Yoga Back Pain: 7 Healthy Back Stretches Real Yoga Teachers Do
Yoga for Back Pain: The 7 Poses That Ease Pain and Improve Posture
As you’re reading this, are you hunching over your computer or mobile device? Do you feel discomfort in your lower back? If your back hurts, you’re not alone. One in two working Americans say they suffer from back pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Also, researchers estimate that up to 80 percent of adults have an episode of back pain in their life.
Do not try yoga for back pain if you have severe back pain, or if the pain appeared suddenly. Instead, talk to your doctor, as the cause can be a serious medical condition, such as a sprain, strain or fracture. Your doctor will then recommend the right treatment for back pain.
Though back pain can be the result of injuries, often the cause of mild to moderate back pain is poor posture, lack of exercise or both. Luckily, there are things you can do to improve your posture and ease the tension in your lower back muscles. One is yoga for back pain.
Grab your mat and get ready to find out how it works.
Yoga for Back Pain: 7 Poses With Step-by-Step Instructions
Yoga stretches and strengthens your back muscles, and returns your spine in proper alignment. In addition, this type of exercise increases your flexibility and reduces stress — a factor that can make back pain worse.
Researchers have some evidence that yoga may improve back function and reduce the symptoms of back pain, though they need to do more work to find out how effective yoga for back pain actually is. However, most studies agree that yoga is a safe and effective type of exercise.
If you’re ready to give yoga a try, here are the best poses that yoga teachers recommend for relieving the symptoms of back pain. If you’ve never tried yoga before, take a class to learn how to do the poses without the risk of injury. Also, in general, talk to your physician before starting a new exercise routine.
1. Child’s Pose
Balasana, or the child’s pose, is one of the simplest and most relaxing yoga postures. It stretches your spine and relieves tension in your neck, as well as stretching your hips and thighs.
“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, 200-hour registered yoga teacher, yoga instructor and owner of Heart Shaped Rocks. She adds, “Child’s Pose helps us counteract the constant tension and forward motions we face each day by largely working on the latissimus dorsi.” (The latissimus dorsi is a broad, flat muscle that covers the middle and lower back.)
How to do the child’s pose in yoga:
- Start on all fours, keeping your knees apart, in line with your hips. Your big toes should touch behind you.
- Rest your stomach on your thighs and then walk your arms forward.
- Slowly rest your forehead on the mat.
- As you breathe out, press your bottom on your heels.
- Continue to keep your forehead down and then extend your arms behind you, alongside your torso, with your palms facing up.
- As you rest your shoulders on your knees, feel how your back broadens and your muscles relax.
- Stay in this position for a few minutes and focus on your breath. The stretch in your neck, lower back, hips and thighs should feel really good.
- To exit the pose, walk your arms forward, bring your torso upright and sit on your heels.
2. Modified Pigeon Pose (Reverse Pigeon Pose)
There are many variations of this pose, but one of the most effective for back pain is the reverse pigeon, or Sucirandhrasana. Since you do this pose lying down, it’s also easier than the original pigeon pose, which can be challenging for beginners. The reverse pigeon pose stretches your lower back, hamstrings and thighs.
“This stretch opens up the hips while effectively stretching the lower back,” says Erin Williams, ACSM certified personal trainer and 200-hour registered yoga teacher based in the Greater Boston area. She adds, “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 do the reverse pigeon pose in yoga:
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
- Place your left foot on your right knee, while keeping your right foot on the floor.
- Use your left hand to gently push your left leg away from your body.
- Release your left hand and, keeping your legs crossed, lift the right leg.
- Use both hands to pull your right leg towards your chest. Remember to keep your back on the floor.
- Hold for 10 deep inhales. Feel how the back of your left leg and your spine stretch.
- To exit the pose, put your right foot down and then uncross your legs.
- Do the pose again with the other leg on top.
3. Double Leg Forward Bend
This yoga pose is one of the most effective ways to stretch 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.” The double leg forward stretch, or Paschimottanasana, can be challenging if you’re not very flexible, so execute it carefully to prevent strain, warns O’Connor.
How to do the double leg forward bend in yoga:
- Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. The back of your legs should touch the floor.
- As you inhale, bend forward with your arms stretched. Try not to bend at the waist, and instead imagine that your torso is resting directly on your thighs.
- Grasp your shins, ankles or feet — whatever is most comfortable for you. Do not stretch till it hurts, but only until you feel slight discomfort.
- Hold for a minute as you breathe in and breathe out.
4. Dancer Pose
One of the most Instagrammable yoga poses is the dancer. It is good for your flexibility, balance and strength. The dancer pose is a more advanced yoga stretch than the previous ones on this list, so it does requires practice to master. You need a great deal of balance and stability to do the dancer pose, or Natarajasana. So, if you’re a beginner, you may want to skip it for now.
“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 modified by pushing your hand into a wall or using a strap around your foot to draw it in,” she adds.
How to do the dancer pose in yoga:
- Stand up, with your feet hip-width apart, your back straight and your palms facing forward. (Tip: This is Tadasana, or the mountain pose.)
- Inhale and shift your weight onto your right foot.
- Bend your left knee.
- Grab your left foot with your left hand, while keeping your knees close together. Push your left hip slightly forward.
- Extend your right arm forward, keeping your body straight.
- Lift your left foot higher, keeping your left knee in. Feel how your back stretches as you move your spine into your chest.
- Hold for a few minutes, and keep your standing leg straight. Focus on your breathing.
- To exit the pose, bring your left foot down, maintaining your balance.
5. Sphinx Pose
A modification of the cobra pose, the sphinx, or Salamba Bhujangasana, is a great yoga pose for back pain, as it gently stretches the spine.
“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 and founder of Trill Yoga. “Sometimes called the baby of back bends, it soothes the lower back,” she adds.
- Lie on your stomach, with your legs stretched and in line with your hips.
- Come up on your forearms, keeping your elbows under your shoulders.
- Bring your hands in line with your elbows. Your fingers should touch the mat.
- Inhale, press on your forearms, and lift your torso, neck and head. You should feel how your shoulder blades draw together. Keep your neck long, face forward and shoulders away from your ears.
- To exit the pose, exhale and return to the mat.
6. Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supine Split or Hamstring Stretches)
Supta Padangusthasana is a yoga pose that stretches your hamstrings. It might not be obvious why hamstring stretches help ease back pain, but as Fountain says, “Oftentimes, back pain is the result of overly tight hips and hamstrings, as they limit motion in the pelvis.” She adds, “Stretching out these body parts will help ease the stress placed on your low back.” According to Fountain, doing hamstring stretches from a lying position is a more gentle stretch than doing the standing forward fold, as you don’t have to bend the spine.
How to do hamstring stretches in yoga:
- Lie on your back with your legs stretched.
- Keep your left leg flat on the floor, bend your right knee, and draw your right thigh towards your chest.
- Extend your right leg up while pushing into your left heel.
- Grab hold of your right calf, ankle or foot, depending on your flexibility. (You can also use a yoga strap to reach your foot.)
- You can either keep your left foot down, or, if it feels safe, extend it and keep it slightly above the mat or on the mat. Remember to push into your heels.
- Keeping your right leg straight, gently draw it towards your body. You should feel a stretch in the back of your right leg. Maintain the pose for a few deep breaths.
- Bring your right leg down, and repeat the pose with the other leg.
7. Cat Pose
One of the most comfortable yoga stretches for back pain, the cat pose, or Marjaryasana, is easy even for beginners.
“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 adds that giving space to the vertebrae relieves back stiffness and supports greater flexibility.
How to do the cat pose in yoga:
- Start on all fours and place your hands in line with your shoulders, and your knees in line with your hips.
- While inhaling, arch your back in the opposite way, pulling your navel towards your spine.
- Take a deep inhale. On the exhale, arch your spine so it’s curved towards the ceiling.
- Engage your abs and tuck your chin into your chest. You should feel a pleasant stretch in your back.
- Repeat for a few times.
Whether you have a sedentary lifestyle or a job that involves lifting or moving heavy objects, chances are your back may hurt. Chronic back pain can decrease your quality of life. But doing yoga regularly can help stretch your tensed muscles, increase your flexibility and ease the symptoms of back pain.
If you’re new to yoga, start with Balasana (#1) and Marjaryasana (#7), which are easy yoga poses for beginners. If you’re an advanced practitioner, you can also try the more challenging ones on this list, including Natarajasana (#4) and Supta Padangusthasana (#6). By doing yoga for back pain and maintaining a good posture, you’ll be on your way to living a healthy life.