Yoga for a Healthy Lower Back [Sequence]
The lower back is a part of the body that for so many of us, suffers repeated discomfort, stiffness and pain. Yet most of the time we choose to ignore it, hoping the pain will just go away. In yoga, it is our job to shine a light on the parts of us that don't feel so good, so that we can take steps to heal, as healing begins with awareness. And the good news is that just a little bit of yoga each day can go a long way to undoing a lot of the stress we put on our backs in our daily lives, particularly the lower back which often takes the brunt of life's stress and strain.
In next week's blog I'm going to go deeper into the anatomy of the spine and how we can avoid strain in the lower back. But first I'd like to share with you this short sequence that you can do every morning so that you can feel the difference. After all, yoga is all about practice, it is experiential, meaning you won't heal unless you get on your mat and practice. So, let's get started.
Bring the sides of the big toes together, lift the arches of the feet. Press down through the balls of the feet, and the heels. Rest your attention on these points of contact between the feet and the ground for a moment. Lift the arches of the feet and feel the inner legs switch on as you do.
Engage the quadriceps by lifting the kneecaps. Find a posterior tilt in the pelvis (i.e. gently tuck the tailbone). Drop the shoulders away from the ears, allow the arms to hang in the side plane (i.e. directly beside the body). Slightly tuck the chin and gaze softly down the nose (slightly forward).
Breath and bandha
Take three deep inhales through the nose, exhaling through the mouth. Then close the mouth and start to breathe deeply (using ujjayi breath if it's part of your practice). Feel yourself grounding down through the feet and light in the body. Take a few moments to scan down the body from head to toes. Allow yourself to drop into the inner space of your body. Maintain a steady flow of breath.
On your next exhale, feel the navel drawing in towards the spine and slightly lifting. On your inhale, stay focused on the navel, keeping it actively drawn in. Exhale and feel the pelvic floor muscles picking themselves up.
The navel and pelvic floor locks are referred to as uddiyana bandha and mula bandha respectively. Activating bandha will bring you increased core strength with every posture, giving you an increased lightness and ease, and helping you build energy and vitality as you practice. More info on these in a blog soon, but meanwhile, check out this resource on mula bandha for more information.
Surya Namaskara (Sun salutations)
Take a few sun salutations to warm the body. Listen to the audio recording for a guide, or watch this demonstration of sun salutations from my teacher's teacher David Garrigues.
After 5-8 rounds, vinyasa and come to rest in Downward Facing Dog.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Instructions - Spread the fingers from thumb to pinky finger. Press down through the heels of the hands and the knuckles. Rotate the shoulders outward, the shoulder blades wrapping round the back. Keep the back of the neck long, gazing in between the knees or up at the belly. Lift the hip bones back and away from the hands. Allow the heels to be heavy, as if sinking into quicksand. Try rolling up a blanket and placing under the heels, if they do not meet the ground, to give the heela a solid foundation (optional). Stay for 10-20 breaths. Then step forward with the right foot and move into triangle.
Key benefits - Stretches the entire back line of the body - the arms, upper and lower back, the hamstrings and achilles tendons. Strengthens quads and inner thigh muscles (adductors). Strengthens wrists. Strengthens core.
Triangle pose (Trikonasana)
Instructions - Stand with feet one leg length apart. Right foot points directly forward, left foot points inwards 45 degrees. The front heel tracks with the inside arch of the back foot. Press down through the balls of the feet, and the heel. Lift the inner arches and feel the inner legs active. Lift the kneecaps to engage the quadriceps. If you hyperextend in the knees (i.e. over extend and lock the knee joint), have a micro-bend in the knee.
With hips level with the left side of your mat, outstretch the arms and reach through the fingertips. Inhale, lengthen the spine by lifting through the crown of the head, and exhale to reach towards and beyond the front of your mat with arms parallel to the floor. When unable to reach forward any further (i.e. when fully extended in the side waist), tip over to the side and take the lower leg or foot with the right hand. You may allow fingertips to rest on the floor but be careful not to come down so low as to collapse the chest - feel an expansion through the upper arm as it reaches towards the sky. Stay for 10 breaths, then come up on an inhale, rotate the feet and do the posture on the other side.
Key benefits - Stretches the side of the waist, the hip flexors (psoas). Stabilises the lower body. Improves gait.
Wide-legged forward fold D (Prasarita Padottanasana D)
Instructions - After triangle on the left side, come up and straighten the legs. Heel-toe the feet a little wider apart (approximately 1.5 leg lengths). Bring hands to the waist. Inhale and lift the face and chest to the sky, lengthening the back. Exhale and fold forward, grabbing the big toes with the index and middle fingers. Inhale, lift the face and chest once more, allowing your grip on the toes to give you length through the arms and the back. Exhale and fold, bringing the chest towards the knees, letting the head hang and the neck be long. Stay strong in the navel, keep lifting the kneecaps to engage the quads and pressing down through the contact points in the feet. Take 10 breaths, or stay in the pose a little longer, pressing your heels down and lifting the tailbone. Feel a lengthening in the backs of the legs and a softening in the hips as you stay in the posture. Inhale to lift the face and chest, exhale to release the grip on the toes and bring hands to the waist. Inhale to rise up.
Key benefits - Strengthens the legs. Stretches the hamstrings and glutes. Lengthens the lower back. Strengthens the core if engaged.
Side angle pose (Uttitha Parsvakonasana)
Instructions - Keep the same stance and set the feet. Right foot forwards, the left foot turned in 45 degrees. Bend the right knee. Position the knee over the ankle. Careful not to let the knee fall inwards. Press down through all 4 contact points of the feet and lift the arches.
Rest the right elbow on the knee with the palm facing up, fingertips relaxed, or place the right hand on the mat next to and outside of the right foot. Reach overhead with the left arm, rotating the shoulder outwards and extending through the fingertips. Gaze up to the left hand if this is comfortable for the neck. If it's not, you can gaze forwards. Keep lifting the sternum and extending through the fingertips as you take 5-10 breaths. We'll then move to bound side angle on the right hand side before doing both poses on the left.
Key benefits - Stretches the side of the waist, strengthens the legs and core
Bound side angle pose (Baddha Parsvakonasa)
Instructions - Keeping the same position in the feet and the legs, take the right hand and place it on the floor to the inside of the right foot. Rotate the shoulder inwards, reach under the right thigh with the hand and take it behind the back. Rotate the left shoulder inwards and reach behind the back with the left hand. Clasp the hands behind the back. Stay long in the back, lifting the ribs and crown of the head with each inhale. Rotate shoulders externally when in the position, opening the heart area. Twist the body to the left and gaze up towards the ceiling. Stay for 5-10 breaths. Exhale to release the bind; straighten the right leg and bring hands to the waist as you rotate the feet. Do side angle and bound side angle on the other side.
Key benefits - Stretches the side of the waist, strengthens the legs and core. Stretches the shoulders. Opens the heart. Twist improves spine flexibility.
Pose dedicated to the sage Marichi variation C (Marichyasana C)
Instructions - Take a vinyasa to a seated position. Usually in an ashtanga-influenced sequence such as this we would perform a variety of forward folds interspersed with vinyasa to begin our seated practice. However forward folds can be antagonistic on weak or strained lower backs if over-done. So, for the purpose of this sequence, we will skip forward folds and do a seated twist instead. Twists are very calming for the nervous system and great for the health of our spine.
Sit in staff pose (dandasana) with the legs outstretched, feet flexed and spine straight. Push through the heels. Ground down through the sit bones. Bend the right knee and place the foot flat on the mat with the heel meeting the top of the right thigh, a few inches out from the inside of the left thigh. Stamp down through the right foot. Place the right hand flat on the mat behind you and inhale to lift the left arm up overhead. Twist to the right and exhale to hook the left elbow outside of the right knee. Resist the elbow to the knee and twist. Look round to the back of the mat, allow your gaze to guide you round. Drop shoulders, lift the ribs and feel the sternum and heart area lifting and opening as you twist. Keep the core engaged.
Do the same on the right, then vinyasa to downward dog. Come onto the belly.
Key benefits - Improves the flexibility of the spine. Detoxifies the organs and aids digestion.
Sphinx pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)
Instructions - Lying on the belly, bring the forearms onto the mat with palms down, spreading the fingers. Position elbows under the shoulders. Allow heels to drop out to the side, spreading the lower back. Press down into the elbows to lift the heart, lengthening the back. Stay in this passive posture for 1-2 minutes, breathing slowly, allowing the mind to calm and the body to soften.
Key benefits - Lengthens the hip flexor (psoas). Improves flexibility of the spine. Stabilises the SI joints. Calms the nervous system. Improves shoulder stability. Opens the heart.
Half frog pose (Ardha Bhekasana)
Instructions - From sphinx, lay the right forearm parallel to the front of the mat. Press down through the elbow, forearm and palm. Bend the left knee and take the toes with the left hand, fingers facing forward. Press the toes towards the ground and feel a good stretch in the quadricep. Stay for 10 breaths, breathing slowly. Repeat on the other side.
Key benefits - Stretches the quads. Lengthens the hip flexor (psoas). Improves flexibility of the spine. Stabilises the SI joints. Opens the heart.
Come back to a childspose and take rest for a few moments. Take a moment to scan through the body and notice how it feels, is it feeling balanced, relaxed, tired? We're moving towards the last few postures now, not long to go!
Dolphin pose (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana)
Instructions - Come to hands and knees and rest forearms on the floor, shoulder-width apart, tracking with the sides of the mat. Take hold of your upper arms with opposite hands then rest forearms on the floor again - this is the distance apart your elbows should be.
Come off your knees and lift the hips. Feet are hip width apart - start to walk them closer to the face while pressing into the elbows and hands. Come as close with the feet as you can with straight (or almost straight!) legs. Engage the core. Press heels down to the mat. Advanced students can lift the legs up into Pincha Mayurasana if this is part of your practice (a forearm balance). If not, stay in dolphin for 5-10 breaths, then come down. Take rest in child's pose for a few moments, then repeat if desired!
Key benefits - Strengthens the arms and core. Stabilises the shoulders. Stretches the spine and hamstrings.
Cowface pose with forward fold (Gomukhasana)
Instructions - From downward dog, take a jump to sit just behind the hands, or jump through to seated with outstretched legs.
Bring the right leg to bend in a V shape in front of you. Swing the left leg over the right in a V shape and stack the left knee on top of the right. Allow the soles of the feet to face up. With fingertips on the mat beside the hips, lift the face and chest and stretch the back. Walk the hands forward and bring the chest to the knees. Lengthen and relax the back of the neck.
Stay for 1-2 minutes, breathing slowly. If it becomes too intense, dial back or come out of the pose. Swap the legs and repeat.
Key benefits - Stretches the glutes, IT bands, abductor (outer thigh) muscles. Stretches the lower back. Calming for the nervous system.
Bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Instructions - Now move slowly onto the back with control. Bend the knees and bring the heels in towards the body, the outside edges of the feet aligned with the sides of the mat. The toes often have a tendency to splay outwards here (as mine are in the photo)! Try to keep the feet aligned. Graze the heels with your fingertips - this is where your feet should be.
Take a deep inhale, feeling the energy of your breath travelling up the spine and back down on the exhale. Try a few rounds of breath in this way. Then on an inhale, press into the feet and start to lift the hips. Wiggle the shoulder blades towards one other underneath the body. Interlace the fingers.
Unclench the buttocks and allow your calves and inner thighs to do the work. Imagine you are squeezing a beach ball between your thighs - keep them active.
Stay for 10 breaths, and slowly lower down, pressing the lower back into the mat. Hug the knees to the chest and roll over the lower back if that feels good.
Key benefits - Lengthens the hip flexor (psoas). Improves flexibility of the spine. Stabilises the SI joints. Opens the heart.
Back release pose (Sucirandhrasana)
Instructions - Bring both feet flat on the mat again, toes pointing forward. Bring the feet in and graze the heels with your fingertips. Bring the right ankle to rest on top of the left thigh, just above the knee. Either stay here for the first variation of the pose, pressing the right knee gently towards the front of the mat. Or to go further, lift the left foot off the mat, thread the right hand through the middle of the thighs and interlace the fingers behind the left thigh, just above the knee.
Gently draw the left thigh in towards the chest, while pressing the right knee away towards the front of the mat. Stay with your steady breath. After about 10 breaths, release on an exhale and bring both feet to the mat. Do the same on the other side.
Key benefits - Supports and aligns the back while opening the hip joint, stretching the IT bands, the glutes and adductor (inner thigh) muscles.
Corpse pose (Savasana)
Instructions - Finally, outstretch the legs and allow the feet to flop out to the side. Bring the palms to face up next to the body. Gently close the eyes. Allow the facial muscles to become soft, and gently scan down the body bringing softness as you go.
Let the breathing return to its normal flow, letting go of any effort or control. Stay watching the breath as it flows in and out of the body. Find absolute peace and stillness in the body. Remain for 5-10 minutes, or until you need to re-apply sun cream (not necessary in Scotland)!
Key benefits - Allows the nervous system to calm and muscle memory to develop. Increases presence, calm and clarity.
I hope you have enjoyed this short sequence. Please give me your feedback, either via email or social media and let me know how you got on, and if you found relief from this short sequence. I would also welcome your questions on lower back pain and how to relieve it with yoga.
Namaste yogis, have a great weekend :)