraphrases the findings of the featured study:

"Those who reported walking for exercise had 40% decreased odds of new frequent knee pain compared to non-walkers."

However, if we look at the image closely, we can identify several movement patterns that highly correlate with knee, hip, and back pain. While exercising in any amount is better than not exercising at all, misalignments can still lead to injury. From the yoga therapy perspective, it is not so much WHAT exercise you do, as HOW you do it.

Path of Least Resistance

Our bodies love choosing the path of least resistance. When we move, we tend to use the same patterns for different tasks. For example, if you sit for long periods every day with one thigh crossed over the other thigh, your pelvis may tend to over-rotate in one direction and your inner thigh muscles and hip flexors may be locked short. When you walk, it is easier for your body to maintain those patterns and muscles lengths than to change them. Hence, your pelvis may over-rotate with each step and your knees may tend to narrow. It is more efficient for your body to keep the same patterns and habits than to change them for different activities. What you train is what you get, even if the training is long periods of sitting.

Yoga Therapy posits that "Future suffering can be avoided," (Yoga Sutra 2.16). It is avoided by making the unconscious conscious (recognizing a less helpful habit), noticing when you find yourself doing it again, and then choosing differently. If we consciously choose to move better, the body will revise its habits.

Movement Analysis: Future Suffering Possible

Let's look more closely at our three walkers:

Each person displays very common movement patterns.

Which person’s pelvis stays the most level?

I think the walker on the right has the most level pelvis while the center walker’s right hip drops quite a bit.

Which woman's pelvis is the most rotated?

The woman on the left has the strongest pelvic rotation. Her low back and pelvis are rotating (right hip forward, left hip is back) as her low back arches strongly [This can be referred to as Lumbar Rotation Extension Pattern].

Let's look at how their lower limbs and torsos interact with their pelvic alignment:

Can you see how Walker A's low back rotates with the pelvis, so every stride has an exaggerated twist? Over several thousand steps, that can start to hurt.

As Walker B's right hip drops, their left waist shortens (ouch in the low back). Their pelvis shifts laterally to the left (ouch in the outer left hip). And their left knee narrows as the left thigh twists internally (ouch in the knee, hip, and or bunion).

Walker C's torso leans right, even though their pelvis remains relatively stable. While all three walers probably have tight hips and, by comparison, less stable cores, Walker C may have the tightest hips of the group, and a torso that has adapted to that tightness by tipping sideways. She may have walked more like Walker B for a few years till her body reacted to the excessive movement by tightening up her hips and low back. Astute observers may notice that her walking sticks appear too short. Lengthening them may help her notice when she leans her torso to one side.

Remedies: Future Suffering Avoided

Each walker could start noticing their walking habits by placing their hands on the highest point of their pelvic bones and feeling how much (or how little) the pelvis moves (up/down, side to side, and/or forward/back). Then, with hands still there, attempt to reduce this movement as they walk.

In a yoga therapy setting, I would ask each participant to notice if they also feel this excessive pelvic movement while lying down and marching her legs. With skillful abdominal engagement reinforced by good breathing, it is entirely possible to stabilize the pelvis thereby freeing up the legs to move with ease. Once they feel some mastery there, we would move to weight-bearing poses (table top, low lunges, standing poses) where these same habitual patterns (to rotate the pelvis, side bend the low back or lean the torso) would be revealed. Correcting these habitual and common movement patterns is part of good alignment in almost every yoga pose.

With practice and awareness, avoiding excessive pelvic movement while walking simply becomes a task of remembering to notice. Pain helps us remember to notice. Paradoxically, pain can initiate us on the path to finding joy while walking.

Sarah Westbrook is leading a workshop just for Walkers July 15, 2023: Yoga for Walking Well at Grateful Yoga in Evanston, IL. Click here for more information. If you can/could not attend live, the recording is available by request after the event.

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