As you’re reading this, think about how you’re sitting. Is your back sloped? Are your shoulders hunched? Can you feel a bit of discomfort in your lower back? It’s no surprise if you answered yes to at least one of these questions, especially considering the fact that one-half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year. Researchers estimate that as much as 80 percent of the world population will experience a back problem at some time over the course of their life. Considering how much weight and stress you place on your back each and every day, a healthy posture is so important—and certainly something we shouldn’t take for granted. Among the list of natural remedies for back pain, yoga is at the top. It can help strengthen, stretch and improve circulation to the spine. We got the scoop from top yoga teachers on the best poses that’ll benefit your back.
This is probably one of the most loved yoga poses, since it’s pretty much one of the most restful and rejuvenating body positions out there. “Child’s pose is my go-to pose whether I need to drop in the middle of the kitchen floor after a stressful day or take a moment during practice to re-center,” says Amanda Dixey, RYT-200, yoga instructor and owner of Heart Shaped Rocks. “Child’s Pose helps us counteract the constant tension and forward motions we face each day by largely working on the latissimus dorsi.” It also gently stretches several other areas of the body including the hips, thighs and ankles.
How to: Start in tabletop position with your knees hip-width apart. Untuck your toes and bring your big toes to touch. Exhale as you press back through your hands and send your hips down towards your feet. Come to rest with your torso between your thighs. Rest your forehead on your mat and lift the base of your skull gently away from your neck. Keep your hands reaching toward the top of your mat, or lay your arms along your torso with your palms facing up. With each inhale, use the breath to create space in the back body. With each exhale, melt a little deeper into the pose. Take at least ten deep breaths. Feel your entire back body release in the pose while creating space and length in the lower back, spine and through the shoulders.
Modified Pigeon Pose
While the standard pigeon pose starts in tabletop position, with one knee bent forward and the other leg aligned straight behind your body, the modified pigeon is a similar hip opener that involves lying on your back. “This stretch opens up the hips while effectively stretching the lower back,” says Erin Williams, ACSM-CPT and 200hr Registered Yoga Teacher based in the Greater Boston area. “The muscles of the hips and glutes are connected to the pelvic girdle (also true of the lower back muscles), so stretching these muscles will help alleviate pressure on a tight lower back.”
How to: Begin in a supine position on the ground with your knees bent. Cross your left leg over your right and clasp your hands together behind your right leg. Gently pull your legs toward your chest keeping your lower back flat. Hold for 10 deep inhales.
Double Leg Forward Fold
At first attempt, you might not instantly associate this position as being beneficial for your back, however the forward fold is one of the most effective ways to lengthen your entire back side, says Candice O’Connor, 200-hour power yoga teacher and instructor at Pivotal Fitness in Charleston, South Carolina. “While you’ll stretch your spine and shoulders, you will feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings too.” This can be an immensely powerful lower back stretch, but she adds that it must be executed in an easeful manner to prevent strain.
How to: Sit on the floor in a seated position, with your legs extended out in front of you. As you inhale, reach your arms out to the sides of your legs and lengthen your spine. Try not to bend at the waist and instead, imagine your torso resting directly on your thighs. Grasp your shins, ankles or feet—whatever is most comfortable for your individual flexibility. Hold for several inhalations and try to fold a bit deeper on each exhalation.
One of the more aesthetically (AKA Instagram-worthy) yoga poses, Dancer Pose works hard for your flexibility, balance and strength. It does, however, require a great deal of patience and time to master, especially if you’re a beginner. “In Dancer, it’s important to keep your shoulders and hips in line with each other to take in all of the benefits of the posture, such as providing stability for your spinal column,” says O’Connor. “If balance is enemy number one, which it sometimes can be for me, Dancer can be easily be modified by pushing your hand into a wall or using a strap around your foot to draw it in.”
How to: Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Inhale and shift your weight onto one foot. Bend your other knee and lift your heel upward towards your buttocks. Pull the kneecap up while securely the stance on your standing leg. Hold for as long as you can, while focusing on your inhales and exhales.
“In essence, this gentle back stretch reverses the hunched over position many of us are in all day long at desks, or looking down at smart phones,” says Claire Fountain, Celebrity Yoga Instructor + Founder of Trill Yoga. “Sometimes called the baby of backbends, it soothes the lower back.”
How to: Begin by laying on your stomach, and reaching your toes towards the space behind you (separate your feet the distance of the mat.) Lengthen through your entire spine, and down through your tail bone to protect your back. Remove the tension in your glutes and hamstrings as you place your elbows under your shoulders and inhale to lift your torso. Keep your neck long, face forward and shoulders away from your ears.
“Oftentimes, back pain is the result of overly tight hips and hamstrings, as they limit motion in the pelvis,” says Fountain. “Stretching out these body parts will help ease the stress placed on your low back.” She also notes that laying back is the most gentle of these hamstring stretches, since it does not alter the shape (such as in a standing forward fold where the spine can be compromised without proper care).
How to: To begin, lay back and bend your knees, placing your feet near your hips. Extend one leg into your arm, taking your hand to the calf, thigh or foot (you can also use a strap to reach the foot and totally relax the upper body.) Breathe into the back of your leg, maintaining a bent knee with your leg on the ground. If it feels alright, lengthen your bent leg out, keeping your hip on the ground and foot actively flexed. Repeat on both sides.
“By exhaling and scooping the tailbone, lifting the belly to the spine like you were tucking your navel into your waistband, and lengthening your neck, you’re lubricating your back vertebrae,” says Fountain. “The slow and steady movement from round to arch hydrates and nourishes the spine.” She also notes that giving space to the vertebrae relieves back stiffness and supports greater flexibility.
How to: Begin in tabletop position with your hands and knees placed firmly on the floor. Make sure your knees are directly underneath your hips and your wrists under your shoulders. Starting in neutral spine, take a deep inhale. On the exhale, round out your spine so it’s curved towards the ceiling. Engage your abs and tuck your chin towards your chest. On the inhale, arch your back in the opposite way, letting your body relax. Lift your head and tailbone to the ceiling.