Fifteen years ago, I was not acting my age. Since I would recoil from any
form of exercise, as well as any green foods, I was overweight, inflexible
and debilitated by lower back pain. The 40 extra pounds on my frame —
plus tight, shortened back muscles and weak abs — left me moving like an
80-year-old version of myself.
I suffered daily from sciatica, back spasms, limited mobility, weakness, you
name it. When I got stuck in my car one day, unable to swing my legs out
because of my sciatic pain — at age 23 — I realized, “Something’s gotta
I started reading up and realized a shocking number of people suffer with
chronic back pain, partly from hours spent sitting in a way that flattens the
lower back curve. (BTW, Gaiam's Balance Ball Chair, the very one I’m
sitting on as I write this, is a great tool to help build core strength and realign your spine.)
Then, I found yoga. Over time, using some of the same poses I’m showing
you here, I built a lean and pain-free body.
The yoga practice
Thesesix yoga poses for back pain provide traction for your spinal muscles
as you root through the hips and let a gentle pull or gravity make space
between the spinal bones. You’ll walk taller and enjoy a body that’s no
longer stopping you, but rather serving you to live, move and play to the
1. Fists Forward Bend
Stand on your yoga mat with feet hip-distance apart. Bend your knees and
release your torso over your legs until your belly touches your thighs (or as
close as you can get). Make two fists and place them in the opposite elbow
creases. Relax your back, neck and head, and squeeze fists actively.
Fists and bent elbows together are a central nervous system trigger that
causes your back muscles to open. You’ll feel it after just a few breaths!
Take 10-20 breaths here, releasing more tension from the back with every
2. Wall Plank
Stand in front of a wall at arm’s length. Reach forward from your shoulders
and plant your palms on the wall, fingers wide, middle fingers pointing
straight at the ceiling.
Firm your fingers into the wall and draw your navel back as you lengthen
the tailbone towards the floor. Lift your ribs from the pelvis. You want to
work with a natural lower back curve but an active belly.
Keep length in your spine as you begin to walk the legs back, folding at the
waist, and walking your hands down the wall. Eventually you’ll come to an
L-shape as seen here. If you can’t get there today without feeling pain or
rounding in the lower back, bend your knees and maintain the proper spinal
As you lift the navel and lower ribs into the body, reach long through the
tailbone and legs into the floor while reaching the spine, arms and head
towards the wall.
Repeat for 10-20 breaths, then fold into Fists Forward Fold once again.
Move to the next pose after a few breaths.
3. Downward-Facing Dog
If done properly, this tried-and true asana can be excellent for spinal traction
and lower back health.
Move into the pose with feet hip-distance apart [did you know that’s only
two fists-width or so?] and hands shoulder-distance apart. It’s important not
to let your back arch too much, which pressurizes the shoulder joints and
over-contracts the back muscles. Instead, think of lifting the navel and front
ribs, providing a buoyancy in the shoulders and back. Carve the tailbone
towards the heels and press back through the inner and outer legs equally.
This provides a root, a backward grounding from which you can pull and
grow your spine and head forward towards the space between your hands.
Even as you move the shoulders down the back and wrap your outer
shoulder blades towards your armpits slightly, press long through the arms
and fingers, providing a whole-body realignment and stretch.
Take 5-10 breaths here, then proceed to the next pose.
4. Pigeon Pose
We should call this pose “Angel of Mercy” for what it can do to rescue your
poor aching back. It’s genius at opening the lower body muscles like
hamstrings, hip rotators and the iliopsoas muscles, all which can contribute
to back pain, without putting too much torque on the already tight back
muscles. This releases them by springing open the muscles beneath. It’s a
must-do in my yoga sequencing.
From Downward-Facing Dog, bring your right knee behind the right wrist,
foot either touching the left hip crease or slightly forward. Stretch the left leg
out long behind you, knee and top of the foot facing the floor. Center your
hips in space even if they don’t touch the floor. Press your palms into the
floor or a yoga block, ground your legs into the mat, and allow your legs to
stretch while you let your low back curve and lift up.
Draw your navel and pelvic floor muscles in and send your heart to the sky.
To deepen this pose, move your front knee wider and back and creep the
back leg longer.
Take 5-10 breaths here, then fold forward, forearms on a block or the floor
for a full-body stretch to counterpose. Return to Downward-Facing Dog,
then repeat on the other side.
5. Back Traction Pose
After your last Pigeon, swing your back leg around and come onto your
back, knees bent, feet under knees as if to prepare for a Bridge Pose. Grab
your yoga block or if you don’t have one, a firmly-rolledyoga mat will do.
Lift your hips, and place the block in the center of your hips (not low back).
The block should be the skinny way, in the same direction as your spine, not
wide across the hips like your pants line.
Place your hips on the block and gently walk your feet wide. Knock your
knees in towards one another for one minute to stretch across the sacrum,
and then walk feet and knees together. Lift your knees over your hips until
you can relax them but still stay suspended in the air.
This pose will release your iliopsoas muscles even as it detoxes you and
provides traction for the low back spine. After about 30 seconds or so, scoot
your head further from the shoulders and rest for another 30 seconds. Return
to the first variation, feet wide on the floor, knees closer, for a few breaths.
To release, walk the feet under the knees at hip distance. Engage your navel,
lift your hips off the block and remove it to the side. Roll slowly down the
spine inch by inch and enjoy your new spacious lower back curve and
6. Child's Pose
Roll over and take Child’s Pose for one minute or more. Try knees wide, big
toes closer, but end with knees together for a neutral spinal stretch. If your
head doesn’t touch the floor, place a yoga block or fists under your forehead
so you can relax completely.
Breathe slowly into your back body, expanding more nourishing energy and
space on the inhale, and on the exhales, let ever more tension dissolve.
3 more tips for back pain sufferers
1. Don't overemphasize ab work. A common misconception about healing
back pain is that the back is weak and that you just need to work the core
more. Actually, when you only work the core muscles — as in a hundred
crunches a day — you may just be shortening your front body to match the
back one. This can further pull on the spine and cause more disc
compression and too little (or too much) curvature.
Optimally, you want greater core strength andlength in your abdominals,
side waist, low and mid back. To do this, your back muscles will have to
release, and both your back and core will have to stretch as well as flex.
We’ll do both simultaneously in each of these yoga for back pain poses.
2. Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose for the duration of the
practice. On your inhales, flare the ribs wide, and as you exhale, contract
around your navel while maintaining a long, natural spine.
3. For a longer yoga practice to strengthen and open up your lower back, try
Rodney Yee's Yoga for Back Care DVD or his yoga practice on the Mayo
Clinic Wellness Solutions for Back Pain DVD by Gaiam.
Note: Consult your doctor or physical therapist about yoga for back pain
before starting, especially if you're experiencing severe back or leg pain
now or during the practice, or if you have known disc problems, like hernias
How to Strengthen Your Back with Yoga
Got Back Pain? Yoga Can Help: 3 Tips + 2 How-to Videos
Free Yourself from Back Pain
Back Pain: You Need Solutions, Not Just Painkillers
Back Pain Solutions:
Rodney Yee's Yoga for Back Care Kit
Mayo Clinic Wellness Solutions for Back Pain DVD
Find more Back Pain Solutions.