These pages run through Sarah Key's collection of the best yoga for lower back pain. For a more in-depth understanding of the ways the skeletal system benefits of Yoga see Sarah explaining on her video 'Yoga Regime for Beginners' just why and how it's so good.
The right-angle stretch
Exercise 1 in Sarah Key's list of 'the best yoga for lower back pain' involves spine stretching for the upper back through the sides of the chest wall and armpits for easing out upper back muscle pain. It also involves a gentle hamstring stretch and stretching the sciatic nerve through the butt and down the backs of the legs, which can be increased by bringing the toes towards the nose. Verbal cue: push away through the heels of the hands and heels of the feet.
Lower abs strengthening
One of the best forms of lower back strengthening, this core strengthening exercise gives power to the retaining wall of the lower abs muscles. Anchor the arms to the floor and bring the legs towards the nose in small range rocking movements. Repeat 5 times and then carefully return the legs to the wall for support, holding the tummy in all the way. Verbal cue: shrink the tummy in at the front and lengthen the lower back by rounding and lifting off the floor.
Happy baby pose
A welcome relaxation after the exertions of the previous exercise, this groin and hip stretch also mobilises the large ball and socket joints of the hips. Grasping the toes and spreading the thighs wide, pull on your toes to stretch the lower back. Verbal cue: in a pumping action similar to walking, vigorously pull each knee one at a time towards the armpit. To release, take arms back over the head, with fingers interlaced and palms turned away, and one at a time straighten each leg at the knee. With both legs straight, carefully take legs back to the wall.
Advanced sciatic nerve stretch
Using a belt looped around the instep, lower the right leg to the floor while keeping the left hand, palm face down, on the floor behind you. Pull on the foot to gently bring the leg as close to the nose as possible on the floor, without allowing the knee to bend. This spine stretching exercise opens the facet joints along the upper side of the low back and also helps to deal with pain in the upper back. Verbal cue: holding the foot firm, twist the upper body as flat as possible on the floor to feel a wringing action through the midriff. Repeat the other way.
This particular spine stretching exercise is helpful with 'tall people problems'. It is similar to the first exercise, while also helping to correct excessive lordosis of the spine (a sway back in the lumbar area) by holding the spine straight. Try to get your back flat, with a clean right-angled bend at the hips. Verbal cue: stretch the spine long through the ladder of the side ribs and push your sitting bones out through the seat of your pants.
This is one of the best exercises for a bad back. Although you can do it free-standing it is preferable do it holding on so that you can lean back and feel the stretching through the side of the chest wall and down into your lower back. If you bounce the bottom minutely towards the floor, pulling your tummy in, you will be able to lengthen the lower end of the spine towards the floor. It will give you almost instant back pain relief.
This is one of the best upper back strengthening exercises. It's a superb spine stretching exercise (hamstrings too) but it's also hard work for the upper back where the strenuous arm work requires massive stabilisation of the shoulder blades (through the rhomboids) to take weight through the upper body. The difficult thing is getting the butt high and the heels down with the knees straight. Verbal cue: push back through the arms and try to make a nice clean inverted 'V' at the hips.
The Child Pose
If your knees and ankles can take it, this is a lovely releasing exercise. The pose of the child gives the ultimate back pain relief by pulling apart the lower spinal segments. As you stay there head down, cog by cog the back will let go. So don't be in a hurry.
This more advanced hyper-extension exercise provides good upper body strengthening through the arms, while providing a welcome reprieve to stooped working postures so ever-present throughout the day. Its one disadvantage is that it causes quite marked over-riding of the facet joints at the back of the spine - not great with acute inflammation here. To undo any ill-effects of this undoubtedly good exercise, it should always be followed by the BackBlock routine to gap the facet joints again. Verbal cue:hanging through the arms, hands on the floor under the shoulders, let your lower back hang through in a saddle with the pubic bone resting on the floor.
BackBlock Step 1
Exercise 10 in Sarah Key's list of 'the best yoga for lower back pain' is the lumbar BackBlock. It is the ultimate exercise for lower back pain because it is the purest form of distraction or decompression. It passively hyper-extends both the lumbar spine and hips by draping you backwards into the anti-sitting posture. After 60 seconds only you lift up the butt and slide the block away. This exercise should always be followed by gentle 'knees rocking' for 30 seconds. If you don't do this after coming off the block your lower back will be sore the next day! Verbal cue: letting the legs roll out and the butt relax, go heavy so the weight of the legs can pull the spine long.
Cross-legged leaning forward stretch
This is an advanced flexion posture that comes into its own after the BackBlock. The two postures together subject the discs (and the bone of the vertebral bodies) to the maximum in the way of pressure changes: minimal intra-discal pressure while on the BackBlock to bring fluid into the discs followed by fluid expunged again by the maximal loading induced by sitting and forward bending. This is not an easy posture for most Westerners but also very good at keeping the hips mobile. Verbal cue: try to relax your upper body and let the hips release as you crawl your fingertips across the carpet.
Sitting Floor Twists
The sitting floor twists are the ideal way to loosen tight rib cage, particularly where the ribs key into the sides of the spine. Remember that the rib heads straddle the intervertebral discs where they attach to the spine, so any thinning of the disc bunches down on the rib and limits its excursion with breathing (with important implications for health). Ribs are hard to mobilise - and this is the ideal way. In twisting both ways, you will always find one side stiffer than the other (your problem side). Verbal cue: when twisting to the right, say, think of drawing your navel to the right and initiating the action from below up.
This is the ultimate release for the upper chest and back, particularly useful for computer users. It takes the upper body back and completely out of the stooped postures of desk-bound toil. You will start off with the block lengthwise under the upper back on its flattest side, the top edge level with the cross-bar of your shoulders. Then taking the hands overhead, interlacing the fingers and turning the palms away, stretch the shoulders open and push the elbows straight. Verbal cue: pull up laterally through the side ladder of your ribs, from the heels of your hands to the crest of the iliac bones of your pelvis on both sides.
The plough is the natural partner to the thoracic BackBlock. It is rather an extreme posture and not one to weigh into from a standing start. If the stretch is too severe, it's possible to rest the feet on a chair placed behind the head. In this position, it is then easier to roll back and forth over the spinal segments of the upper back - and large and prominent C7 vertbra 'the coat hook' at the base of the neck. Only the very fit and supple should attempt to get the feet to the floor as shown in the photograph above. Verbal cue: It is musch easier having the hands relaxed on the floor near your feet, rather than behind you. Try to relax against the extreme pull through the upper back.
Shoulder Extensions in Sitting
This is an extreme stretch for shoulders and elbows. It also releases the pectoral area at the front of the chest where tightness from being desk-bound (and on a computer) keeps you bowed forward and the knobs of your shoulders prominent at the front like the leading edge of an eagle's wing. You can reduce the degree of stretch by using a lower chair or sitting your bottom higher, say on a stack of books, or better still the BackBlock. Verbal cue: try to swing your upper body through both arms, thrust your chest forward, increasing the (quite painful) stretch through the upper arms.
Shoulder Hangs in Prone
This exercise is the natural partner to the previous one and particularly useful for a stiff (or frozen) shoulder in it's early stages. It stretches the shoulder joint capsule and also the muscles between shoulder blade and upper arm that tighten when scapula stabilisation is poor. It is important to get the whole of your hand flat on the chair in front of you - not hanging over the side. Verbal cue: keeping the arms straight at the elbows, let the head hand through towards the floor and relax.
Forward Bending in Standing
The human spine's penalty for being upright is that it must bend a lot to keep the lumbar discs fully hydrated. Bending is one of the best things you can do to give the discs a drink. Hanging at the bottom of the bend momentarily creates a negative pressure that sucks fluid into in the discs. You may need to place a retaining hand on your belly when you first start bending, and then use your hands to walk down your thighs until you can hang. Switch on the gluts and pull the tummy in hard to 'unfurl' back to vertical. The head should always come up last.
See Sarah's Beginner Yoga Regime page here and the important video. Sarah on yoga is compulsive viewing.
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