Ease on Back – 6 Yoga Poses & Meditation

Salutation Seal

Anjali Mudra

(ON-jol-ly MOO-drah)

anjali = a gesture of reverence, benediction, salutation (from anj, “to honor, celebrate”)
mudra = seal (The gesture “seals” energy in the body and “seals” your relationship with the Divine.)

This gesture is also known as Hrdayanjali Mudra (pronounced hri-DIE-ahn-jah-lee, hrd = heart), the Reverence to the Heart Seal, or Atmanjali Mudra (OT-mon-JAH-lee, atman = self, derived variously from an, “to breathe,” at, “to move,” or va, “to blow”), Reverence to the Self Seal

Step by Step

Sit comfortably in Siddhasana (as shown) or stand in Tadasana. Inhale and bring your palms together. Rest the thumbs lightly on your sternum.

Press the hands firmly but evenly against each other. Make sure that one hand (usually your right hand if you are right-handed, your left if left-handed) doesn’t dominate the other. If you find such imbalance, release the dominant hand slightly but don’t increase the pressure of the non-dominant hand.

Bow your head slightly, drawing the crease of the neck toward the center of your head. Lift your sternum into your thumbs and lengthen down along the back of the armpits, making the back elbows heavy.

Practicing Anjali Mudra is an excellent way to induce a meditative state of awareness. Start your practice sitting in meditation in Anjali Mudra for 5 minutes. You can also use this hand position in Tadasana prior to beginning the Sun Salutation sequence, contemplating the “sun” or light of awareness the yogis say is resident in your heart.

 

Ease on Back

Make sure your yoga practice is helping, not hurting, your back.

By Julie Gudmestad

A young woman sat uncomfortably in my physical therapy office, her face drawn with pain. “I had heard stretching would help my lower back pain,” she said. “But after a few weeks of daily stretching, my pain only got worse. What did I do wrong?”

With further questioning, her whole story came out. She had experienced intermittent lower back pain for two years before starting the stretching program she remembered from a P.E. class a sequence consisting primarily of various leg stretches performed sitting on the floor, bending over her legs, and reaching for her toes. When the back pain became worse and was further complicated by severe hip and leg pain, she consulted her physician, who diagnosed her problem as a bulging disc in her lumbar spine.

As a physical therapist, I have heard this unfortunate story many times. Sitting forward bends are probably the best-known leg stretches, and are therefore likely to be included in a beginning stretch routine, whether in a public yoga or aerobics class, or in a book or video. Surprisingly, there seems to be widespread misunderstanding about the role of stretching in the care of back problems. And the irony is that certain types of stretching can actually worsen some back problems.

A yoga practice with too much emphasis on aggressive forward bending can be risky, particularly if the student has tight hamstrings and a flattened curve in the lower back. A well-constructed yoga routine, however, can be an ideal way to learn to stretch without creating or exacerbating back pain, and a chance to practice good alignment and movement patterns which help protect the back from injury.

Under Pressure
To understand how stretching can improve or aggravate disc problems, let’s look at how a disc works and how it gets damaged. Intervertebral discs function as shock absorbers, cushioning the brain from jarring as we walk, run, and jump. Each disc consists of two parts: the inner disc, the nucleus pulposus, made of a shock-absorbing gel-like substance, and the annulus fibrosis, the rings of ligament that surround and support the center.

A normal lumbar spine has a mild curve forward, and in this position, weight is evenly distributed throughout each disc. During toe-touching, the lower back flexes, losing its normal curve, and more weight is put on the front of the discs. The gel-like centers get pushed backward, into the now stretching support ligaments. While this can happen during forward bending even if a person tends to have excessive lumbar curve (“swayback”), it is especially problematic if the spine has lost the normal curve and become flattened.

With repetition, or if great force is applied as in heavy lifting, the ligaments weaken and may “bulge” like a bubble in the wall of a tire. Or the ligaments may tear, allowing the gel-like inner disc to leak out, resulting in a herniated disc. The bulging or herniated disc may cause lower back pain or, if it is pressing on an adjacent nerve, pain can be referred into the hip and leg. Bulging and herniated discs may be treated conservatively, with physical therapy, exercise, and other noninvasive treatments, but a badly herniated disc is a serious medical problem which may require surgery and a lengthy recovery period.

While heavy lifting is a well-known cause of back injuries, disc damage is just as frequently caused by the smaller but repetitious forward-bending movements we make during daily activities at work and at home. For most of us, half of our body weight is above the waist. Just as a child “weighs more” as he or she slides away from the center to sit at the end of a teeter-totter, our own upper body weight exerts greater force at the disc as we bend farther forward. This tremendous force on the disc, added to the strain on the supporting ligaments, sets the stage for damage.

In our society, opportunities abound for repetitive forward bending: child care, yardwork, housework, shopping. Even sedentary work may exert strain on the lower back; for example, someone bending and twisting from a sitting position to lift a heavy object out of a bottom desk drawer. The greater the weight being lifted (and the weight of one’s own body), the greater the pressure on the disc.

Forward bending activities, especially combined with lifting, are also the most common cause of back “strain.” While much less serious than disc injuries, back strain is responsible for most of our lower back pain, including the Monday morning ache after weekend gardening.

How Are Your Hamstrings?
Repetitive forward bending may also occur in exercise routines, including yoga. These routines can be particularly risky for people with tight hamstrings, the muscles extending from hip to knee on the back of the thigh that receive much of the stretch in forward bends. The hamstrings attach to the sitting bones the two large bones at the base of the buttocks (called the ischial tuberosities). In a sitting forward bend, the pull of tight hamstrings keeps the pelvis from rotating forward over the legs. In fact, tight hamstrings encourage the pelvis to rotate backward, in a position called “posterior tilt.” If your pelvis is held in a posterior tilt and you reach toward your toes, all the forward movement occurs by hinging through the lower back.

Doing a series of sitting forward bends, then, can put prolonged or repetitive strain on the disc, causing or contributing to disc bulging or herniation. Ironically, the people who most need to stretch their hamstrings, to help improve posture and movement patterns, are most at risk for injuring their backs practicing forward bends.

Tight hamstrings affect posture and the health of the lower back by exerting a constant pull on the sitting bones, tipping the pelvis posteriorly and flattening the normal curve of the lumbar spine. Overly strong or tight abdominal muscles may also contribute to a habitually flattened lower back. Tight abdominal muscles pull up on the pubic bones, again contributing to posterior tilt, especially if combined with tight hamstrings. They also pull down on the front rib cage, contributing to forward-slumped posture. This posture, with posterior-tipped pelvis and forward-slumped trunk, puts chronic strain not only on the discs, but also on the lower back muscles.

Many who suffer from lower back pain have heard or read that strong abdominals are the key to pain relief. It is true that the abdominals are important support muscles for the lower back, especially for problems like arthritis and swayback.

Problems arise, however, when the abdominals are strengthened with regular exercises like sit-ups or crunches, but the back extensors the long muscles running parallel to the spine that support it and maintain and increase the normal lower back curve are ignored.

Over time, a muscle imbalance develops: The abdominals become stronger and tighter, while the back becomes relatively weaker and overstretched. Unfortunately, many current exercise routines emphasize several types of abdominal strengthening, and a series of sitting forward bends to stretch the legs. The end result of years of this type of exercise will be a rounded, slumped posture with a weak and vulnerable lower back.

When faced with challenging poses, students are likely to fall back on familiar positions and muscle patterns. If your usual posture is rounded forward, with a flattened lower back, posterior-tilted pelvis, and tight hamstrings, you are at risk for back injury in forward bends and need to take special care as you prepare to practice them. Your goal is to be able to stretch the hamstrings without a posterior tilt of the pelvis.

To check your readiness, lie on your back with one leg stretched out flat on the floor. Stretch the other leg up to the ceiling with a straight knee. Look in a mirror or have someone else check to see if you can bring the leg to vertical, perpendicular to the floor.

If you can’t get to vertical, your pelvis will be posteriorly tilted in a sitting forward bend, and it’s possible that you would strain your back muscles or injure a disc if you reached for your toes. You should avoid sitting forward bends, especially if you have a history of lower back pain or injury, until you can stretch your leg straight up to 90 degrees or more. If you are in a class where forward bends are being taught, you can always substitute some simple leg and hip stretches like Supta Padangusthasana and Supta Baddha Konasana.

Pass the Test
My plan for building towards safe forward bends involves six basic poses:

Modified Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Hand-to-Foot Pose, Variation I) practiced with the raised leg up the wall and the straight leg through a doorway.

 

Reclining Big Toe Pose

Supta Padangusthasana

HP_220_SuptaPadagusthasana_248.jpg

(soup-TAH pod-ang-goosh-TAHS-anna)
supta = lying down, reclining
pada = foot
angusta = big toe

Step by Step

Lie supine on the floor, legs strongly extended. If your head doesn’t rest comfortably on the floor, support it on a folded blanket. Exhale, bend the left knee, and draw the thigh into your torso. Hug the thigh to your belly. Press the front of the right thigh heavily to the floor, and push actively through the right heel.

Loop a strap around the arch of the left foot and hold the strap in both hands. Inhale and straighten the knee, pressing the left heel up toward the ceiling. Walk your hands up the strap until the elbows are fully extended. Broaden the shoulder blades across your back. Keeping the hands as high on the strap as possible, press the shoulder blades lightly into the floor. Widen the collarbones away from the sternum.

Extend up first through the back of the left heel, and once the back of the leg between the heel and sitting bone is fully lengthened, lift through the ball of the big toe. Begin with the raised leg perpendicular to the floor. Release the head of the thigh bone more deeply into the pelvis and, as you do, draw the foot a little closer to your head, increasing the stretch on the back of the leg.

You can stay here in this stretch, or turn the leg outward from the hip joint, so the knee and toes look to the left. Pinning the top of the right thigh to the floor, exhale and swing the left leg out to the left and hold it a few inches off the floor. Continue rotating the leg. As you feel the outer thigh move away from the left side of the torso, try to bring the left foot in line with the left shoulder joint. Inhale to bring the leg back to vertical. Lighten your grip on the strap as you do, so that you challenge the muscles of the inner thigh and hip to do the work.

Hold the vertical position of the leg anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes, and the side position for an equal length of time. Once you have returned to vertical release the strap, hold the leg in place for 30 seconds or so, then slowly release as you exhale. Repeat on the right for the same length of time.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose) practiced with the raised leg on a chair back.

 

Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose

Utthita Hasta Padangustasana

Step by Step

From Tadasana, bring your left knee toward your belly.

Reach your left arm inside the thigh, cross it over the front ankle, and hold the outside of your left foot. If your hamstrings are tight, hold a strap looped around the left sole.

Firm the front thigh muscles of the standing leg, and press the outer thigh inward.

Inhale and extend the left leg forward. Straighten the knee as much as possible. If you’re steady, swing the leg out to the side. Breathe steadily; breathing takes concentration, but it helps you balance.

Hold for 30 seconds, then swing the leg back to center with an inhale, and lower the foot to the floor with an exhale. Repeat on the other side for the same length of time.

Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Forward Bend)

 

Wide-Legged Forward Bend

Prasarita Padottanasana

HP_216_PrasaritaPadottanasana_248.jpg

(pra-sa-REE-tah pah-doh-tahn-AHS-anna)
prasarita = stretched out, expanded, spread, with outstretched limbs
pada = foot
ut = intense
tan = to stretch or extend (compare the Latin verb tendere, “to stretch or extend”)

Step by Step

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), facing one of the long edges of your sticky mat, then step or lightly hop your feet apart anywhere from 3 to 4 1/2 feet (depending on your height: taller people should step wider). Rest your hands on your hips. Make sure your inner feet are parallel to each other. Lift your inner arches by drawing up on the inner ankles, and press the outer edges of your feet and ball of the big toe firmly into the floor. Engage the thigh muscles by drawing them up. Inhale and lift your chest, making the front torso slightly longer than the back.

Exhale and, maintaining the length of the front torso, lean the torso forward from the hip joints. As your torso approaches parallel to the floor, press your fingertips onto the floor directly below your shoulders. Extend your elbows fully. Your legs and arms then should be perpendicular to the floor and parallel to each other. Move your spine evenly into the back torso so that your back is slightly concave from the tailbone to the base of the skull. Bring your head up, keeping the back of the neck long, and direct your gaze upward toward the ceiling.

Push your top thighs straight back to help lengthen the front torso, and draw the inner groins away from each other to widen the base of your pelvis. Take a few breaths. As you maintain the concavity of your back and the forward lift of your sternum, walk your fingertips between your feet. Take a few more breaths and then, with an exhalation, bend your elbows and lower your torso and head into a full forward bend. Make sure as you move down that you keep your front torso as long as possible. If possible rest the crown of your head on the floor.

Press your inner palms actively into the floor, fingers pointing forward. If you have the flexibility to move your torso into a full forward bend, walk your hands back until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor and your upper arms parallel. Be sure to keep your arms parallel to each other and widen the shoulder blades across the back. Draw your shoulders away from your ears.

Stay in the pose anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute. To come out, bring your hands back on the floor below your shoulders and lift and lengthen your front torso. Then with an inhalation, rest your hands on your hips, pull your tail bone down toward the floor, and swing the torso up. Walk or hop your feet back into Tadasana.

Supta Baddha Konasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose) practiced with the pelvis against a wall and the feet up on the wall, pressing gently on the thighs.

 

Reclining Bound Angle Pose

Supta Baddha Konasana

HP_215_SuptaBaddhaKonasana_248.jpg

(SOUP-tah BAH-dah cone-NAHS-anna) supta = lying down, reclining baddha = bound kona = angle

Step by Step

Perform Baddha Konasana. Exhale and lower your back torso toward the floor, first leaning on your hands. Once you are leaning back on your forearms, use your hands to spread the back of your pelvis and release your lower back and upper buttocks through your tailbone. Bring your torso all the way to the floor, supporting your head and neck on a blanket roll or bolster if needed.

With your hands grip your topmost thighs and rotate your inner thighs externally, pressing your outer thighs away from the sides of your torso. Next slide your hands along your outer thighs from the hips toward the knees and widen your outer knees away from your hips. Then slide your hands down along your inner thighs, from the knees to the groins. Imagine that your inner groins are sinking into your pelvis. Push your hip points together, so that while the back pelvis widens, the front pelvis narrows. Lay your arms on the floor, angled at about 45 degrees from the sides of your torso, palms up.

The natural tendency in this pose is to push the knees toward the floor in the belief that this will increase the stretch of the inner thighs and groins. But especially if your groins are tight, pushing the knees down will have just the opposite of the intended effect: The groins will harden, as will your belly and lower back. Instead, imagine that your knees are floating up toward the ceiling and continue settling your groins deep into your pelvis. As your groins drop toward the floor, so will your knees.

To start, stay in this pose for one minute. Gradually extend your stay anywhere from five to 10 minutes. To come out, use your hands to press your thighs together, then roll over onto one side and push yourself away from the floor, head trailing the torso.

 

Modified Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Hand-to-Foot Pose, Variation II) practiced with the raised leg extended to the side and the foot on a wall.

 

Reclining Big Toe Pose

Supta Padangusthasana

HP_220_SuptaPadagusthasana_248.jpg

(soup-TAH pod-ang-goosh-TAHS-anna)
supta = lying down, reclining
pada = foot
angusta = big toe

Step by Step

Lie supine on the floor, legs strongly extended. If your head doesn’t rest comfortably on the floor, support it on a folded blanket. Exhale, bend the left knee, and draw the thigh into your torso. Hug the thigh to your belly. Press the front of the right thigh heavily to the floor, and push actively through the right heel.

Loop a strap around the arch of the left foot and hold the strap in both hands. Inhale and straighten the knee, pressing the left heel up toward the ceiling. Walk your hands up the strap until the elbows are fully extended. Broaden the shoulder blades across your back. Keeping the hands as high on the strap as possible, press the shoulder blades lightly into the floor. Widen the collarbones away from the sternum.

Extend up first through the back of the left heel, and once the back of the leg between the heel and sitting bone is fully lengthened, lift through the ball of the big toe. Begin with the raised leg perpendicular to the floor. Release the head of the thigh bone more deeply into the pelvis and, as you do, draw the foot a little closer to your head, increasing the stretch on the back of the leg.

You can stay here in this stretch, or turn the leg outward from the hip joint, so the knee and toes look to the left. Pinning the top of the right thigh to the floor, exhale and swing the left leg out to the left and hold it a few inches off the floor. Continue rotating the leg. As you feel the outer thigh move away from the left side of the torso, try to bring the left foot in line with the left shoulder joint. Inhale to bring the leg back to vertical. Lighten your grip on the strap as you do, so that you challenge the muscles of the inner thigh and hip to do the work.

Hold the vertical position of the leg anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes, and the side position for an equal length of time. Once you have returned to vertical release the strap, hold the leg in place for 30 seconds or so, then slowly release as you exhale. Repeat on the right for the same length of time.

Savasana (Corpse Pose) practiced with blanket support for the spine.

 

Corpse Pose

Savasana

savasana_248

(shah-VAHS-anna)
sava = corpse

This pose is also called Mrtasana (pronounced mrit-TAHS-anna, mrta = death)

Step by Step

In Savasana it’s essential that the body be placed in a neutral position. Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and lean back onto your forearms. Lift your pelvis slightly off the floor and, with your hands, push the back of the pelvis toward the tailbone, then return the pelvis to the floor. Inhale and slowly extend the right leg, then the left, pushing through the heels. Release both legs, softening the groins, and see that the legs are angled evenly relative to the mid-line of the torso, and that the feet turn out equally. Narrow the front pelvis and soften (but don’t flatten) the lower back.

With your hands lift the base of the skull away from the back of the neck and release the back of the neck down toward the tailbone. If you have any difficulty doing this, support the back of the head and neck on a folded blanket. Broaden the base of the skull too, and lift the crease of the neck diagonally into the center of the head. Make sure your ears are equidistant from your shoulders.

Reach your arms toward the ceiling, perpendicular to the floor. Rock slightly from side to side and broaden the back ribs and the shoulder blades away from the spine. Then release the arms to the floor, angled evenly relative to the mid-line of torso. Turn the arms outward and stretch them away from the space between the shoulder blades. Rest the backs of the hands on the floor as close as you comfortably can to the index finger knuckles. Make sure the shoulder blades are resting evenly on the floor. Imagine the lower tips of the shoulder blades are lifting diagonally into your back toward the top of the sternum. From here, spread the collarbones.

In addition to quieting the physical body in Savasana, it’s also necessary to pacify the sense organs. Soften the root of the tongue, the wings of the nose, the channels of the inner ears, and the skin of the forehead, especially around the bridge of the nose between the eyebrows. Let the eyes sink to the back of the head, then turn them downward to gaze at the heart. Release your brain to the back of the head.

Stay in this pose for 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of practice. To exit, first roll gently with an exhalation onto one side, preferably the right. Take 2 or 3 breaths. With another exhalation press your hands against the floor and lift your torso, dragging your head slowly after. The head should always come up last.

 

Taking only 10 to 15 minutes daily, these poses will begin to reshape your body by lengthening your hamstrings without compromising a normal lumbar curve. Included in the sequence are two poses that stretch the inner thigh muscles, the adductors, which can also factor into forward bends.

These gentle poses will help you progress toward forward bends. If, however, you have a history of lower back pain, known disc damage, or a recent lower back injury, it may not be safe to begin forward bends even after working with these preparations for some time. Check with your physician or other health care provider before starting. Remember, sitting forward bends put the spine into flexion, reversing the normal curve, and some lower backs will not tolerate that position without pain or strain.

Additionally, you may want to take instruction in forward bends from a teacher experienced in working with back problems who can give you expert guidance and feedback.

When you are ready to start, I suggest you begin with standing forward bends. The transition from neutral-spine Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Forward Bend) to the version with the head hanging down towards the floor (or on the floor) is a good trial. Next try Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). In both of these poses, gravity helps to take the weight of the upper body off the lower back, decompressing the discs.

If you have passed the 90-degree test and can practice these hanging forward bends without back pain, you may be ready to begin practicing sitting forward bends safely and reap their restorative benefits of introspection, relaxation, and flexibility.

Julie Gudmestad is a licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. She runs a private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon, where she combines her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga.

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