If your back hurts, there’s a good chance it's because of tight hips, shoulders, abdominal, leg and neck muscles and not just your back. It's a whole body thing - and yoga is a whole body solution.
Yoga strengthens your core and builds length in the muscles that get tense while sitting at a desk. Further, it builds the stabilizer muscles throughout your body which generally don’t get worked. So before taking medication, try yoga because the benefits extend far beyond the mat.
Tips Before Starting
While yoga is considered safe and beneficial for almost everyone, there are certain poses which should be avoided or modified. Since we aren’t directly working with you and we aren’t doctors, we can’t say what you should and shouldn't do - so consult your doctor before starting.
After you’ve been cleared, try using these poses everyday. While you may experience temporary relief from the very first session, that relief is only coming from a release of tension and not addressing the underlying problem.
When you repeat these poses daily you’re improving your flexibility, building core and balancing the muscles on both sides of your body. And this means that you’re addressing the underlying cause of your back pain which can prevent things like: more back pain, neck pain, lopsided shoulders and hips and back injury from inflexibility.
Finally, modify any or all poses to fit your needs. Put your focus on form and in time you will become more flexible and eventually nail every pose except you won’t get injured in the process. If you’re new to yoga, I recommend you use a yoga strap and bolster while you’re getting your form and body awareness down.
Which Style of Yoga is Best for Back Pain?
If you’re considering yoga classes for back pain, try Iyengar yoga. Iyengar yoga places the utmost importance on form and uses many props to prevent overstretching and injury. Further, Iyengar instructors are some of the most highly trained in yoga so they can
work directly with you to correct the cause of your back pain.
But if you don’t have Iyengar near you, hot yoga can be an alternative. The heat can warm up muscles and help you get deeper stretches but stay mindful of form as you won’t have someone working with you on back pain. Alternatively, any form of yoga that’s not a flow or power yoga can work as long as form and control are emphasized.
Yoga Poses For Back Pain
Below we've detailed 15 of the best poses for back pain with videos and pictures as well as a written description for how to do each one. All these poses can help you lengthen and strengthen your muscles while immediately relieving tension and pain. Just make sure to keep proper form and avoid forcing the stretch.
1. Downward Facing Dog
Downward facing dog is all about length and strength through your posterior chain. This means that it's a perfect pose for anyone with aches and pains in their back. Further, it's a great pose to start your routine since it's part of sun salutations which get your body moving and warmed up.
How to do Downward Facing Dog:
Start by getting down on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees directly below your hips. Your hands and knees should be shoulder and hip width apart respectively.
Point your fingers toward the top of your mat so that the creases of your wrists run parallel to the top edge of the mat.
Draw your toes under so that the bottoms are on the mat as if you’re getting ready to stand up.
Tighten your core and bring your belly in.
Press your hands into the mat with the majority of your weight running through your index finger and thumb on both hands.
Use your core to lift your body up into an “A” frame while keeping your hands and the balls of your feet planted firmly in the earth. You may need to keep your knees bent to prevent your lower back from rounding. Also, don’t worry if your heels aren’t on the floor since it’s not necessary in this asana.
Keep your head relaxed but in alignment with the rest of your back. Aim for a long angle from your hips all the way to the tips of your fingers and hold the pose for a few breaths or a few minutes.
2. Cat and Cow Pose
We’ve all seen the picture of a cat with it's back raised high and rounded - which is exactly where the name comes from. This pose is actually a combination of two poses (cat and cow) which alternate to realign your spine to a neutral position without placing any burden on the back. It’s ideal for those with back pain from alignment issues and makes a great addition to a yoga or warm up routine.
How to do Cat and Cow Pose:
Start on your hands and knees with your hands shoulder width apart and your knees hip width apart.
Press through your hands and feet, take a deep breath in and point your gaze forward at the horizon.
As you exhale, begin to drop your head and round your back - pushing your shoulders toward the ceiling. At the bottom of cat pose, your shoulders should be up near your ears and your gaze should be looking straight at your knees.
As you draw another breath in, move into cow pose by once again bringing your head up and pulling your shoulder blades back.
Alternate between these poses 10-15 times moving into cow on inhale and cat on exhale each time.
3. Child's Pose
Child's pose is popular in restorative yoga because it stretches and elongates your muscles while relieving spinal pressure. In the restorative version you typically use a bolster but it’s only necessary when you’re really tight or feel you need the extra support. When done right, child's pose can be very healing in relaxing the back muscles and correcting spinal alignment.
How to do Child's Pose:
To start child's pose, you’ll want to get down on all fours on your yoga mat.
Widen your knees so they’re just beyond hip distance apart. Then angle your feet in so that your big toes are touching.
Next you’ll sit back on your heels and, if you can, rest your forehead on the mat. Beginners may not be able to go down quite this far so use a bolster if needed and don’t overextend yourself.
Tuck your arms down at your sides to allow the weight of your arms and shoulders to stretch your upper back and release tension.
After a few minutes, try extending your arms out towards the top of your mat to further stretch your upper back and shoulders. Do your best to keep your forehead on the mat or bolster while pushing your hips back and down onto your heels.
Breathe into your belly and hold each variation for as long as you feel comfortable.
4. Pigeon Pose
Pigeon pose can be an intense pose but worth the effort. And while it doesn’t focus on the back directly, it does stretch hip flexors and rotators. As you may know, tight hips are a common cause of back pain and if you work at a desk, it’s very likely you have this issue. Depending on the severity of your back pain and personal flexibility, you may need a bolster for the beginning stages of pigeon pose.
How to do Pigeon Pose:
Start in a downward facing dog position on your yoga mat.
Inhale while raising your right leg up to the sky. Then gently rotate your body and right leg over the opposite side to open your hips.
Now bring your right leg back into your body and place your right knee just behind your right wrist.
Relax your body forward and lie down over your shin. If you can, rest your head all the way down on the mat (or on a bolster). Otherwise find a comfortable spot and rest there for a moment.
To come out of the pose, you’ll tuck your toes on the extended leg and push yourself back into downward dog.
Repeat with the opposite leg.
5. Triangle Pose
Triangle pose is both amazingly effective and one of the most basic poses in yoga. It’s one of those asanas that just makes you want to let out a big sigh of relief. While in triangle, you’re stretching your back, legs, sides of your torso and the IT bands in your leg - which all get tight when sitting for too long. So if you’re working at a desk all day, this is something you might consider using both before and after work.
How to do Triangle Pose:
To begin, go into a lunge pose. Bend your front leg at the knee, toes pointed toward the top of the mat with your chest resting on the thigh of your front leg. Your back leg should be fully extended behind you.
Now rise up so that you’re standing with your front foot still pointing forward and your back foot aimed at the long edge of your mat.
From the standing position, tighten your core and extend your arms out to your sides so they’re level with your shoulders.
Extend and lengthen your torso, reaching your front arm as far toward the wall as possible. Once you’re as far as you can go, drop your front hand and grab your ankle or shin.
Turn your body, opening the chest and reaching your opposite arm straight up to the sky as high as you can. Your gaze should be toward the sky but if you have any neck problems, you can look straight ahead or even down at the ground.
Hold the pose for a minute or two and repeat the process on the opposite side.
6. Forward Bends
Forward bends - sometimes called forward folds - are one of the most effective hamstring stretches ever seen. It’s basic, simple and can be done both sitting and standing. The one caveat here is that if you’re not flexible, your back will want to round which puts you at risk. To prevent injury, keep your knees bent and straighten your legs as you become more flexible.
How to do a Standing Forward Bend:
Begin with your legs hip width apart and your toes pointed forward in a relaxed position.
Take a deep breath in and lengthen your spine, almost like you’re adding space between every vertebrae.
As you exhale, draw your core in and bend forward at the waist making sure your back stays flat.
Allow your arms to relax on the floor or in the air and gently sway from side to side to open the hips. Bend your knees if you need to and be mindful not to force the stretch.
After rocking a few times, settle in at the bottom and take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. You'll stretch deeper with every breath and find your legs will begin to straighten out.
To come out of the pose, bend at the knees and straighten your back before standing straight up.
How to do a Sitting Forward Bend:
There are several variations of the sitting forward bend which involve bending one leg under the other or having one leg up. However, I’ll explain the standard sitting forward fold here and you can see the other two in the video below.
Begin on your mat by sitting up nice and tall with a straight back and your arms relaxed at your sides. Your legs should be extended out in front of you with your toes pointed toward the ceiling.
Take a deep breath in and bring your hands up from your sides and stretch them as high as you can overhead. Focus on lengthening your spine and feeling the stretch all through your back and shoulders.
As you exhale, bend forward and reach for your feet while keeping your head up and gaze straight ahead.
Once you reach your feet, bow your head and rest it on your shins if you can. If you can’t reach your feet, you can either hold your legs or use a yoga strap to bridge the distance.
Hold the pose for 30-60 seconds and repeat the process 5 times.
7. Upward Facing Dog
Upward facing dog is great for opening the chest, stretching your abs and strengthening your shoulders - all of which correct posture and reduce back pain. Additionally, in this pose you’re engaging and promoting flexibility in your lower back. However, if you’re not trained or not very flexible, back bends can be risky so make sure to modify as needed and never force the stretch.
Before getting into this pose, or any backbend, fully straighten your body and re-stack your spinal column. You never want to go straight from a forward bend directly to a backbend because it’s too stressful on the spine.
How to do Upward Facing Dog:
Begin on all fours with your knees and hands hip and shoulder width apart.
From here, go down to the floor as though you’re doing a pushup from your knees. Your shoulders should be back, shoulder blades together and your hands should be just below chest level.
From the floor, lift yourself up with your arms until they’re fully straightened. At this point your hips will be off the floor but your knees should still be on the ground. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and you’re not shrugging (common at this step in the pose).
Next, gently raise your head until you’re looking at the ceiling and pause there for a few breaths.
Repeat the process 5 - 6 times maintaining form and control.
8. Cobra Pose
Cobra is a less intense version of the Upward Facing Dog and slightly more of a stretch than Sphinx pose. The primary difference between cobra and upward facing dog is that your hips remain on the floor in cobra. If you have tight hips and lower back muscles, cobra or sphinx would be a better place to start since you don’t need to be as flexible and won’t put as much strain on your back.
How to do Cobra Pose:
Begin in a downward dog position with your hands and feet firmly planted in the earth.
Take a deep breath in and come forward into plank pose.
On your exhale, bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor (just like a push-up). Your hands will be on the floor at about chest level next to you.
Roll your shoulders back, press your elbows in and begin raising your torso off the floor by pushing through your hands. Ensuring your hips remain on the floor, push yourself up until you reach a comfortable stretch.
Focus on keeping your spine and neck long and your shoulders rolled back without shrugging.
Hold the pose for 30 seconds and when you’re ready to come out, exhale and come back to the floor. Then roll your toes under and press yourself back up into downward dog.
9. Sphinx Pose
Sphinx pose is the beginners modification of the back bend. If you’ve never done a backbend before or you’re just starting in yoga, start here and test your flexibility / see how it feels. You’ll gently stretch your abdominal muscles and hip flexors while strengthening your back muscles which can eventually translate into cobra and upward dog. Additionally, sphinx is one of the most helpful poses for herniated disks and one that you can do while watching TV or reading a book at home.
How to do Sphinx Pose:
Lie face down on your yoga mat or a comfortable and firm surface. Your legs should be behind you either together or hip distance apart.
As you push up on your forearms, bring your elbows forward so that they’re directly below your shoulders.
Place your hands out in front so they’re shoulder distance apart and pointing at the top of your mat. Avoid bringing your hands together as this puts strain on your rotator cuffs.
Focus on lengthening the space between your navel and pubic bone, keeping your shoulder blades rolled back and avoiding any shrugging in the shoulders.
To come out, simply exhale and come back to level on the floor.
Modifications to the Sphinx Pose:
If you feel this is too difficult, you can do several things:
Place a bolster or pillow under your head, put your arms across the bolster and then lie your head down on your arms. In this modification you’re not pushing up on your arms but letting the bolster provide the elevation and gentle stretch.
Instead of bringing your elbows below your shoulders, keep them tucked back at your sides. Then focus on “pulling” yourself forward (without actually moving) and lengthening your spine. It's a gentle stretch but you should feel it elongating the muscles of your back and relieving pressure on the spine.
10. Reclining Spinal Twist
As with any twist, be clear on what’s causing your back pain since the twisting motion can be harmful for certain back problems. If it starts to hurt, stop and do something else. The reclining twist is a great stretch for the lower back and allows you to use gravity for the stretch rather than force.
How to do a Reclining Spinal Twist:
Lie on your back with your knees up and heels near your bottom.
Raise your left leg up towards your chest. Then swing your left knee over the right leg and down to the floor. You should be in a twisted position now.
Keeping your shoulders against the mat, look towards the left wall and extend your left arm straight out towards the wall as well.
Relax in this pose for a few minutes allowing your stretch to deepen with every exhale.
Come back to center and repeat the process on the opposite side.
11. Seated Spinal Twist
There's no doubt you’ve done a seated spinal twist before. It’s one of the best poses for correcting posture and improving spine mobility while releasing lower back tension. The one caveat here, as with the last spinal twist is that if it hurts in any way, stop doing it.
How to do a Seated Spinal Twist:
Begin sitting on your mat with your back upright and legs stretched out in front of you.
Bring your left leg up, so that your knee is near your chest and then step your foot over the right leg.
Hook your right foot back so that it’s near your right hip. If you can’t get your foot back by your hip, or it's bringing your sit bones off the floor, keep your leg straight out in front of you.
Press firmly into the ground with your left foot and place your left hand directly behind you on the mat.
Take your right elbow and anchor it against the inside of your left knee.
Sitting up straight, press from your elbow and twist back. With each inhale focus on lengthening and with each exhale twist a little deeper from the base of your spine.
After a few breaths, return to center and repeat on the opposite side.
12. Plow Pose
Plow pose looks harder than it actually is. While getting into the shoulder stand does require core and hip strength, you can use your arms for support. And once you’re in plow, it uses gravity to deepen the stretch through your back muscles and lengthen your spine.
How to do Plow Pose:
Start by lying on your back with your knees up and heels by your butt. Your arms should be resting at your sides.
Raise both legs up into the air, feet together and place your hands on your lower back for support. In the right position, your elbows will be on the floor behind you and your hands will be on your lower back forming a 90 degree angle in your arms. You should feel like your arms are taking some of the weight and supporting you.
Bring your hips forward so that your body is straight up in the air and the bulk of your weight is supported by your shoulders.
From this position, find your balance and inhale. On exhale, bend at the hips and slowly lower your legs (while keeping them straight and engaging your core) until your toes are on the floor above your head.
At this point, to add a shoulder stretch, you can clasp your hands and extend your arms out behind you and rest them on the mat.
Take a few long breaths in the pose.
To come out of plow, bring your hands up to your back for support. Then bring your legs up one by one until you’re in a shoulder stand. Now bend your knees and bring them into your body and lower yourself down to the floor again.
13. Bow Pose
Bow pose engages your back muscles and deeply stretches your hip flexors, quads, abdominal muscles and shoulders. It's nearly a full body stretch which is named the bow pose because - what else - you resemble a bow when you’re in it.
While considered a “basic pose”, that doesn’t mean it's easy - especially if your abs, hips and back are tight. You may want to start with a sphinx to test your flexibility then move into cobra and upward dog before trying this pose since it is a deep back bend.
How to do Bow Pose:
Lie face down on your mat with your arms at your sides and legs straight out behind you.
Bending at the knees, bring your right foot up toward your shoulder.
Reach your right hand back and grab the inside of your right ankle.
Now do the same thing on your left side.
Inhale and lift your legs and upper torso up off the mat. You can rock back and forth for a moment in this position.
On exhale, gently come down by lowering your torso and legs onto the mat and releasing the grip on your ankles.
Modifications for Bow Pose:
If you have trouble with a full bow pose, try grabbing one leg and then extending your opposite arm out in front of you to build strength and flexibility. Then repeat on the other side.
To work up to a full bow pose, use a yoga strap around your ankles. It gives you something to hold onto and bridges the gap if you have trouble reaching your ankles and keeping proper form.
14. Camel Pose
Beyond looking extremely cool, camel pose is a deep core stretch that's great for unlocking tight hips and quads. This pose is considered intermediate so it's not for those just starting out (unless you’re a naturally flexible person).
How to do Camel Pose:
Begin on your knees with legs hip width apart and body long.
Press your shins and the tops of your feet into the mat below and place your palms on your lower back with your fingers pointed down towards the floor.
Inhale and open your chest while bringing your shoulder blades together.
Begin to gently lean back, firmly pressing your palms into your lower back. You may find this is a deep enough stretch and you can hold this pose for a moment.
To keep going, drop back a little further and lower your hands to your feet while gazing straight up at the ceiling.
Maintain this pose for a few breaths, feeling the stretch through your thighs, core and chest.
To come out of the pose, take a breath in and upon exhale, bring your hands up to your lower back. Then come to center and sit back on your heels.
15. Pelvic Rock
Pelvic rock is perfect for beginners who want to warm their back up and loosen the hips. By bringing your knees to your chest and rocking back and forth, the majority of your weight is safely concentrated on your back.
With the added rocking motion, you’re gently massaging your back and releasing tension using the weight of your own body. Try this in the morning or even before bed to relieve physical stress and relax yourself.
How to do Pelvic Rock:
Begin by lying flat on your back on a yoga mat.
Wrap your hands behind your knees and pull one knee at a time up to your chest.
If you can’t get your knees fully up to your chest, then maintain your chair position, keep your hands in place and gently rock to one side and then the other. You can pause at each side if it feels good or maintain a steady rocking motion.
If you can get your knees up close to your chest, then wrap your arms around the outside of your legs and pull them in tight. Now gently rock from one side to the other either pausing at each side or keeping a steady rock.
To come out of the pose, gently release your hold and lower one leg at a time.
Those are the 15 best yoga poses for back pain which you can use right now to relieve tension and muscle aches throughout your body. Just remember to check with your doctor and once you’re cleared, spend just 10-15 minutes a day on these stretches.
Many people think you need an 60 to 90 minutes - you don’t. Even a few minutes a day can dramatically improve the causes of your back pain and everyone has 10 minutes right?
Since this was a long guide, here are a few key points to remember:
- Modify poses as needed
- Use props if you’re just beginning
- Don’t force the stretch
- Back pain is often a whole body problem and yoga is a whole body solution
- Try Iyengar if you desire a class environment
- Hot yoga is an option but self-correct
- Practice every day
Your turn. What's your experience with yoga and back pain - was there a certain pose or style that helped you the most? Tell me about it in the comments below.
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