Long time readers may remember the unfortunate condition of my back. While I’ve always had back pains since my teen years, due to sports related injuries and childhood stupidity, it got worse during the start of this blog due to a few bad bike accidents. The worst crash was in 2011, when I smashed my tailbone and ultimately created a problem with my spinal column that makes it narrower than it should be. Having a lifelong practice of stretching and strengthening has helped me maintain my back health for the most part, and yoga is an integral part of that in my adult life. Acclimate weather, stress and sitting for too long (like in the car or at the computer) are all triggers for pain, and not just for those of us who’ve experienced back trauma.
For our young, otherwise vibrant bodies, it’s important for us to nurture our backs and respect the messages they are trying to send. While I dip in and out of serious yoga studio practices depending on location, finances, and injury, yoga stretches are a part of my daily routine as much as drinking coffee or brushing my teeth. Despite being injured, I’m exceptionally flexible, which can be dangerous when I am not paying attention to my body. When my back hurts, the last thing I want to do is make it worse by stretching wrong or agitating it, so the right yoga poses are crucial for making sure I do more good than harm. Here are some stretches I’ve found to help with my lower back problems, and I hope they help you as well:
1. Leg Up the Wall (or on a chair)
Start by laying on the floor with your butt close to a wall, with your legs going up the wall (duh). This pose will do a few things: help relax your body as it is half savasana, take the pressure off your hips, and allow blood to flow out of your feet, which is both rejuvenating and relaxing. Stay here for 5-10 minutes, focusing on your body’s position on the floor and allowing each muscle to relax. Once we start paying attention to our bodies, we realize just how much stress we hold in our shoulders, back, hips, and elsewhere. Think about what might be causing the pain in your body, and focus your positive energy from this yoga practice into releasing that stress, whether it is an internal stress or an external stress.
If your back is very sore and straightening your legs is already putting too much tension on your glutes or hamstrings, get away from the wall and find a chair. Lay back on the ground and place your calves on the seat of the chair. This will allow you to rest and take pressure off your hips without placing the weight of your legs on your tailbone or forcing you to straighten what isn’t yet warmed up.
Get on your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are hip-width apart and under your hips and that your hands are shoulder-width apart and under your shoulders. Take a long breath in, meanwhile arching your back and tilting your head back to open up your throat. Hold for a second, then breath out slowly, tucking your tailbone under and dropping your head, raising your back. Do this about twenty times, focusing on your breath, breathing in with your belly and lower ribs, and deflating yourself like a balloon with your core.
3. Childs Pose/Supported Childs Pose
From there, shift weight back, tuck your big toes together, and open up your knees. Rest your butt on your feet and lean your torso between your knees. If this is painful, grab a large pillow to support your body weight. Place arms in front of you, reaching forward with your arms to stretch out your sides while taking pressure of your spine. Often times, pain in our back comes from tense muscles elsewhere in our body.
4. Forward fold/Rag Doll/Half Fold
Come to a standing position, reach up, then fold forward from the hips. Bring arms forward, and hold onto each elbow with the opposing hand, so your weight is hanging freely. Come up halfway, so your back is parallel with the floor, then fold back down, reaching for the ground with your hands. If you can touch the floor, grab your big toes, but don’t force yourself past what your body is telling you.
5. Baby Cobra/Cobra
After all that forward folding, it’s a good idea to open up the hips. Lay on the ground with your stomach on your mat. Place your hands by your head and arch your back. Your forearms should be touching the ground, but only helping balance you, not supporting your weight. If your back is starting to feel warmed up, push up with your hands into full cobra. Reward yourself with a wiggle of the spine, which will help realign your spine.
6. Upright Half Pigeon
Come to a seated position with a straight back and both legs straight in front of you. Bring your left knee to your chest with your arms, then open your hip so your knee rests in the crook of your left elbow, and your left foot is in the crook of your right elbow, with hands holding in the front of your leg. Try to align your hips by pulling your left hip forward and your right hip back, and keep your left shin parallel with the floor. Release leg to the floor and repeat the stretch with your right leg.
7. Supported Bridge
Again, we open up the hips and chest after stretching out the glutes. Lay on your yoga mat on your back, and bend knees so that your feet are near your butt. Lift up your hips, creating an arch in your back. Pay attention to your body, and make sure your butt muscles are relaxed so your legs and core are doing the work. Wiggle your back and allow your shoulder blades to get close and your arms to tuck under your back. Bend your arms at the elbows, so your hands are under your butt, helping support your weight. Hold this pose for a few breaths, release back down to lying on your mat, and repeat.
8. Gentle Twist
Lay on your yoga mat. Bring both knees to your chest, then twist them so that they both lean to your left side. Open arms to both sides, and be aware of your body. If your right shoulder is lifting off the ground, bend that arm into an L shape to relieve the pressure from your spine. Breathe. Straighten legs and repeat on right side.
9. Corpse Pose
Lay down on yoga mat with legs straight and arms by your side, palms up. Allow your feet and thighs to roll away from each other. Close your eyes and do a final assessment of your body. Are you still in pain? Where? Are you still stressed? About what, and why? Allow this final moment to appreciate the time you spent for yourself, and acknowledge the importance of taking a few moments of “me time” no matter how busy you are.