Your back, the only one you get, is supposed to last your whole life. If something is wrong with this complicated structure, the rest of your body is affected. There are lots of things out there that claim to help your back in one way or another, but sometimes even the lowest level intervention is the best one.
When I was in my early 20s, I started having back problems. Lifting too much weight the wrong way too many times — as well as being hyper-flexible — left me with constant problems. Every step sent shooting pains up and down my back and legs, and I had a kink in my neck almost every day. I thought strength training would be the way to go, so I got a gym membership and started seeing a trainer.
The trainer set me up with a bunch of standard exercises, but the pain made it hard to stick to it. When I mentioned how hard it was to make it in for our appointments, she showed me a quick yoga-based set of stretches that promised to help. Within two weeks, my back felt a little better. A lot has changed over the intervening years, but I’ve kept up the basic practice and have morphed it into a routine that focuses primarily on back and core strength.
One thing I love about yoga is that I can take it as fast or slow as my body needs to go. When I’m in a hurry, I take a deep breath and move into the pose, hold the pose for the exhale and move on with my next inhale. When I have more time, I hold each pose for one to four box breaths (inhale, hold, exhale, hold; each ‘side of the box’ can be from four to twelve seconds). This type of breathing drops me out of an anxious, fight or flight mindset into a rest and restore mindset. I have been doing this routine for close to 25 years, through injuries, surgeries and life getting in the way. With occasional variations, yoga has served me well to keep my back healthy and flexible.
One thing that is really important is to hold these positions in strength, do not settle into your bones. When you do these positions, listen to your body; if it’s painful, consult an expert. I hope this series helps you like it has helped me.
1. Pranamasana (Prayer Pose)
Beginning at the back of your space, stand upright with your feet close together. Inhale deeply, expanding your chest and relaxing your shoulders. While you inhale, raise your arms from the sides and join your palms together in front of you as if praying.
2. Hastauttanasana (Mountain Pose)
Keeping the palms joined in prayer position, breathe in and lift your arms up, bending backwards slightly, as far as comfortable. Your biceps should be close to your ears. This posture is to loosen up your body by stretching the entire body backwards, grounding through the feet and reaching for the sky. Keep your neck lengthened and your belly muscles taut.
3. Hasta Padasana (Forward Bend)
Bend forward from the waist, touching the ground with your hands. If you can’t touch the floor, just put your hands on your shins or thighs. Feel the stretch your hamstrings and glutes.
4. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog)
From the standing forward fold position, walk your hands away from your feet so that you’re in a pike position. Push your chest towards the floor. Keep your head aligned with your spine. Try to keep your arms and knees straight and your palms and heels on the floor. In this position, I bend each knee one at a time, walking it out on the spot, which stretches out the hamstrings and glutes. Next, I raise one leg at a time straight out behind me, lower it and repeat with the other leg. This stretches the lower back and obliques.
5. Phalakasana (Plank Position)
Next, jump or step your feet back so your body is parallel to the ground. Keep yourself aligned and don’t let your hips drop. Tighten every muscle in your body and hold while you breathe. Sometimes I try to reach a personal record, but typically 10 seconds is plenty.
6. Balasana (Child Pose)
Lower your knees to the ground, then curl yourself up with your forehead on the floor, knees tucked under you (if you need, you can put a rolled up towel or yoga block under your bum or head for support). I like to relax my shoulders towards the floor and stretch the muscles around my shoulder blades.
7. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Push yourself up into cobra pose, holding the posterior chain (all the muscles on your backside from toes to top) taut and belly breathing. Push your shoulders down and back Stretch your neck up and breathe deeply.
8. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
Moving through downward dog from cobra, bring one foot up between your hands and then stand up. Legs like a triangle, bend the front knee as if you’re going to do lunges. If you need support, hold on to a chair or wall. Keep your hips parallel to the floor, facing the side. Reach your arms out parallel to the floor, one over the bent knee, one over the back leg. Turn your head so you’re looking over the bent knee and keep your muscles engaged. Your front foot should face forward while your back foot is perpendicular to the front of your mat (with a slight angle).
9. Viparita Virabhadrasana (Crescent Pose or Exalted Warrior)
Holding your muscles taut, bend at the middle so that your front hand is pointed at the ceiling and you’re looking up.
10. Baddha Virabhadrasana (Humble Warrior)
This is a variation that combines the arms from triangle pose with the legs of warrior poses. In the lunge position, swing yourself like a metronome all the way to the front, bending so that your front hand touches the floor near your front foot and your back hand is reaching for the ceiling. Turn your head so that you’re eyes point to the sky.
11. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
Straighten your front leg and bend over it. From here, twist and point one hand to the ceiling, and turn your head to look at the ceiling.
Repeat steps eight through 11 on both sides of the body.
From here, I finish by moving through downward dog, lowering to the ground and ending in seated prayer pose. This is a great warm up for a work out where the muscles are held, like with isometrics or static strength training. If I keep up this routine every day, I rarely have any back pain. I hope this series of yoga poses brings you relief as well.
Featured image by Dmitriy Frantsev.