“Heyam duhkam anagatam.”
“The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.” – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2:16
Many yoga practitioners come to the practice to heal existing pains – physical or otherwise. Lower back pain is a common one, whether one has an overly mobile lumbar area or a limited range of motion. With yoga’s principles of bringing balance into the body and mind – addressing and preventing lower back issues always takes into consideration both flexibility and strength. This article will focus on the latter.
The lower back is part of the big group of core muscles that provide support around the spine, hence the following asanas are not only those that specifically target the lower back but also those that engage the front and side abdominals.
What Do These Asanas Have In Common?
- Emphasis on neutral and compact hips, through the awakening of the inner legs. A lot of the poses require thighs to rotate inward (with the feet and ankles parallel to each other), and consciously lengthening the inseam of the legs. One way of making these actions more tangible is by placing a block (narrow side) between the thighs, which provides feedback to ensure that the inner thighs are facing the same plane.
- Lengthening of the spine, and maintaining the natural curve of the lower back, by letting navel recede towards the back. The actions of the hips and the legs actually already create the space through which the lower spine and tailbone can lengthen.
- Through the stability of the abdominals and hips, we can then isolate the opening in backbending poses (like Bhujangasana and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), at the thoracic area (upper middle trunk) – i.e., the tips of the shoulder blades pushing forward and up, to expand chest.
Practicing These Poses Within A Well-Rounded Sequence
Warm-up the muscles by doing 3-5 rounds of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) or 2-3 pairs of Surya Namaskar C (Lunge Salutations) or at least 10 repetitions of Cat and Cow transitions. Incorporating a few standing poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with Urdvha Baddhangulyasana (Upward Bound Fingers Pose), Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) series or Utkatasana (Chair Pose) will help prepare the hips, legs and the arms, as well as teach how to keep the spine long. Unless otherwise suggested, stay 5-8 breaths in each (side of a) pose. Continue breathing evenly while in the pose.
1.Utthita Chaturanga Dandasana (Plank Pose)
Start from tabletop pose, with your wrists directly under the shoulders, and your knees directly under the hips. Spread out the fingers and press down evenly on all the knuckles to take out the pressure from the wrists. Push into the inner palms to straighten the arms. With the knees still down, widen across the collarbones and tuck the triceps (upper outer arms) in, as if the palms want to spin outwards. At the same time, lift the navel up enough so the entire back body all the way to the tailbone can slide towards the direction of the feet. Roll the skin of the shoulders away from the neck, and keep the neck long by gazing a few inches in front of the mat.
Without changing anything else, straighten your legs, pressing down on the balls of the feet – even the pinky toe mounds should push into the floor. Let the heels hover directly over the balls of the feet, while energetically reaching behind you. The crown of the head pulls oppositely in front of you, while thighs lift up towards the ceiling. Bring your knees down back to tabletop pose when you feel the lower back is starting to dip. Hold from anywhere between 5 breaths and a whole minute.
Modification: Those with wrist issues may lower the forearms on the floor, the elbows underneath the shoulders in place of the palms. Roll the palms down on the floor or hold a block between them.
2. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose) variations
From plank, be on your belly and place the hands on the floor beside the chest with your wrists underneath the elbows. Inhale to lift the shoulders up to elbow level, and feel the front body slide forward and up, the back body backward and down
Variation: Further open the front of the shoulders by reaching the arms back and interlacing the fingers. Pull the knuckles towards the feet. Keep the belly on the ground, and the chest lifted. Repeat while switching the interlace of the fingers.
Deepen: Lift the legs on the exhale. Keeping the legs straight, lift and lengthen more from the inner thighs, extending all ten toes behind you. Fingers may be interlaced, or the arms can be shoulder width, with the palms facing each other. This may be done as a static pose, or as a dynamic pose (inhaling to lift the chest, arms and legs; exhaling to release), done for 5-10 repetitions.
3. Urdvha Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Feet Pose)
Lie on your back, and place a strap over your feet and straighten both legs with your heels in line with the hips (or slightly in front of the hips). Hold the strap with the hands shoulder width and palms facing each other, where you can keep the arms straight and your shoulders pulling down towards the floor. Extend the heels up, and keep the lower back long by softening your front ribs down to the floor with each exhale.
Variation: Let go of the strap, extend your arms in line with the ears and hook your thumbs together. Legs are together or, to bring more awareness to the inner thighs, hug a block between them. While the heels reach up, lengthen the arms further and continue pulling the navel to the floor.
Deepen: With the legs still straight, exhale to lower them to a 45-degrees angle.
Release the pose by inhaling – bringing the heels up over the hips, and exhaling – hugging the knees to the chest in Apanasana.
Repeat while changing the hook of the thumbs.
Modification: Keep the knees slightly bent if you feel any lower back strain.
4. Jatthara Parivartanasan (Abdominal Twist, Dynamic Variation)
Still on your back, bend your knees with your shins parallel to the floor. Spread out your arms in line with the shoulders with the palms facing up, and keep both arms and shoulders on the floor. Keep the legs and the feet together and take an inhale. Exhale, to bring the legs to the left side, as low as possible to the floor without touching it. The next inhale brings the legs back to the center, and the next exhale, legs to the right side. Do about 5-10 pairs, one breath completes one side. Keep the legs at a right angle and together in the process.
5. Setu Bandha Sarvangasan (Bridge Pose)
With the knees still bent, rest the feet on the floor, heels directly below the knees. Inhale to press strongly through the feet and lift the hips while keeping the thighs and the feet parallel to each other. Roll the outer shoulders and arms down on the floor as you slide the shoulders, elbows and arms towards each other. Squeeze the shoulder blades together while the upper arms push to the floor to lift the chest up to the chin.
This may be done as a static pose, or as a dynamic pose (inhaling to lift the hips; exhaling to release), done for 5-10 repetitions.
Balance out the practice by doing complementary poses like the following to release the lower back.
1. Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja’s Twist)
Sit with the right sitz bone on a block and fold the right leg so that the knee points straight ahead and the foot is beside the left hip, shin bone and metatarsal (front of the foot) resting on the floor. The left sitz bone hangs to keep the hips level, and with the left leg also folded, point the left knee straight ahead as well, the left metatarsal on top of the arch of the right foot. Keep the knees together.
Inhale to reach the arms up, and exhale twist to the right and bring the right hand down on a block a few inches from the sacrum. The left hand will rest on the outer right thigh. Each inhale lifts up the spine, while each exhale the trunk turns to the right and the chest expands. Be sure to lift both the front and back of the trunk. (Repeat on the other side.)
2. Dandasana (Staff Pose)
Sit on a height like a block, bolster or a folded blanket with the legs straight in front. Rest the sitting bones on the support and push the buttock flesh to the back to aid in lengthening the hamstrings and maintaining the natural curve of your lower back. Bring the fingertips down on the floor behind the hips, push away from it to lift the trunk. Bring the elbows back to activate the shoulder blades and expand the chest. Keep the chin parallel to the floor. With the legs together, extend the back of the legs through the heels and roll the inner thighs down as you press the quadriceps down on the floor.
3. Adho Mukha Virasana (Child’s Pose)
Kneel with the feet together and the knees wider than the hips, and sit down on your heels with the side ribs resting on the inner thighs, forehead on the ground. On the inhale, extend your arms forward fully with the palms on the floor, and exhale to further release the buttocks to the heels. Lengthen the trunk without dipping the belly to the floor.
Finish off your practice with Savasana.
Add support for your lower back by slipping a bolster under your knees. Relax your arms and feet, the shoulders remaining wide and away from the ears, and the buttock flesh moving away from the waist.
Restoring the body in balance oftentimes is through bringing more attention to places that we normally take for granted – places that are not plainly visible like the back body, or harder to reach like the inner body. These actions don’t have to be confined in the asanas. Take whatever your learned in your yoga practice in your day-to-day movements – like walking, standing, sitting. There are plenty of opportunities to become mindful.
Suffering may be a natural part of life, but something we can consciously avoid with constant self-inquiry and by actively choosing to change certain circumstances that we can control.
Glady teaches FNR, Gentle Flow and Restoratives at Urban Ashram. She is a self-proclaimed cat whisperer and a full-time slave of The Ginger White Quartet (all rescued cats), animal welfare advocate and an eternal dabbler in various artistic pursuits.