Saturday, July 11, 2015

Yoga Poses for Back Pain

Photos by Brynna Bryant.

Does your back hurt?

Most of us suffer from back pain at one time or another, and this discomfort can range from a dull ache to severe, debilitating pain.

If you're experiencing back pain, yoga can help. A simple daily routine helps keep your spine healthy and flexible. 'Happy spine, happy life!' as the saying goes. Yoga also relieves tightness in the hamstrings, legs, and back muscles.

Here are some simple yoga poses to help relieve back pain. Please move through them slowly and mindfully, letting your breath guide you.

I also highly recommend reading Healing Back Pain by John Sarno. This book completely changed the way I think about back pain, and helped me deepen my understanding of the mind-body connection. May you find healing and relief! Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below :)

Cat / Cow
Start on hands and knees, with the wrists under the shoulders and the knees under the hips. Spread your fingers wide on the mat, and press firmly down through the palms. As you exhale, round the spine and look in at your belly, drawing the navel in toward the spine.


On the inhale, let your belly soften, draw the shoulder blades down the back, and peek your gaze up.


Continue moving between cat and cow for 5-10 rounds.

This is a great exercise to do first thing in the morning, during the middle of the day if you feel tired or stiff, or just before bed, to release tension so that you sleep comfortably.

Child's Pose
Take your knees wide on the mat, big toes together to touch. Let your upper body come down to the mat, resting your torso between your thighs and letting your forehead touch the mat. Tune in to your breath here. Notice how the rib cage expands as you breathe.

If your chest and upper body don't come all the way down to the floor, you can place a blanket, pillow or bolster under you. You can also place a folded or rolled blanket between your thighs and calves for added support.



Child's pose is meant to be a resting pose, so find a version that feels comfortable! You can have your arms long in front, the palms flat on the ground, or bring your arms along your sides, placing the backs of the hands on the mat near your feet.

Holding Child's pose for 3-4 minutes twice a day can make a huge impact on how you feel. This pose stretches the hips, thighs and ankles and also passively lengthens the muscles of the back torso. New oxygenated blood reaches the brain, reducing stress and fatigue, and helping give you a calm, centered feeling. With the knees a little closer together and the belly resting on the thighs, Child's pose also flexes the body's internal organs and keeps them supple, improving digestion.

Forward Fold
Stand with your feet at hips width. On an inhale, sweep the arms overhead, bringing the palms together to touch. On an exhale, swan dive forward over the legs, bringing the hands down to the mat. 

Bend the knees as much as you need in order to let the chest rest down on the thighs. Feel both big toes heavy on the mat. Relax the head and neck completely, no tension in the neck. Take 10 deep breaths here, letting the weight pour down through your feet. You can even picture any worries or concerns pouring out the top of the head, releasing them. This pose is great for any time you need to de-stress or feel more grounded.

Supported Bridge Pose
Place a block under your sacrum, on whichever setting feels comfortable. Gently draw the knees toward each other, and allow your body to relax. Breathe into the upper back and chest. Stay here for at least 10 breaths.

Bridge Pose
For a more active backbend, place a block between your inner thighs and plant the feet at hips with distance, feet parallel to the sides of your yoga mat. Begin to press down through the feet, inhaling to lift your hips up off the mat. Squeeze the block with your legs. 

You may find that you can work your hands together under the body, interlacing the fingers and pressing down through the hands and forearms, gently moving side to side to come farther onto the shoulders. Take it slow, feeling the chest come up toward the chin, even relaxing the glutes and keeping the muscular work in the inner thighs. Gaze down the tip of the nose or close the eyes. Keep the breath active in the back of the throat.

Reclined Pigeon  
Lay on your back. Hug the knees into the chest and rock a little side to side, massaging out the low spine. If you like, you can draw the knees in slow circles, going one direction 3 or 4 times, and then the other way. Rolling around the sacrum will help release tension and gently move synovial fluid to the joints in the vertebrae in the lumbar spine. 

Next, bend your right knee and draw the right ankle to the outside of the left thigh. Reach down through the legs and grab the back of the left thigh, gently drawing the legs down toward the body. You can even tuck the chin slightly here to flatten out the spine. Breathe into the hip joint for 10 breaths, then switch sides.

If your hips and hamstrings are tight, I recommend sticking with this version of the pose, where you're reclined and you have the support of the ground beneath you to avoid any twisting of the spine.


Half Pigeon
If you're feeling a little more open and stable in the low back and hips, you can do half-pigeon. Start in down dog. Extend the left leg long with an inhale, and then draw the left knee up toward the left wrist. Bring the shin parallel to the front of the mat, or angle the ankle in toward the hip if you're less flexible.

Scoot the right leg (extended long behind you) in toward the mid-line of the body. If your left hip doesn't come all the way down to the mat, you can place a block or blanket under it for support. Take a deep breath and bring the chest up, extending the spine to begin.



As you exhale, slowly come forward, walking the hands in front of you. You can rest on the elbows or slowing come all the way down, bringing the forehead to the mat.

Keep breathing deeply, and let the body rest. The idea is to relax all the major muscles here and move into the deeper connective tissue, the fascia. Do your best not to fidget, breathing into sensation. If any thoughts or emotions come up, simply acknowledge them and move your focus back to the breath.
 Supine Twist
Hug the knees into the chest and rock side to side. Let the knees fall over to the right and send your gaze over your left shoulder. If your legs don't reach the floor, place a blanket or block under them so you can relax. No muscular effort here. Let the shoulders and hips be heavy.

If you want a deeper stretch, you can also take one leg up and over, taking eagle legs as you do the twist.

Legs Up the Wall
Lay on your back with your legs extended up the wall. Relax the shoulders down to the mat. Close your eyes and breathe. This is a deeply restorative pose. Highly recommend it for a little break in the middle of your day, or for 5-10 minutes before bed!

Wide-Legged Straddle on the Wall
Extend the legs wide, finding a hip-opening stretch. Breathe into any area that feels tight, letting gravity draw the legs down. If this is too intense on the knees, skip it.

Butterfly (Baddha Konasana) on the Wall
Bring the soles of the feet together to touch, letting the knees go wide. Gently press on the knees, or let the arms rest by your sides and simply breathe. For any of these wall stretches, I recommend 1-3 minutes.

Savasana (Final Rest)
Lay comfortably on your back with your legs long down the mat, your arms by your sides, and the palms facing up. Let the shoulders and hips relax. Feel the whole body, heavy and sinking down. Allow your natural breath. Stay for at least 8-10 minutes, maybe even setting an alarm so you don't have to think about the time. 

Savasana is the moment of integration, when all the effort of the poses sinks in. Your body, mind and spirit are rejuvenated. This is the most important pose of the practice, and sometimes the most challenging. Surrender.


Namaste, my loves!

PS More reading for back pain and self-care...
Modifying your practice when you're in pain.
Two amazing books for helping you take care of yourself and stay pain-free. 
Learn more about protecting the sacro-iliac joints during yoga.

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