Inspired by an uncle-in-law who’s doctor told him he needed to do yoga to help his back… this practice is designed for people who have never done yoga before, but know it might be able to help them with their back issues.
Of course, it is also great for people who have done yoga before, and who also need help with back issues.
A healthy spine is probably one of the most wonderful things one can experience – I know the more I practice yoga, the more my spine opens up, the more liberated I feel from within my body.
As with any yoga practice, it is your responsibility to listen to your body – never push into sharp, searing pain and always trust your intuition. If you think you need to back off – back off! Don’t use your muscles, or will power, to push into postures, instead allow your breath to guide you in and out.
Be mindful and be conscious at all times – yoga is an exploration of your inner landscape.
To create this practice, I have drawn on my many years of chronic back issues, and my many years of home yoga practice. In essence, I took myself to my yoga mat, and then watched which postures my body wanted to move into.
It’s important to remember every body is different, and every back issue is different. My back problems were diagnosed as degenerative disc disease, and compounded by my extraordinarily tight hamstrings and hips. It was primarily my lumbar spine that was affected. Your spine might be experiencing something completely different.
In general, the following postures are about creating movement in the spine, softening and releasing the muscles that run along it’s length. Several of the postures also focus on releasing the hamstrings and the hips – tight hamstrings and hips restrict the movement of the pelvis which can create strain on the spine.
As you move through this practice, listen to your breath and make sure you’re not straining or pushing too hard. Every of the postures have many variations, and if you feel drawn to doing a posture in a slightly different way, honour that feeling while listening to your breath and paying attention to how that variation feels from within your body.
Remember, yoga is not something we do, but something we are. When you step out of the way and connect with your breath, yoga is effortlessly expressed through you.
As always, begin in loose comfortable clothing, with a yoga mat and any props you like to use. Click on the posture name to see a photo open up in a separate window, and then come back to the posture’s description for more detailed information.
Legs up the wall/Viparita Karani, together and/or wide
This is a wonderful starting posture, and something you can hold for five to ten minutes as you like. Make sure your legs are straight with feet flexed down downward the ground (as if you were trying to stand on the ceiling), quadriceps are engaged, hips are parallel to the wall and spine is flat on the ground with shoulders relaxed and chin slightly tucked.
It doesn’t matter if your hips are away from the wall and just your heels rest against it – the key parts of the posture are straight legs and straight spine. Eventually, as your hips and hamstrings open up, you will be able to have your legs flat against the wall, hips right up against it. Don’t forget to reach your hands down towards the wall, palms face up and relaxed. This helps to open the front of the shoulders.
Once you have your alignment sorted – just breathe. Listen to your breath. Feel your breath. Use your breath to explore your body from the inside out. Follow your breath down into your lungs, and into your body.
Keep your big toes touching, until you decide you’re ready to open up into a wide legged straddle and then slowly with control, allow your legs to release sideways down toward the ground, keeping the backs of your knees parallel to the wall, until you feel a relaxing opening in your groin. Don’t over do this! With gravity pulling down at your legs you can over-stretch the inner groin muscles, and this is not something you want to do!
Hugging knees, roll side to side
To come out of Viparita Karani, place your hands underneath your thighs and gently pull your knees into your chest. Stay connected to your breath and listen to what your body needs in this moment. Maybe you hug your knees tightly together, maybe you open up into a wide knee hug, maybe you rock from side to side. Honour your body in this moment, feeling what your spine needs from the inside out. Take as long as you need.
This posture is heavenly for spines and digestive systems alike. Begin by laying flat on the ground, both legs straight. Gently inhale up your right knee, interlacing all ten fingers an inch or two below the knee cap. Bring the knee out slightly and around your ribs before exhaling and drawing it in toward your shoulder. You will feel discomfort in your right hip joint, and that’s ok. Keep your chin tucked, creating a lovely double chin as you look down the centre line of your body. Every inhale, draw your right knee closer to your shoulder, every exhale focus on surrendering the spine into the ground. Keep your elbows tucked into your body, your shoulders flat on the ground.
Once you’ve done each leg separately, inhale up both legs and wrap both arms around grasping your elbows. If you can’t reach your elbows (and try!!!) hold your forearms, or wrists. Every inhale, hug your knees tighter, every exhale, press your tailbone and shoulders flat to the floor. As your skeletal structure improves, you will find more and more of your spine flat to the ground, until one day, your whole spine from crown of the head to tailbone will be touching the ground.
Reclining bound angle pose/supta baddha konasana (shows heavily propped version)
Heaven for hips and inner groins, from a supine position, draw your feet flat against each other and up to your groin as close as is comfortable. Allow your knees to drop out sideways towards the ground. Place your hands palm-face up beside your hips. Breathe. Lengthen your tailbone away from you, tucking it up slightly so your spine is as long and flat as possible. Breathe some more. Feel your hips opening and surrendering, your knees dropping closer and closer to the ground. Feel your spine flat along the ground,
I can’t stress enough the benefits of this postures for back problems. Kneel on your mat with the tops of your feet flat, big toes lined up, ankles lined up, knees lined up. Inhale and draw your belly button into your spin, tucking your chin into your chest. Slowly exhale and round down to the floor, reaching your forehead forward to rest on your mat, as your tailbone reaches toward the back of the mat. Whole spine is stretching.
As always, breath is key. Because the diaphragm is compressed against the thighs, focus on breathing into the back of your lungs. With practice, you’ll find you can direct your breath into your upper spine, creating space between your vertebrae.
Medicine for spines – if you do nothing else, work through these two postures every single day. From child’s pose, come up on to all fours, creating a flat table top shape. Make sure your fingers are spread wide and hands are directly under shoulders, or slightly forward. Knees are hip width apart. Begin by taking a deep inhale in neutral spine, then as you exhale, drop your head down and press your belly button up into your spine, tucking your tailbone under and creating a shape like a hissing, angry cat, or a giant letter C. On the exhale, sage your belly low to the ground, dropping your heart down between your shoulders, looking up, and lifting your tailbone up, creating a shape like a bowl, or a sagging old cow.
Shift between these two postures as many times as you like, moving with the breath, exhaling for cat, inhaling for cow. Feel your lungs and heart expand on the inhale. If you like, you can hold each one for several breaths and feel how this changes the posture. Just let your breath move your spine, feeling more and more movement and liberation as it softens and releases.
This is when Prana Flow starts to take over! I can’t show you a picture of this one because it’s about movement. Begin in neutral spine as above, then begin to slowly circle your hips around. As your hips move, allow this to travel up your spine until your shoulders and then your neck and head start to move. Everything is going in circles, there’s no right way or wrong way, it’s about loosening up and letting the Prana move your body. Eventually, you’ll actually be moving through Cat and Cow in a circular motion… and then start all over again going in the opposite direction.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t feel “right”, or if it feels “silly”, or “stupid”. This is just a label your mind has put on a feeling because you’re in unknown or uncomfortable territory. This posture is about allowing your body and spine to move from the inside out, exploring it’s range of motion in all directions, and beginning to expand and extend that range of motion.
I love this pose. It takes all of the weight out of downward dog, and allows you the freedom to play with the spine, moving it where it needs to be – whether that’s straight or slightly converse like the photo in the link above.
Make sure your knees are hip width apart and are directly under the knees. Your thighs should be perpendicular to the floor in this posture. Stretch your arms out in front of you, fingers spread, palms face down, shoulder width apart. You are making a straight line from fingertips to hips. Extend fingers forward and hips back so your whole spine is stretching and lengthening. Head is located between the biceps, and maybe your forehead rests on the floor. You can deepen this stretch through the shoulders by placing your chin on the floor if you like.
Half downward dog/Uttana Shishosana twist
This is a variation of the posture above. Take the right hand and turn it palm face up and slide it sideways underneath your left armpit bringing your right shoulder down onto the mat at your midline. (I couldn’t find a picture for this one I’m afraid). Then take your left hand (which was still extended out in front of you as in half downward dog) and extend it up to the ceiling directly above your right, and then left, shoulder.
Hips are still square above the knees, then your spine lengthens forward before twisting in the upper back and you’ve ended up with your right shoulder on the ground, right arm extended along the ground sideways away from you palm face up. Your left shoulder and left arm extend up into the sky.
Keep your pelvis tilting forward slightly, and use the breath to gentle revolve the torso around, opening the upper back.
Then change sides 🙂
Half downward dancing dog
Again, this is all about Prana Flow. From the twist above, bring both hands back down to the ground extended out in front of you, palms nice and wide. Ground through the knees, through the hands, and then by using your breath, begin to dance the spine.
What does this mean? In practice, as I breathe, my spine moves through a rounded spine shape like cat, and straight shape like downward dog. My weight also comes forward and back on my hands as I stretch into different parts of my spine. Finally, while holding my hands and knees steady, I also gently move from side to side lengthening my side body, opening up the outsides of my hips. I do all of this mindfully and with attention on my breath, never moving into pain, always honouring my body.
After dancing my spine open in half downward dog, it’s warmed up and ready to do a baby backbend. It automatically moves from half downward dog into sphinx. To do this, draw your belly button into your spine, tuck your elbows into your body and slide your belly along the ground lifting your sternum up and drawing your shoulders back. Forearms rest flat on the ground, hands are flat, fingers spread, elbows rest below shoulders. Be aware of pulling your body forward with your arms, even though it doesn’t move. This lengthens your spine and draws energy up and away from the lumbar spine. Tailbone tucks under slightly. Just rest here and feel your breath, feel your spine. Reach your toes and legs actively back and away from you, feeling the front of your thighs on the ground.
On an inhale, press down into your forearms and gently extend your spine up and out of your pelvis, being always aware of lift and length from tailbone to crown of head. Hold for five to ten breaths, using inhales to lift and lengthen, exhales to direct energy out your toes.
Sphinx leg lifts
Maintain a tight frame in sphinx, extending the chest up and away, grounding down through the pelvis and tucking the tailbone under. Then, extending your leg out and away, lift it up towards the ceiling, keeping it straight. Alternative each leg, using inhales to lift, exhales to replace. Do at least five on each side.
Half downward dancing dog
After a the sphinx and leg lifts, my spine feels like dancing again, so it’s back into a half downward dog to lengthen it out and move it around. Use your breath, and honour how your body feels right now.
Low lunge/Anjaneyasana pulsing into hamstring stretch
From half downward dog, step your right foot in between your hands and bring both hands to rest gently on your knee. The right knee should be directly in front of your right hip, and directly above your right ankle. Gently exhale and sink down into your hips pressing your right knee forward, making sure you don’t hyper extend over your right ankle (wiggle the foot further forward if you need to). Keep the torso upright, the shoulders relaxed. This is medicine for the left hip flexors, opening up the front of the hips nicely. Use the inhales to extend the torso up toward the sky, the exhales to sink deeper into the posture.
Once you’ve held it for five or so breaths, inhale the right leg straight resting gently on the right heel with toes flexed back toward you and your hips sitting back toward your leg calf muscle. Hands reach down toward the ground at the hips, torso is straight, pelvis tilts forward. This is preparation for splits, but is a nice gentle way to open the hamstrings and find movement through the pelvis. Once you’ve held this for five breaths or so, exhale back into low lunge, then inhale into the hamstring stretch again. Using the breath in this manner, be precise and pulse back and forth between the two movements.
Half lunge open twist
Finish the above posture on the lunge. Take your right hand and slowly inhale and extend it back behind you parallel to your mat. Hips stay grounded and parallel to the front of the mat, spine lengthens and lifts, upper spine twists and opens. Left hand stays on the top of the right knee.
Breathe five times nice and slowly, inhales lengthen the spines, exhales reach the hand back and release into the twist. Finish by coming back down into half downward dog and then repeating the sequence again on the left side. (Low lunge pulsing into hamstring stretch opening into twist.)
From half downward dog, gently roll over onto your back, lying flat for a moment or two allowing the spine to settle.
Bend the knees and bring the feet flat on the ground hip width apart with the heels as close to your hips as feels comfortable. Place the palms flat on the floor alongside your hips. On an inhale, press down through your hands and feet and allow your hips to float up to the ceiling. Make sure you keep your knees in line with the hips – they have a tendency to open up wider. It helps when you ground down through the inside of the feet. Every inhale, allow your hips to open up further, every exhale, ground through your foundation.
If you feel good here, you can take it one step further – interlace your hands underneath your spine and gentle walk your shoulders underneath your torso slightly. Press your forearms down into the ground, keeping them as straight as possible, and continue to lift your hips up to the ceiling. As always, use your breath to move deeper into the posture.
To come out of the posture, release your hands, tilt your tailbone under to lengthen your spine and slowly lower down on an exhale vertebrae by vertebrae. Take your time, feel your spine slowly make a connection with the ground again and then let the posture just wash over you. Repeat two or three times, moving slowly in and out and always keeping the spine and neck inline.
Lying flat on the back, inhale the right knee up taking it with the left hand. Extend the right arm out flat along the floor at shoulder height, pressing the palm down to help keep the shoulder grounded. Look to the right as you slow exhale the right knee over to the left. Keep the shoulders grounded, but allow the right hip to lift off the ground. Use the breath to deepen into the stretch and then repeat on the other side.
Ah! The most wonderful and rewarding posture that there is! Also known as corpse pose… all that’s physically required is that you lie flat on your back, feet flopped out sideways, chin slightly tucked, arms away from the sides of the body, palms face up. Let the tongue drop away from the roof of the mouth, the eyeballs sink into your skull. Be aware of any physical sensations in the body… any emotional sensations in the body… any thoughts drifting through your mind. Don’t give any of these sensations any energy, instead dropping into the gaps between the physical feelings, the emotional feelings and the gaps between your thoughts. Just be… for as long as your feel like…
And there you have it, a short practice designed to get the spine opening, moving, releasing, and lengthening. The key thing to remember at all times is to be conscious of your breath and aware of how your body feels from the inside out. Once you become adept at maintaining this connection your body will begin to let you know how it needs to move. Patience and persistence win out in the end. If you can do twenty minutes of yoga three or four times a week at home, you will begin to notice an enormous difference in your body and in your life.
Let me know how you get on 🙂
Thank you to Yoga Journal for all the wonderful pose photos I linked to – once I get my hands on a digital camera, I will be in a position to photograph these practices properly!