One of the primary complaints I hear from my yoga students is back pain – specifically, lower back pain. This type of discomfort can stem from a variety of things including poor posture, long periods of sitting or standing and tight hips and tight hamstrings, to name a few. Generally, things that can be addressed with some awareness and gentle, targeted movement. Studies have shown that people who practice yoga regularly experience less pain and improved flexibility and movement. Try this short sequence of yoga postures the next time your lower back is calling for your attention or, better yet, as a preventative measure to keep your spine supple and strong. Of course, if you experience prolonged back pain, it may be time to seek the guidance of a professional doctor, physical therapist or body worker.
Lie on your back with knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. On an exhale, draw both knees in towards your chest and wrap your hands around your shins. Use your hands to gently hug your knees in towards your belly.
Breathe deeply and fully here allowing your belly to expand towards your legs as you inhale, and gently draw back and down towards your spine as you exhale.
If your head is not comfortably resting on the floor place a folded blanket or pillow underneath it. Stay here for 5- 10 breaths.
Figure Four Pose
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Exhale, and hug your right knee in towards your chest and wrap your hands around your shin. Externally rotate your right thigh so your right knee is now pointing towards the right, and place your right outer ankle on top of your left thigh just above the knee.
Flex your right foot. Inhale, and on your exhale, maintain this position of the legs as you bring both legs in towards your body. Thread your right hand through the space between your legs and clasp behind your left leg.
Draw your left leg in towards your body, and gently encourage your right thigh away from your chest.
Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths. Release both feet back to the floor and repeat on the opposite side.
Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
Props: strap or long towel
Lay flat on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
On an exhale, bring your right knee in towards your chest and place the strap around the center arch of your foot. Hold one side of the strap in each hand (so hands and strap are shoulder-distance apart) and straighten your right leg towards the ceiling at 90 degrees. Slowly begin to straighten your left leg onto the floor. If this creates any tension in your lower back, keep the left knee bent.
Rather than working to bring your right leg closer to your body, maintain the 90-degree angle with this leg.
Maintain a soft grip on the strap as you consciously soften the sides of your neck and your shoulders down towards the floor. Stay for 10 breaths. Release and come back to starting position before repeating on the second side.
Downward Facing Dog with variation
Begin on hands and knees in a tabletop position. Place your wrist creases in line with your shoulders and parallel to the front edges of your mat, and your knees hip-distance apart.
Inhale, and as you exhale gently draw your lower belly up and in towards your spine. Step your feet back to a high plank pose with your feet hip-distance apart. Inhale, and as you exhale, lift your hips up and back into Downward Facing Dog. Keeping your hips lifted high generously bend your knees. Press your hands into the earth as you lift your hips and sense your spine growing longer. Relax your head and neck so your ears align with your upper arms.
Stay here for 5 slow breaths, then begin to straighten both legs by pressing your thigh bones back towards the wall behind you. Press your heels towards the floor (they do not have to touch!) and imagine you are standing on your feet. As you breathe here, sense your spine as spacious and long.
To come out, lower your knees to the floor and rest in Child’s Pose.
Lay flat on your belly and prop yourself up onto your forearms. Bring your elbows directly under your shoulders and your hands in line with your elbows. Separate your feet to hip-distance and press the tops of your feet down into the mat as you spread your toes wide. Gently roll your inner thighs open toward the ceiling and lengthen your tailbone down towards your heels – this will help to lengthen your lower back. Hug your outer ankles in towards your midline and reach strongly back through your toes. Draw your lower belly up and away from the floor (it may not actually lift off of the floor, but the action of drawing up and in is important to stabilize your lower back.)
Maintain this as you energetically drag your hands and forearms back in space (they will not move!) as you encourage your sternum forward and up. Do your best to keep the tops of your shoulders down away from your ears and your neck soft.
Stay here for 5 – 10 breaths. To release, rest your forehead down on your hands.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
Props: Blanket Optional
Come to a seat on the floor and stretch your legs out in front of you. Place your hands on either side of your hips, press your thighs down towards the floor and simultaneously life up through the crown of your head. If your lower back is rounding in this position, sit up on a folded blanket.
Bend your right knee in towards your chest and place your right foot on the floor just in front of your right sitting bone. Keep your left leg extended out in front of you and now step your right foot to the outside of your left thigh – your right knee should continue to point towards the ceiling. Keep the legs in this position for a modified version of this twist. Otherwise, bend your left knee and bring your left heel towards your right sit bone. Lay the outside of your left leg onto the floor. From either leg variation, bring your right hand to the floor behind you. Take an inhale and stretch your left arm toward the ceiling. Exhale and rotate your torso to the right (towards your lifted knee). Hook your left arm to the outside of your right thigh near your knee.
Stay here for 5 breaths. With each inhale, actively lengthen your spine towards the ceiling and with each exhale, continue to rotate your torso to the right. Release the twist with an exhalation. Unwind the legs and return to the starting positon. Repeat on the opposite side.
Props: Blanket or Towel
Fold a yoga blanket or a large towel in half. Starting at the long edge, begin to create a tight roll. Place the rolled blanket/towel about 2 feet away from the bottom edge of your mat. Lie flat on your back placing the rolled blanket underneath your knees. Separate your legs slightly wider than hip-distance apart and allow your feet to naturally fall open to the sides. Place your arms alongside your body with your palms facing up. If your head is not comfortably resting on the floor with your chin gently drawing down towards your chest, consider placing a folded blanket underneath your head.
Release your lower jaw away from your upper jaw and allow your tongue to soften away from the roof of your mouth. Allow the skin on your forehead to soften and allow your awareness to settle gently on your breath.
Stay here for 5 – 10 minutes.
To come out of the pose, bend your knees brining your feet to the rolled blanket. Gently turn over onto one side and stay here for a few breaths. Use your hands to press yourself up to a seat. Take a few breaths here with your eyes closed noticing how you feel. When you feel ready, gently open your eyes.
tutorial and demo by Kate Waitzkin
photography by Dagny Piasecki
location SHDW Studios