A FEW YEARS AGO, I worked with a student whose back pain was so severe he couldn’t walk without slumping over. He was taking pain medication and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. The agony was making him irritable, which was ruining his relationships. Then, there was the looming cost of back surgery, which threatened to leave him even worse off than before.
But after two months of working with me on yoga therapeutics, back alignment and breath, his pain cleared. He told me he felt like he was alive again.
If back pain is all too familiar to you, too, try these yoga poses – with guidance from an experienced teacher, if necessary – to help alleviate the pain and keep it at bay:
1. Cat and Cow
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders. Adjust your knees so they are under your hips and inner hips-width apart. Make sure the front of your ribs does not collapse toward the floor. Lengthen your spine first, then inhale while arching your back and looking forward. As you exhale, round your back and look toward your naval. Complete five to 10 cycles of cat and cow, or as many rounds as you need to clear your low-back pain. Move slowly, while deepening your breath. Make sure you only use the range of motion that feels good on your back. Finish with a neutral spine and pelvis, and hold that position for a breath before stopping your flow.
Why to do it: Table top – the neutral pose you started and ended in – allows your back to be in an anatomically aligned position. Flowing in cat cow allows more movement in the low and mid back, which is particularly helpful for people with back pain, since most of them tend to be stuck in a flat back position from sitting for hours daily. Start in this flow to re-establish malleability and the ability to both arch and dip your spine equally.
2. Wall Down Dog
How to do it: Stand about one legs-length away from a wall. Lean forward and set your palms on the wall so that your back is parallel to the floor. Straighten your arms and lengthen your back. Bend your knees enough to tilt your pelvis up, creating a release in your low back. Make sure you do not over-arch your mid back. Hold this pose for five to 10 deep breaths.
Why to do it: This non-weight bearing variation of down dog affords you all the pose’s benefits without the difficulty of holding it on your mat. This option gives you the time to hold the pose long enough to find relief.
3. Low Lunge Variation
How to do it: Stand in low lunge with your right foot forward. Put your left hand on the floor as far to the left as it will go while keeping your hips square and your front knee pointing over your foot. Swing your right arm alongside your right ear and turn your chest upwards. Look under your top arm toward the ceiling. Hold the pose for several breaths and repeat on the second side.
Why to do it: This variation of lunge lengthens your torso and side ribs – a space crucial to create when you have back problems. That’s because it’s the precise area where people tend to shorten their posture and eventually hurt their backs.
4. Bridge With a Block
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Make sure your ankles are underneath your feet and your feet point straight forward. Place a block at its most narrow setting between your upper inner thighs. Squeeze the block and encourage it to slide toward the floor. Only as much as you can keep the block between your thighs, root your feet down and lift your hips and low back up. Hold for five breaths and slowly lower your hips back to the floor.
Why to do it: Backbends are a great way to open and heal your back – if done correctly. However, if you misalign your backbend by allowing your feet, knees and thighs to turn out, the pose can be dangerous. Using a block keeps your inner thighs turned inward and helps protect your back.
5. Supine Twist
How to do it: Start lying down on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet as wide as your mat. Let both knees drop to the right like windshield wipers and hook your right ankle across your left thigh. Extend your arms out to your sides, bend your elbows and turn your palms up. Look slightly left and keep both shoulders on the floor. Hold the pose for five breaths and repeat on the second side.
Why to do it: Twisting creates space through the sides of your body where you tend to slouch. This gentle twist provides stability so you can focus on your alignment and lengthening your back while you twist.
6. Dead Bug
How to do it: While on your back, bend both knees in toward your chest and hold your shins just below your kneecaps. Widen your knees enough to cradle your torso. Flex your feet, press your shins up against your hands and move them away from your chest enough to feel a slight arch and release in your low back. Breathe fully and imagine your back swelling up like a parachute. Hold still or rock side to side – whichever feels good on your back.
Why to do it: Instead of pulling your knees toward your chest, like most yogis do in the happy baby pose, this pose moves your knees away from your body. This creates more of a natural curve in your low back. Hold this shape and breathe deeply to help clear pain.