Yoga Cues for Low Back Pain

When in high school and competitively dancing, I had an over-use injury that resulted in a stress fracture to two of my lumbar vertebrae. I was then assigned to wear a back brace that spanned from sternum to pelvis – a really sexy look right before entering college. It was suffocating, though I was instructed to wear it upwards of 18 hours a day. Given I was a defiant 18 year old, not then realizing the long-term pain implications this could have, I was not very compliant with the recommendations.

I then began running in college which led to excruciating back and sciatic pain, feeling like a hot curling wand was being traced down the back of my leg to my heel. Not fun. So rather than running, I was instructed to try yoga. Great in theory, not the best in execution.

I began yoga equipped with all of my poor postural habits: hunched over in my upper spine and very arched in my low spine. While it didn’t make the pain necessarily worse, it certainly didn’t help make it better. Because I was just going through the motions not paying much attention to form. And because I had a gymnastics background, I would just throw myself into backbends, putting more tension on my low spine (the scene of the original injury spine.)

It wasn’t until I had been practicing for 7 or 8 years (!) did I change my tune and start focusing wayyyyy more on form. So rather than give you the clickbait title of “5 YOGA POSES THAT CURED MY BACK PAIN” (because let’s face it, that just can’t be true for anyone), I think it would be more helpful to talk about the things I focus on in class to ensure proper spinal alignment, therein serving to prevent pain. And these cues ring true for all poses, rather than just a few specific ones.

  1. Knitting my front ribs in
    • I have a tendency to overarch and just splay my ribs out whenever I bring my hands above my head. By being mindful of rib location, it helps re-align the rest of my spine (especially lumbar).
  2. Drawing my tail bone down towards my heels as I shine my breast bone towards the front (the “front” changes depending on your positioning)
    • I love the cue of bringing my tailbone down towards my heels. However, I think this can sometimes lead to OVER correction, creating a tucking of the tailbone down and going against the natural curvature of the spine (the lumbar spine is naturally lordotic aka swayed / arched). This tucking of the tailbone can lead to hunching the rest of the spine. In order to prevent this over-correction, it’s important to remember to shine the breast bone (or sternum) up / towards the direction you’re facing. It’s also just a nice cue to remember for good posture in general. I find myself practicing at the bus stop and when I’m on a walk.
  3. Avoiding strenuous back bends like wheel that have the potential to put a lot of pressure on my lower spine
    • Try as I might, even in yoga teacher training with 1 on 1 help doing wheel and full juicy warm-up, it just never felt good on my low back. Getting comfortable with “modifying” (and I put that in quotations because everyone’s peak expression of a pose is different depending on their body type) was probably the single most helpful tool when improving my back pain with yoga. I go with bridge and really focus on the above cues (drawing my ribs in), as well as rotating my inner thighs down to prevent splaying the knees out and putting more pressure / tension on the low spine.
  4. Engaging the muscle surrounding the vulnerable area (aka abdomen and quadriceps – drawing the belly towards the spine and the quads away from the knee caps)
    • I like to think of my muscles as hugging the bones they’re protecting. Not the most accurate medical description (LOL) but the visualization helps me hone in on form. Using my abdomen and quads in every pose is another reminder to focus on form (and just makes the practice far more challenging in general).
  5. Stretching out my hip flexors, glutes, and piriformis
    • Because my hip flexors (the muscles below the frontal hip bones extending from hips to quads) are so tight and condensed, it can sometimes make my low back pain worse. Think about it. If they’re constricted, my pelvis tilts forward anteriorly, leading to overarching in the low spine. So I really focus on opening these up (pigeon, low lunge, high lunge, lizard lunge). Loosening up these muscles leads to much more space in my low back!

What about you? Any tips or poses you like for improving low back pain with yoga?

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