Your back bears the burden of stress, unhealthy postures, excessive walking, sitting, standing, and much more. The spine is also one of the most important parts of the body. Neglecting it only leads to a whirlwind of conditions with age. In fact, it is said that up to 80% of Americans will have some form of back pain in their lifetime. So, caring for your back is not only recommended but almost an essential part of well-being.
Many of us spend most of the day hunched over the laptop in uncomfortable chairs. By the end of the day, we’re normally so exhausted we don’t bother to stretch or twist to remove knots or counter the posture our spine has taken all day. So, how do we correct this?
Yoga for the back
Your spine supports numerous muscle groups throughout the body. It’s role is critical in keeping up the strength and stability of muscles, nerves and even connective tissues like ligaments. Being a holistic practice, yoga works towards releasing stress, healing the mind and body, strengthening organs, systems, muscles and tissues, as well as improving aspects like your posture. Yoga will also improve your awareness, which helps you observe tension, imbalances and irregularities. The sooner you notice such things, the sooner you can correct them and bring your mind into balance. A regular yoga practice, especially with a teacher, consists of various practices that work on these individual aspects.
Many postures stretch, stimulate and strengthen the nerve endings in the spine. This improves your mind-body connection and balances your nervous system. It also relaxes the nervous system, which ultimately relaxes the mind. Along with this, deep stretches strengthen the muscles of the spine. Since the spine also supports many muscle groups, the stronger your spine, the stronger the surrounding muscles.
Yoga postures to strengthen your back
Often a warm-up pose to release stiffness from the back, this posture engages the entire spine. It brings awareness all the way from the tailbone up to the neck. The movement targets every part of the spine with flexion (rounding) and extension (arching) of the spine. It works on several muscles such as erector spinae, rectus abdominis, triceps, and gluteus maximus.
How to do cat-cow pose:
- Come onto all fours with the palms directly under the shoulders and knees underneath your hips. Ensure your weight is equally distributed on all fours.
- Inhale and fill your abdomen with air as you let your belly drop towards the mat. There will be an arch in your back as you do this. Look up towards the ceiling and lengthen your neck and throat.
- As you exhale, pull the naval towards the spine, curve your back and tuck your chin into your chest as you lift up.
- Continue this movement for a few breaths. Let your breath guide you through the movements.
- After a few rounds, release and come into child’s pose.
Half lord of the fishes pose
A strong seated spinal twist, this posture fully extends, stretches and twists the back. This not only stretches the spine but strengthens all the muscles, nerves and tissues. It is also effective in releasing stiffness and pain that tends to occur after a long day of sitting or standing.
How to do half lord of the fishes pose:
- Sit in Dandasana with your feet together and spine straight.
- Now bend the left leg and place the left foot flat beside the right hip.
- Take the right leg over the left knee and place the left hand on the right knee and the right hand behind you.
- Now slowly twist the waist, shoulders and neck to the right and look over the right shoulder.
- Ensure your spine is straight.
- Now look over the right shoulder while taking slow deep breaths.
- Release and repeat this on the other side.
Downward facing dog
A rejuvenating posture that stretches and lengthens the spine. It helps relieve back pain and sciatic pain too. It works on the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, triceps and quadriceps, making it effective in strengthening the entire back, shoulders and arms.
How to do downward facing dog:
- Come onto your fours. Form a table such that your back forms the table top and your hands and feet from the legs of the table.
- As you breath out, lift the hips up, straightening the knees and elbows. Your body will form an inverted V-shape.
- Hands are shoulder width apart, feet are hip width apart and parallel to each other. Keep the toes pointed straight ahead.
- Press your hands into the ground. Widen through the shoulder blades. Keep the neck lengthened by touching the ears to the inner arms.
- Hold the downward dog pose and take long deep breaths. Look towards the navel.
- Exhale, bend the knees, return to table pose and relax.
A gentle, beginner-level backbend, this posture strengthens the spine and helps relieve pain, even from sciatica. It also releases stress and fatigue that may be causing a strain on the lower back. The asana helps correct posture. Apart from this, it is effective in stretching the abdomen, chest and shoulders. This posture also works on key muscles such as hamstrings, gluteus maximus, deltoids and triceps.
How to do cobra pose:
- Lie flat on the stomach with the legs straight, feet together and the soles of the feet facing upwards.
- Place the palms of the hands flat on the floor, below and slightly to the side of the shoulders, with the fingers together and pointing forward.
- Position the arms so that the elbows point backward and are close to the sides of the body.
- Rest the forehead on the floor and close the eyes.
- Relax the whole body, especially the lower back. Now slowly raise the head.
- Straighten the elbows, using the back muscles first, then the arm muscles to raise the trunk further and arch the back.
- In the final position, the pubic bone remains in contact with the floor and the navel is raised a maximum of 3 mm.
- The arms may or may not be straight; this will depend on the flexibility of the back.
The bridge pose is a beginner-level posture that is often practiced towards the end of a class. This is because it is also relaxing. It stretches and strengthens the spine all the way from the lower back to the neck. It soothes the nervous system due to its effect on the spinal nerves. It also helps correct posture.
How to do bridge pose:
- Lie on the back, bend the knees and bring the heels closer to the buttocks. Keep the heels firmly on the mat. The feet should be hip width apart on the floor with the knees and ankles in a straight line.
- Hold the ankles with your hands.
- Inhale and slowly lift the buttocks and hips up. Now lift the back and arch the back upward as you raise the lower, middle and upper back off the floor.
- Now lift the chest as high as possible towards the chin without straining. Ensure that the feet and shoulders lie firmly on the ground. Keep the inner thighs and glutes active and engaged. The thighs should be parallel to each other.
- Gently roll the shoulders and support your weight with the shoulders, arms and feet.
- Stay here for a few deep breaths.
The wheel pose is a strong backbend and is one of the best postures to strengthen the back. It corrects one’s posture, reducing the rounding of shoulders by opening them up and is effective in relieving stress and strain from the back. It’s wonderful for improving strength and flexibility. It might be challenging to achieve at first, but feels amazing once achieved.
How to do wheel pose:
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent and pointing towards the ceiling.
- Place your hands beside your shoulders, but slightly wider than shoulder distance. This will give you a better alignment.
- Inhale and as you exhale, press your feet and hands firmly into the floor and life your entire body into the air.
- Your body will form the shape of a wheel. Adjust your posture by pushing your chest outwards slightly.
Seated forward bend
The seated forward bend stretches the back, soothes the nerves and balances the nervous system. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve. This releases stress, fatigue, anxiety and imbalances of the mind. It improves flexibility of lower back and hamstrings.
How to do seated forward bend:
- Sit up with the legs stretched out straight in front of you (Dandasana). Keep the spine straight and toes pointing upwards.
- Inhale, raise both arms above your head and stretch up. As you exhale, bend forward from the hip, chin moving toward the toes. Keep the spine erect. Focus on moving forwards towards the toes, rather than down towards the knees.
- Place your hands on your legs, wherever they reach. Do not try to force yourself closer to the thighs if it is difficult. If you can, grab hold of your toes and pull on them to help you inch forward a little. You can also grab your calves if that’s where you’re comfortable.
- Breathe in, keep your head straight and lengthen the spine. As you exhale, gently try to take your naval closer to the knees. Engage your core and try to use your breath to go deeper into the posture.
- Breathe out, lower your arms and come back to Dandasana.
Other practices to take care of your back
Improving mindfulness will help you stay aware of your posture, tension and any pain your back is bearing. Conscious breathing, a stable mind, meditation and relaxation will help you effectively improve mindfulness over time. Even regular practice of yoga asanas with attention to specific body parts (for example, focusing on the lower back in cobra pose) will help improve mindfulness gradually.
Stress is often the root cause of all conditions and problems. Releasing stress through asanas, breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing and humming bee breath, meditation and relaxation is also effective. This prevents strain and tension from accumulating in the lower and upper back.
Don’t worry about how to start the practices. Join a live class with an experienced teacher to practice in an injury-free way. Over time, the holistic benefits of yoga will become visible to you and you will notice the health and strength of your back improving.