I Should Go Do Yoga...For Back Pain....pt 2
You've heard before, but I'll say it again; in today's world back pain is more common than ever. Our sedentary, smart-phone and computer-led lives have caused us to have rounded upper backs, short hip flexors and tight hamstrings which all contribute to poor posture and back pain.
One of the most common questions I get from people when they find out I teach yoga is: "what stretches can I do for my back?". Well folks, you asked, I delivered. You can see the firs post I did on this back in July 2017 here. This post is a follow on from that.
Did you know that most back pain isn't actually anything to do with the back, but instead is caused by tight hips, short hamstrings and/or poor pelvic posture? Some of these poses might feel or look like they're not targeting the back, but trust me, practice these postures daily and you'll feel the difference!
*Disclaimer: please see a medical professional if your pain has been caused by an accident or injury, or if you are experiencing chronic pain. Do this BEFORE practising yoga.
These postures are a great way of warming up the back for the later postures, so start here. It's also nice to start down on the hands and knees, especially if you're tired from a day at work, or if you've just woken up!
Come into a kneeling position on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Tops of the feet flat on the floor if you can. Inhale and drop the belly towards the floor, while pressing the breast-bone forwards and looking forwards.
Exhale and press the floor away from you, rounding the back, sucking the navel in and stretching up between the shoulder-blades.
Keep doing this for as long as feels comfortable, matching the movement with the breath.
This posture is a really nice gentle twist and helps stretch out the latissimus dorsi muscles which are found around the back of your ribs and can often be the cause of a lot of back pain! From your cat-cow, come back to a flat-back position on your hands and knees. Life your left hand and pass it behind your right arm, twisting and stretching as far to the right as you can. Then come to rest down on your left shoulder and the left side of the head and bring the whole left arm to relax on the floor.
Adjust your right arm to press the floor away from you to deepen the twist in the mid-to-upper spine (left pic below) or bring it round and rest it on the small of the back/left hip-crease and twist the shoulders even further open (right pic below).
Try to keep your hips directly over the knees and the tops of the feet flat into the floor.
Breathe here for as long as feels comfortable; try 5 breaths on each side to start and then increase up from there.
Extended Side Angle Pose
Again this stretch targets those tricky muscles in the middle of the back, which actually pass all the way around to the front of your hips.
Come to a standing position at the top of the mat and take a big step back with your right foot. Turn the right toes outwards so the right foot is parallel with the back of your mat. Bend your left knee and adjust the left foot so the ankle is directly underneath the knee. You might need to bring your feet wider apart so the knee can sink into a deep bend.
Press down through the outside of the back foot to stabilise the back leg and bring the left elbow to gently rest on the left knee. Try not to put too much weight into the elbow!
Now sweep the right hand up and over your ear, reaching towards the front of the room in a nice straight, and engaged line. You should feel a full deep stretch through the whole right-side of your body. Now repeat on the other side.
This one seems really simple, but in order to target the right spot (your outer hip and the top of the glute muscles) we want to focus not on how far down we can reach with the bottom hand, but how much lift we can acheive in the top hand and ceiling-facing ribs.
From your extended side angle pose (above) straighten the left leg and lift the torso back to upright with the arms extended outwards at shoulder height.
Engage the left thigh (imagine you're pulling your kneecap upwards towards the hip) to protect your knee (i.e. don't lock out your knee joint!). Keeping the legs straight and the arms at shoulder height, reach the left hand and torso as far forwards, over the left foot, as you can.
Once you can't go any more, bring that left hand softly down to rest on the shin, and sweep the right hand upwards to the sky. Try to keep the chest completely open (imagine you're up flat against a wall, keep your chest flat to the wall) and don't let your torso roll to face the floor. If you notice this happening, lift the bottom hand a little higher up the shin.
Press down through the outside of the right foot and see if you can feel the stretch through the right hip and ribs, lifting the right hand up as if you're trying to touch the ceiling. Stay for 5 breaths, or longer, and then repeat on the other side.
Rounded-Back Forward Fold
Now this might be unconventional...most teachers (myself included) would correct this positioning in a normal forward-fold. If you're trying to stretch out your hamstrings it's better to keep the spine as straight as possible, and connect your belly to your thighs. BUT, this is actually a super intense spine stretch, so if that's your goal, then give it a go.
Bend the knees as much as you need to and fold forward. Now interlace your fingers at the base of the neck and gently allow them to rest on the back of the head to softly stretch out the back of the neck and round the upper back. Breathe softly here for 5 breaths, or longer if you can.
And now to those dastardly hips...tightness in the hips and glute muscles can put extra strain on the lower back, so it's important to give them some TLC! This version of pigeon pose is gentle on the back and knees so it's great for beginners or anyone with back pain.
With your feet flat on the floor and knees bent, cross your left ankle over your right knee. Try and keep the left foot flexed and engaged for a deeper stretch. Spend a couple of breaths opening up the pelvic area by pressing the left knee away from you slightly, then if you want to deepen the stretch, interlace your fingers behind your right thigh and pull the thigh in towards the chest.
Stay for at least 5 breaths, if not longer, and try and relax! You can then move on to the next posture below, before repeating this posture and the one below on the other side.
Adding a Twist
This is my favourite twist at the moment as it really gets into the top of the hip and the glute muscles. From your reclined pigeon pose above bring the right foot back to touch the floor. Then keeping your feet and knees in exactly the same position, let them drop over to the right side of your mat, so the sole of the left foot comes to rest flat on the floor. Bring your hands out to your sides at shoulder height to support you.
Relax and breath here for at least 5 breaths, if not more, before repeating the above posture together with this one on the other side.
Reclined Hand-to-Foot Pose
Just like the hips, our hamstrings can have a knock-on affect on our lower back, and tight hamstrings can cause the lower back to have to work harder to keep your pelvis straight.
This way of stretching the hamstrings is the safest way to protect the lower back from further strain. You can use a towel, belt, tie or anything else you can find around the house.
Try to keep the leg on the floor nice and straight and heavy; it is your anchor and should not lift off the ground if you can help it! Don't put extra strain on your shoulders either; hold the belt so that your shoulder blades, triceps and elbows are resting on the floor, rather than reaching upwards towards the foot.
Go slowly, focus on your breath and don't force it! Over time they'll loosen up.
And so there you have it. There are lots and lots of other yoga postures which can help with back pain, and if it's something you really want to work on I would recommend looking for a yoga class to go to regularly. But if that's not your vibe, these postures practised daily or at least 4 times a week will certainly help.
If you don't notice a difference in your pain please seek advice from a medical professional; your back is one of the most important parts of you...look after it!