Back up your health: Yoga for back pain

Imagine a virus going around that causes pain, and stops you from driving, lifting your toddler, shopping for groceries, and exercising.

Now imagine a medicine that prevents this virus. You would take it, right?

This pretend “virus” is back injury. It is real and happens to people every day when they trip and try to catch their balance, roll out of bed, bend over to pick up a bag, take a kickboxing class, or perform a dead lift. The medicine I prescribe to avoid “catching” the virus is a few yoga poses for the upper and lower back. As always, you should check with a doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist to diagnose the cause of the back pain, which could be anything from sitting too much, to stress, to lifting, or even a herniated disc (which I have had twice in the last 20 years.) I have found these poses to strengthen area, realign the problem and fix the pain. However your healthcare practitioner may prescribe an MRI, surgery or rest instead, depending on the source of the pain.

Lower for Living:

Strengthening your lower back muscles is important for people who don’t exercise on a regular basis, but equally as important for those who do exercise but overlook the lower back. If you have a bad lower back, you can’t do those crunches, bicep curls, lunges or daily living activities.

Upper for Posture:

The upper back exercises are important as well, especially if you sit at a computer or hunched over a desk much of the time. It is equally important if your exercise routine includes pushups and bench presses but not working the opposite muscle group – the trapezius and rhomboids. Hunched posture can cause painful knots and strains, chiropractor bills and give the wrong first impression.

Moves: It’s best to use a flow or vinyasa that creates counter-stretches, so that in one pose you are extending (straightening or arching) the spine, and in the other you are flexing (bending forward or rounding). If experiencing back pain,  twists should be limited, as they could help turn a bulging disc into a herniated one. It’s also important to stretch the hamstrings, hip flexors and glutes, because tightness in these muscles can lead to pulling and pain in the back.

cow cat

Cat/Cow (Marjaryasana/ Bitilasana)This is a great way to start your yoga practice even if you don’t experience back pain. It warms up the body, helps you focus on the breath and strengthens the arms, back and core. Start on your hands and knees in a “tabletop” position. Make sure your knees are set directly below your hips and your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in line. Center your head in a neutral position, eyes looking at the floor. As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, gently release your head toward the floor. Inhale, coming back to neutral position on your hands and knees and allow your belly to sink towards the earth, slightly arching your back while lifting your head to look forward and bringing the chest towards the sky. Exhale, coming back to neutral “tabletop” position on your hands and knees. Repeat 10 times.

Opposite Reach Back

Spinal Extension/Bird Dog/Hunting Dog           

This pose is a great way to tone and strengthen your upper body, core muscles, work on balance issues and strengthen the lower back.  Come into a hands-and-knees position on your mat, keeping a neutral curve in your lower back, strong arms and look at the floor between your hands. Next, slowly extend your right leg back behind you with your toes turned under and the ball of your foot on floor.  If you are feeling stable, lift your right leg up until it is about parallel with the floor, but no higher. If you still feel stable,  reach your left arm (opposite side) forward and parallel to the floor, as if you were to shake hands with someone in front of you. Hold for 3 deep breaths, and repeat on the second side. After holding 3 times, you may want to flow the pose, inhaling as you lift the arm and leg, and exhaling to lower. Modify: If you are having lower back pain, keep the toes of your straight leg on the ground rather than lifting your leg. If you have wrist pain, bend your elbows and rest your forearms on blocks, rather than putting weight on your hands.


Sphinx Post/ Baby Cobra (Bhujangasana) Lie on your belly, legs side by side with toes pointed on the floor behind you. Place your hands flat on the floor so that they are directly underneath your shoulders, elbows off the floor, and lower your forehead to the ground. Inhale, slowly rolling up and back, using your lower back muscles rather than just your hands (think: snakes don’t have hands). Move slowly, so that you feel each vertebra arching back. Hold the pose for 3 deep ujai breaths, before you get as high as your elbows make sure you are not overextending the lower back. No pain should be felt in the lower back. Slowly roll down, keeping your head back until last. Repeat two more times. As you get stronger you can lift up until you can rest on your elbows, making the backbend more pronounced, while relaxing the glutes.

down dog

Down Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) – This is one of my favorite poses for building upper back strength, flexing the low back, and stretching the spine, calves and hamstrings. From sphinx or baby cobra, lay back down onto your stomach and then lift up onto hands and knees. Press your hands strongly down into the mat and lift your forearms up. Your fingers should be spread like starfish, with the middle finger pointing directly forward. Curl your toes under and lift your hips up and back, keeping your knees bent and heels lifted. Gently roll the outside of your upper arms down and feel a widening across your upper back, establishing external rotation in your shoulder joints, spreading your shoulder blades apart. Straighten your elbows and press your hands into the mat as if you were trying to push it away from you, elongating your spine lifting your hips to the sky into an inverted letter “V.” Keep the feet hip-distance apart and begin to “walk the dog” by inching one heel closer to the mat at the time. Eventually you may be able to straighten both knees and reach the heels almost to the floor. (Note: If you can glance at a side mirror, make sure you’re in a V – with the head between the arms, shoulder blades reaching down the back towards the hips, and sits bones lifted as high to the sky as you can. It’s common for beginners to take the arms and legs too far away from each other into a wide V and to look at hands instead of relaxing the neck and looking at the knees.) Breathe deeply for 5 breaths while gazing at or past your knees.


Staff pose (Dandasana)– From down dog, come back down to all fours, then cross the ankels and sit back and down. Next, extend your legs in front of you with the feet flexed and the backs of the legs touching the mat, knees not bent. You may already feel your hamstrings stretching. Sit tall and reach the crown of your head to the sky. Inhale, then exhale and fold forward with a straight spine, reaching the hands towards the knees (beginners), shins or feet (advanced). It’s important not to bounce, but rather grow longer on the next inhale and lower if possible on the next exhale. Hold the pose without bending the knees for 5 breaths, being sure not to round the spine. If the spine is rounded, back off from reaching towards the feet and sit taller. It’s not about touching the nose to the knees, but feeling an incredible hamstring stretch and stretching the lower back as well. Surrender to the pose.


Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) – From staff, lower down to lie on your back (supine), bend your knees and place your feet on the floor underneath the knees, both hip distance apart. You should be able to touch your heels with your fingertips. Your hands should be by your hips, palms down. Exhale and push your tailbone upward toward the pubis, firming (but not clenching) the glutes, and lift the hips toward the sky. Keep your thighs and feet parallel and knees over ankles. Next, interlace the fingers beneath your glutes with pinky sides on the floor and extend through the arms to externally rotate onto the outsides of your shoulders. Stay in the pose for three breaths, and lower hips to the floor. Repeat 3-5 times and release with an exhalation, rolling the spine slowly down onto the floor, then hug the knees into the chest for a counter-stretch. Your glutes and lower back with feel strength building and your chest will feel more open and stretched.


Supine Figure Four (Supine Pigeon) This pose stretches the glutes, specifically the periformis, and tight glutes can cause back pain. It offers less room for error than pigeon and often feels good to lay on your back to relax it and feel grounded. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet lying flat onto the floor.  Then, cross the right ankle on top of the left knee. Start here and then gently press your raised knee away from you with your right hand Then, interlace your hands underneath the thigh of left leg and pick your legs up to hug them into your chest.  If you are unable to reach your arms that far, you can use a yoga strap. Hold for five deep breaths, then repeat on the other side.


Savasana (Corpse pose/final relaxation) If lying down with your legs extended is uncomfortable in corpse pose for your final relaxation, bend your knees and place them together while the soles of your feet are under the knees but hip-distance apart. If this position still hurts, place your legs up a wall or find a rolled-up mats, blankets, or towel to place under your knees when you lie flat to encourage your lower back to press into the floor. These modifications will help create length in your lower back to alleviate any tension. Hold the pose for at least 10 calming breaths, then if comfortable, roll onto your right side and stay for 3 breaths in fetal postion. Next, use the strength of your left arm to push you up to a comfortable seated position for meditation or to get on with your Namas(day).

Back it Up

Before I became a personal trainer and yoga instructor, I didn’t realize the importance of working my back as much as working my abs. I ask you to add these moves to each workout you do and take this advice from someone who went through a back injury and could not do normal daily tasks… and take your (yoga) medicine.

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