Yoga to release and prevent lower back pain

By Natalia | 19th September 2015
An image of a woman practising yoga on decking in front of the sea.

Lower back pain seems affect many people nowadays. In our retreat centre some of our guests tell us that they struggle with lower back pain, aches, tension and injuries. Why is it such a common condition? In this article we discuss five poses to release a sore back, five poses to prevent and heal back pain and give you five tips to be mindful of when practicing yoga.

Lifestyle has a huge impact on our health. Many of us spend hours sitting at a desk at work, sitting during meals, sitting while travelling to the office, and finish the day by sitting on a sofa to unwind. This leads to poor posture, weak back and abdominal muscles, as well as tight hamstrings and hips. In the longer term, these things combine and can lead us to experience lower back pain. Additionally, overuse of muscles without proper stretching afterwards also can lead to lower back pain. Sometimes back pain can be caused by tight hip muscles (particularly the piriformis) and/or tight hamstrings. Repetitive motion, like running or some other sports, or weight-bearing sports, can also affect these muscles, lead to tension and can contribute to back pain.

Yoga is a great remedy and cure for our lower back issues. It gradually builds body strength and at the same time provides a deep stretch. Below we share five poses to help you to release a sore back, five poses to prevent and heal lower back pain, and five yoga tips about how to practice without causing further injuries to your lower back.

Five yoga poses to release a sore back:

1. Wide knee Child’s Pose
Sit down on your heels and spread your knees a mat distance apart. Slowly bring your forehead down towards the floor, keeping your bottom on your heels. You can rest your hands beneath your forehead (or use a blanket if your bottom starts to lift away from your heels). You can also keep your arms in front of you, or to the sides bringing the hands around the feet. Choose whatever allows you to feel comfortable. Consciously release all the muscles and melt into the ground. To stretch the back muscles you can also extend your arms in front of you and slowly walk your fingertips forward. Remain in the pose for few minutes before releasing,

2. Cat & Cow
Begin on all fours (hands and knees). Make sure that the hips are exactly above the knees and shoulders above the wrists. Exhale to round your spine upwards, suck the belly in, tilt the pelvis and drop the head down (so that you are gazing at your knees). Inhale to arch your back the other way (so the tummy is coming towards the floor), open the chest and gaze forward. Follow the breath and move through 5-10 rounds.

3. Twists
Twists can provide a soothing massage to the lower back and are perfect to release tension. You might want to try:

a) Sitting Half Spinal Twist
Sit down and extend both legs forward. Keep your spine nice and long, with your core muscles engaged. Cross with your right foot above the left knee bringing the right foot flat to the floor, leaving your left leg out straight, with the toes pointing upwards into the air. Inhale to lengthen the spine upwards, exhale to twist to the right and lower the right arm to the floor, the left arm can wrap around the right knee. Work with the breath, with every inhalation imagine that there is a string which is pulling you up from the crown of the head, and with exhalation twist slightly deeper from the waist. Keep the chest open, eyes soft. Remain for few breaths and swap the sides.

b) Lying Spinal Twist
Lay down on your back, extend your arms out in a T position (arms 90 degrees to the body, with your palms facing upwards). Inhale and bring your knees to your chest, exhale and drop your knees to the left. Look over your right shoulder. Make sure that both your shoulders are on the ground – use a block or cushion beneath to knees to provide support. Remain for few breaths and then return back to the middle, neutral position. After a few breaths, swap sides, dropping the knees to the right.

4. Ragdoll
Stand up with the feet hip-width apart. Soften your knees and fold your upper body down over your legs. Grasp your elbows and just hang like a ragdoll. You might want to rock gently from side to side. Consciously relax all your body muscles and remain in the pose for at least 10 breaths. Slowly come up, using your core muscles to bring your head up slowly.

5. Legs up the wall
Sit down next to the wall, lay down on the back and swing the feet up the wall. Extend the arms out in a T position (90 degrees to the body). Allow yourself to rest in this pose for 5-10 minutes.

Five Yoga poses to prevent and heal lower back pain:

1. Happy Baby
This pose releases a sore back, but also gently opens tight hips, which can be one cause of the low back pain. Lay down on your back, then bring your knees to your chest. Grasp your feet, either holding your big toes or taking your hand around the ball of the foot (if you can´t reach, you can use a strap or hold onto your shins). Lift your feet until they are parallel to the ceiling, spread the knees wide and allow the knees to come down towards the floor either side of your chest. Keep the back of the neck long (so check forehead and chin are the same height) so that you look after your neck. Babies love this pose 🙂

2. Thread The Needle
This pose targets the hips and piriformis muscles to help prevent tightness from forming due to tight piriformis muscles. Lay down on your back, bend both knees and place your feet flat on the gound. Lift your left leg, bend the knee, flex the left foot to protect ankle and knee joints, then place the left outer ankle on the right knee. You can stop here, or if you wish to go deeper, lift the right foot into the air and grasp your right thigh (left hand goes through the gap in the legs). Again, remember to keep the head on the floor, with the back of the neck long, to look after your neck and upper spine. Remain in the pose for couple of minutes and then repeat on the other side.

3. Bridge Pose
This pose will increase flexibility in your neck and spine, as well as strengthen the back muscles. Lay down on your back, bend both knees and place the feet flat on the ground, hip distance apart. The ankles are in line beneath the knees. Place your arms on the mat alongside your upper body. Inhale, squeeze your core muscles and bum muscles, then roll your spine all the way up, one vertebrae at the time. You can support your back with your hands (place your hands on your hip bones), or interlace the hands in double fist, with the arms on the mat beneath your back, for deeper shoulder stretch. Hold for 5 breaths and then slowly release the hips onto the floor, rolling down slowly through the back. You might want to repeat this pose 2-3 times. You can stop with the feet on the floor (knees bent) and then bring the knees to the chest for a few breaths.

4. Wide Squat
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart. Bend your knees and lower your sitting bones down in the direction of the floor. If your heels don´t touch the ground, place a block or folded blanket under them. Join your hands in prayer infront of your heart. Gently press the elbows into your inner knees to open your hips deeper. Make sure that your spine is nice and long, and chest open. Hold the pose for at least 5 breaths.

5. Wide-Legged Forward Bend.
Stand with your feet wide apart, toes pointing forward. Swipe your arms out wide either side of your body until they are parallel to the floor. Check if the distance between your feet is the same as the distance between the wrists. If you need, adjust yourself (bringing the feet wider or closer). Then place your hands onto your hips. Inhale to lengthen the spine and zip the tummy in, exhale to fold from the hips. You are welcome to release your hands onto the ground or bring the hands to the legs. Keep your back straight and chest open. Work with the breath. With every inhalation lengthening the spine, and with exhalation melting a little bit deeper into the pose. Remain for few breaths. Come up slowly, with the knees bent, using your core muscles.

Five things to be mindful of during Yoga practice to keep your back safe:

When practicing yoga, particularly if you regularly experience lower back pain in your daily life, it is important to be mindful of your back when coming into, holding or moving out of yoga asanas.

1. Warm up and warm down
Before you start yoga (or any exercise), make sure you stretch your muscles which will release the tension and bring balance into your body. Cat and cow is a great way to start to warm up the whole of the spine and back, and also to help to release tension.

2. Engage your core
Engage your core muscles during the whole yoga practice to stabilize your back and bring the pelvis to a neutral position. This provides protection for your spine and back. Yoga and pilates teachers often say ”engage your core: suck your belly in”, ”pull your navel to the spine”, ”zip in your tummy”. But how does it work in practice? Instead of just flattening the stomach, imagine that you have a pair of very tight jeans, maybe 1-2 sizes too small, which clutch you all around. Keep it in mind and engage the inner muscles of your core. You can feel the muscles in your lower and upper abdomen getting firmer.

3. Lengthen your spine
Entering the poses like forward folds or twists with rounded back puts a lot of stress on the spine and may lead to injuries. That´s why we always need to lengthen the spine with our inhalation, and then twist or fold with the exhalation. And remember that it´s always better to bend your knees, than your spine!

4. Don´t force – be mindful and kind to yourself
Sometimes we feel we need to achieve the ”perfect pose”, reaching our toes or lifting our body to a particular position. For example, in standing forward bend, sometimes we strain to touch the toes, but this pose is not about touching your toes. Remember, before you fold, to bring the pelvis to a neutral position, lengthen your spine, suck the belly in, and with your exhalation gently fold over the legs with a straight back and chest open. You can rest your hands wherever you reach: thighs, knees, shins or maybe the feet. Feel free to soften your knees, but don´t round your back! In Seated Forward Bend, keep your spine nice and long and work with the breath, gradually melting deeper into the pose, rather than striving to reach the toes and pulling (pulling tends to lead to a rounding of the back). If you need to, use a strap, bend the knees or even remain in vertical position. You can also place a folded blanket under your knees or sit down on a block, which will make this pose more accessible and not so strenuous for your lower back. Cobra (a deep back bend) is another asana where we can see people ”force” their bodies striving to find a deep back bend. Be mindful: when moving into the pose imagine that your hips are glued to the floor and allow your body to bend as much as it wishes to, from the mid-back. Treat your arms only as a slight support. Keep your shoulders away from the ears and chest open. If you feel any tingling sensation, it´s a sign to exit the pose. Listen to your body. To make this pose more gentle for the lower back, you can also spread your feet mat distance apart instead of hip distance apart.

5. Remember your counter poses
After a forward fold, or backward bend, it is important to move the other direction. Yoga teachers will follow a sequence designed to work an area and then a subsequent asana will help to release it. If in doubt or if your back starts to ache or hurt, remember you can always return to childs pose or come onto your back and brings the knees into the chest.

Remember, these instructions do not replace attendance at a yoga class with a qualified yoga teacher, who can provide you with specific support, guidance on alignment and assistance.

Have a safe practice!

Headshot of Natalia - Health and Wellbeing Mentor at La Crisalida Retreats
Natalia

Natalia is a yoga teacher and explorer of life (and the world!).

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