A gentle & therapeutic yoga practice can be very effective in resolving both acute and chronic low back pain. In fact, biomedical researchers have recognized the benefits after reviewing 8 years of research and are now recommending yoga as a first-line treatment for low back pain.
Below is a sequence that I often prescribe to clients once the pain is starting to diminish after treating with heat, acupuncture, and rest. One needs to be able to get up and down from the floor with ease and without fear of re-injuring the area.
The aim of this practice is to strengthen the muscles along the spine by extending it and to strengthen the core muscles all around the spine in neutral postures. If done daily, these postures can help restore the natural curve to the low back, allowing a bulging disc to recede back into the spinal column. And it restores blood and energy flow to the area which helps prevent future injury.
Each shape should be held for at least 5 deep, even breaths.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) & Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
Mountain pose establishes good posture. With the feet together or hip width apart, place your weight over the center of both feet. Engage the quadriceps, lifting the kneecaps. Ground down energetically through the tailbone until you feel the lower belly engage, but the tail stays back (not tucked under). Stand up straight so that the natural curve of the low back is present. The chest lifts, as well as the crown of the head, while the shoulders depress away from the ears and arms stretch heavily to the floor.
After several breaths, see if you can lift the arms alongside the head while maintaining the strong support in the lower body, as in the picture below. Nothing should shift except for the lifting arms and a stronger engagement in the belly.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
With feet hip-joint width apart and parallel, bend the knees while keeping the torso up about 45 degrees with the floor. The tail stays back and there’s just enough of a tuck to engage the lower abdomen. You should feel supported both in front and in back of the spine.
If holding this shape is too demanding, place your tail against a wall. The hands can also come down to the hips.
Stand facing a wall. Place the hands on the wall in front of the hip points. Leave the hands there as you walk the feet back, bringing the torso parallel to the ground and hips over the feet. The hips are tilting forward as the inner thighs stretch back, bringing the hips to 90 degrees with the floor and attempting to leave the natural curve in the low back.
Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana 3)
If Box pose brings relief, then go ahead and try this more demanding shape. Bring the feet together, still under the hips and extend one leg back. Press out strongly through that leg, engaging the buttock muscles to lift, not the back and core so much. You’re pushing into the wall and back through the leg with equal energy. The back toes face the ground so the hips remain level (don’t let the lifted-leg-hip rise higher then the other). Repeat with the other leg.
Place the knees under the hip joints and hands at the waist. The tops of the feet can be flat to the ground or you can be on the back of the toes. Ground down with the tail as you reach the chest up and extend the spine. If it feels safe for the neck, extend the head back too.
There are many variations and levels to this pose. Remember, this is a therapeutic practice, so the goal is not to reach the hands to the feet as we do in the full version of this pose. Actually, you may want to isolate the hip flexor, core, and spinal muscles by doing the pose against a wall to remove some of the complexity of the shape (as below).
Lunge (Ashva sanchalanasana)
Tight hips can be part of the issue if low back pain is a common occurrence for you. We should all be lunging everyday to counter the stagnation that pools in the hips from long periods of sitting in chairs. Lunging keeps the hips open and supple, which then frees up the lumbar spine above.
Come into this shape from table pose with the knees under the hips and wrist under the shoulder. Step forward with one leg and align so the ankle is under the knee. Stretch the hips as far forward as possible while sending your tail back with the knee behind you. Once this become neutral for the hips and back, increase the intensity by bringing the hands to the front thigh and the torso upright (see below).
Locust is an essential pose for strengthening the back and restoring the lumbar curve. The single-legged variation is my favorite.
To begin, start in Sphinx pose by coming to the floor in a prone position and prop yourself up on your forearms. Engage the quadriceps so you feel both kneecaps lifting and the tops of the feet press into the floor. Your belly lengthens forward as your chest lifts slightly. If this is difficult, stay here and breathe until the sensation in the back becomes neutral.
Proceed by lifting one leg, isolating the strength of the buttock muscles first, then recruiting the low back muscles at the top of the lift. Hold for a few breaths, then switch sides. You can then continue by moving with the breath: lift a leg on the inhalation, lowering as you exhale and alternating until the low back feels supple and warm.
Another effective variation of Locust is also a preparation for Bow pose. This brings even more energy into the low back.
From a prone position, stretch both arms back with the legs. Bend the knees, keeping them in line the hips (not going wider) and let the big toes touch. Ground down with the pubic bone. On an inhalation, lift the thighs, torso, and arms. Stay lifted as you continue to breathe for several cycles. Rest prone with the head turned to one side, then repeat.
Roll over so you are now supine. Bend the knees, bringing the feet in close to the buttocks, hips joint width apart. Arms are stretched down toward the feet. Lift the hips, keeping the knees squeezed in and the sacrum wide. There is a tendency here to let the knees splay out and this is indicative of a weak core and may bring added pressure to the low back. Keeping the inner thighs toned here will keep the core strong and the low back area safe.
If you have space, interlace the fingers beneath you and squeeze the shoulder blades together, stretching the chest up toward the chin while keeping the neck long.
After releasing this shape and resting supine again, it may feel good to come into happy baby pose or hug the knees into the chest
Inverted Lake/Legs up the wall (viparita karani)
It may take some finesse to get into this pose with a bolster, but it’s definitely worth trying. Place the bolster horizontal at the crease of the wall. The next steps kind of happen all at once… just try and you’ll see what I mean. Face sideways with the wall away from the bolster and lift your outside hip up onto it while you gently swing your legs up the wall and center the back of the hips over the bolster.
You can play with the position here. Some people like the bolster to rest just under the sacrum. Others like to roll it further away from the wall so it supports the lumbar spine (this is a deeper backbend).
Let go completely into the Earth while the mind stays bright and alert. Perhaps a feeling of gratitude may arise in your heart for this wise body that is asking to be cared for more deeply. Trust that as you rest, energy is moving where it needs to go, moving you into physical and energetic balance.
May you experience deep peace here on every level.