Three Essential Yoga Stretches for Lower Back Pain

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Almost everyone has suffered from lower back pain at some point in life. Since relieving it with medication is often ineffective and not always an option for many of us, a huge—and profitable—industry has been devoted to selling us things like special pillows and massage devices that could possibly help (or not). Unfortunately, even when these are effective, they often do not work to get rid of our pain entirely.

Yoga has long been touted as a way to strengthen and tone the body. But as it has become more popular in the US, we have been increasingly inundated with imagery of sweating fitness buffs doing strenuous and seemingly impossible yoga poses while in a group setting at gyms and studios. That type of yoga isn’t for everyone, and it goes against what yoga was originally: a quiet and gradual softening of the body designed to clear a path for meditation. Without straining or hurting the body, the yoga practitioner moves into specific poses in order to circulate the blood and energy, free the body of its aches, and open the mind and heart. Sure, intense practices and gravity-defying poses can come about after years of training. But those things are for the experienced yogis. For the rest, yoga can offer a gentle solution for inflexible and painful muscles, easy enough to do at home and at any time of the day. A few, light movements can really help with lower back pain and get the energy focused into this area of the body, where so many of us suffer from aches and stiffness.

There are three movements that can help alleviate lower back pain that only take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete, but could potentially make a huge difference in the way your back feels. As always, you should check with your medical professional before engaging in any kind of new exercise. If you are not sure exactly how to move your body into the poses without straining, a yoga teacher, preferably one who has special experience with gentle yoga, can help. The poses suggested here can be modified and include instructions for people sitting in a chair.

Never attempt a pose that feels uncomfortable. Every pose should follow a path of relaxation. If the muscle is tight at first, breathe deeply as you mentally focus on the muscle; fill your lungs with air, then exhale, telling your body to relax. Never go so far into a pose that you cannot get back out of it the same way you moved into it. If you feel your body falling, or moving out of alignment, lessen the stretch—you have not relaxed into the pose, you have only compensated in another direction and this could cause strain or injury.

Seated Half Twist

One of the best poses for lower back pain is the sitting half twist. Almost anyone can do it and all it requires is gently twisting the body to one side and then the other.
To start: Either on a chair or on the floor, sit with a neutral spine. Your back should not slouch or arch; lift up from your rib cage and relax the shoulders. The crown of your head should feel like it is being gently pulled up by a string, leaving your chin only slightly tucked.

The movement: If you are seated on the floor, the legs may be crossed or straight. If they are crossed, it is possible to follow the above steps. For a slightly more intense stretch, you may bend one leg and move the foot to the outside of the opposite leg, placing it on the floor next to the thigh. This can be done with either crossed or straight legs. If this is too intense, it is also possible to bend one leg without crossing it over the other. Gently twist on the same side as leg that is bent, following the above sequence. You may place the hand of the same side on the floor behind you for support, as long as the shoulders do not rise and back does not slouch. You may rest the opposite hand in your lap or gently move the arm over the bent leg to press it along outer thigh of the bent leg, using the pressing arm to deepen the twist.

Chair modification: While seated in a chair, take a deep breath and exhale as you gently twist from your waist to one side, placing your opposite hand on either your leg or the chair seat. Continue the movement from the waist through your shoulders and finally gently turn your neck to your comfort level, looking back over your shoulder if possible. Slowly deepen the pose through a series of breaths, closing your eyes, inhaling and exhaling as you actively twist. Once your are at your level of intensity, take a few deep, slow breaths.

Coming out of the pose: When you are ready, come out of the pose in the same sequence: head, neck, chest, and finally ribs and waist. Take a moment to feel your body before repeating this on the other side.

Cat/Cow

This is another very basic movement that increases the flexibility of the entire length of the spine. Without a chair modification, it requires getting down on your hands and knees, so make sure you are not suffering from knee problems and that you have a soft rug or mat beneath you.

The movement: Once on hands and knees, make sure the hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Achieve a neutral spine, not sagging or arching. Do not slouch into your shoulders: your shoulders should be strong and your neck long. Slowly bow the back, lifting the tailbone and head up. Passing back through a neutral spine, slowly move in the opposite direction, arching the back by tucking the head and tailbone. Repeat this movement as many times as you wish, slowly, and using inhalations and exhalations to guide you.

Chair modification: Sitting upright with a neutral spine, place both feet firmly on the floor, rest the hands on the tops of the thighs, and gently bow the back. Be careful not to tense the neck and shoulders. If comfortable, let the head slowly fall back. Breathing deeply, move through neutral position to arch the back, letting you head fall to the chest, pulling in the stomach, and slightly tucking the tailbone. Repeat as desired.

Seated Forward Bend

This pose is a bit more intense in that it also engages the gluteal muscles (i.e. glutes) and hamstrings, large muscle groups that can get very tense. It can be done seated on the floor on in a chair.

The movement: While sitting on the floor, extend your legs straight out in front of you, but make sure you can support the correct spinal posture in this position. As you go through the first inhalation described above, make sure your spine remains straight and arms overhead as you fold forward. When you have reached your limit, take another deep breath and exhale while you let your arms rest where they are comfortable, and then allow the shoulders and neck to relax. Take a few more breaths in the pose. If you find your muscles loosening, without sitting all the way up, use the inhale to lift your arms over your head again, lift the neck and shoulders from their deep stretch, and then exhale, reaching longer and deepening into the forward fold. Repeat the steps to relax.

Chair modification: While seated in a chair, plant you feet firmly on the floor and make sure your spine is engaged and supported by your abdominals, yet neutral. Take a deep breath. Lifting the rib cage and filling the chest, raise your arms over your head stretching up, and slowly exhale while folding forward from the waist. Do not bend so far as to throw yourself off balance and tumble off the chair; rather, round your back and, if able, place your hands on the floor to either side of your feet. Blocks or pillows placed there can help if you have trouble with this part.

Coming out of the pose: If you are seated in a chair, you can slowly roll up to sitting. If you are on the floor with straight legs, when you are ready to come out, inhale lifting the arms, neck, and shoulders, then carefully and with a straight back, use the inhale to pull your body back up to sitting. If this is too difficult, you can slowly roll up.
Additional modifications and cautions: For the floor-level seated forward bend, it is sometimes easier—for those with flexible hips—to have one leg bent with the sole of the foot touching the inside of the opposite thigh. Make sure to switch legs to stretch both sides. It is also possible to use a chair in front of you (your legs going though the chair legs) to place your hands on so you don’t extend too far but still are able to get a deep stretch. Keeping the extended legs straight, the knee pointing up (not falling to the inside or flopping out) is important; but do not hyper-extend. Go only as far into the pose as you are able while keeping the legs straight. This is an active pose, so it may require using the muscles to make sure the leg stays extended forward from the hip without bending. It may mean that you do not bend as far over the leg, which is okay. With practice, the legs will become stronger and the muscles more supple, naturally deepening the bend.