I have lower back pain that’s been at me since the start of last year (when I stopped classroom teaching, and spent a LOT more time sitting down than I had in the past). Obviously, the main solution is to get up and move more, which I’m doing in baby steps, but could you recommend any poses that are specific to the lower back? I’ve found the standing forward bend, and twists are helpful, but any other advice would be much appreciated. -Zee
Sitting puts 40% more pressure on the spine than standing, no wonder you’re hurting. You’re right, getting up and moving more can help. See if you can make a habit of getting up for a stretch every 30 minutes, an office chair can be a great yoga prop. Walking on lunch breaks when possible can also be helpful.
There are several factors that affect lower back pain from sitting long periods: the hips, glutes and hamstrings get tight, and the pelvis and spine can become misaligned. Standing forward bend is great to lengthen the hamstrings and stretch the back, and twists can alleviate tight erector spinae muscles, both addressing potential contributors to lower back pain. You’re on the right track!
Here are 5 yoga and Pilates exercises that have helped me alleviate low back pain due to sitting by addressing the specific muscle groups that get tight and can spasm. If any of these exercises feel painful, of course don’t do them. I also recommend additional support from a good chiropractor and masseuse.
Spine Stretch Forward for the spine, waist and core
How to do it: Sit up tall with your legs straight out in front of you a bit wider than the mat, flex the feet. Extend your arms forward, at shoulder height with the palms facing down. Curl your chin toward your chest and round forward. Round back up. Repeat for 5 breaths.
Alignment tip: Pull the abs back and glide the shoulders down the back. Keep the legs long and active, avoid gripping the hip flexors. Breathe into the stretch, and be mindful of keeping the shoulders away from the ears. If your hamstrings or hips are tight, bend the knees or place a rolled blanket under the knees.
Bridge Pose for the glutes
How to do it: Start lying down on your back, with both knees bent and feet about hip width apart and flexed, heels pressing into the mat. Slowly start lifting your pelvis, then lower back, middle back and then your upper back off the floor, pressing your hips to the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes and see if you can feel the hamstrings working. Take a deep breath at the top, then slowly lower back down.
Alignment tip: Avoid rushing through this pose, but instead roll through each section of your spine and concentrate on pushing your heels into the ground to work your glutes even harder. Avoid overextending. Focus on the muscles you’re working instead of how high you think you should push upward. You can try placing a brick in between your knees and squeezing with your inner thighs to hold it in place.
Dragon Pose for the hip flexors
How to do it: Begin on hands and knees. Step one foot between the hands. Walk the front foot forward until the knee is right above the heel. Slide the back knee backward as far as you can. Keep the hands on either side of the front foot. Try 5 to 10 breaths at first, eventually working up to 3-5 minutes if you want a glorious deep yin stretch!
Alignment tip: Breathe. If your hips are tight, boy will you feel it. Keep breathing and trying to let go of the tension. If the back knee doesn’t feel good in this position, place a blanket under it or tuck the toes under and lift the leg off the floor. You can also use a brick to support your hand.
If you’d like to try deepening the stretch, slowly bring your forearms down to the mat. If your knee feels uncomfortable here, you can try rotating the foot of your bent leg slightly toward the outer mat.
This deep lunge stretches the hips, groin and quads and helps release tight hamstrings.
Puppy Pose for the spine, shoulders and arms
How to do it: Begin on hands and knees and slowly begin to walk your hands out in front of you, lowering your chest down toward the ground. Try to keep your hips over your knees, and your arms shoulder distance apart. Draw your shoulder blades together and reach your hips up high toward the ceiling. Gently rest your forehead on the ground, and relax your neck. Breathe into your back, lengthening your spine in both directions. Try the pose from 5 to 10 breaths, then gently lift your forehead and walk your palms back toward your body to come back onto all fours.
Alignment tip: Try placing a rolled up blanket or bolster between your legs to engage the leg and hip muscles and support your lower back in this pose. You can also rest your forehead on a stacked blanket or brick for added support.
Mermaid Side Stretch for the obliques
How to do it: Sit up on your knees and lower the right hip to the mat. Keep the knees toward the left and the hips stacked. Extend your arms to a T position with the palms facing down. Reach over to the right until the right hand touches the mat. Bend the elbow and put the right forearm onto the mat. Reach your left arm to your ear and stretch over the right side. Try 2-3 breaths, then press into the right hand to push up to a seated position.
Alignment tip: Try not to arch your back, instead lengthen through the top side of the body while lifting through the bottom side. Keep the hips anchored, and the shoulders away from the ears.