THREE POSES TO TRY AT HOME
by Lisa Stowe
Low back pain can manifest in so many ways. The pain may be dull versus sharp. You may have an acute injury or a permanently cranky low back. Backbends may the best or worst thing since sliced bread. To maintain a healthy back, it is important to strengthen, lengthen, and release the musculature that supports the lower back.
In my recent workshop, we touched on all three – the poses below focus on strength and length, and are a great way to integrate some more targeted work for your back into a home practice. Let me know what you think in the comments!
1. FOREARM PLANK LEG LIFTS
Of all poses in the yoga canon, few give as much bang for the buck as forearm plank. This pose works your shoulders, core, legs, and back. In this version, we amp up the attention to the legs, focusing on the glutes in particular.
Start by taking a forearm plank with your fingers interlaced, elbows lined up under your shoulders. Engage the core to draw your front ribs together and lift the pubic bone, lengthening the low back. Reach back through your heels as you draw your collarbones and crown of your head forward, cultivating a sense of elongation along the entire spinal column.
To target the glutes, begin by lifting one leg just a couple of inches off the floor.
Without letting the toes touch the floor, pulse the leg up 5 – 10 times, continuing to reach back through the heel. You can also modify by keeping the knee of the non-pulsing leg on the ground. But in this variation, make sure to keep the core engaged, collarbones broad, and spine elongated.
2. MODIFIED COBRA
When you have lower back pain, backbends can be both the best class of poses and the hardest class of poses. The key to pain-free backbends is to keep the legs active, creating a stable foundation from which your spine can elongate rather than compress.
For this version of cobra, begin by placing a blanket approximately arm distance away from the front edge of your mat. Begin by laying on your belly with your legs hip distance apart, forehead to the floor, and the palms of your hands (not the forearms) on the blanket. Root the tops of your feet into the mat, inner thighs drawing to the ceiling. The tops of your feet should be firmly pressing into the mat so much that your shins and knees may lift off of the mat. All the muscles in your legs will be firing here – including the lower glutes that were just targeted in forearm plank.
Keeping all of the work in your legs, on an inhale, draw your hands back towards you, keeping your arms straight and hands shoulder distance apart. As you drag the blanket back, draw your chest forward and up through your upper arms. You may notice that in this version of cobra, you are able to lift the chest substantially higher than in a more traditional cobra while at the same time minimizing strain in the low back.
3. MODIFIED LOCUST
Whether called “Superman” or shalabasana, one of the best backbends to build strength in the entire back body is locust pose. However, the action of lifting both the chest and legs off the floor can lead to strain and compression in the low back. In this version of the pose, we focus on the lift through the chest, keeping the legs firmly rooted and supporting the belly with a blanket.
To begin, take your blanket, fold it in half, and place it on the top third of your mat. Drape your belly over the blanket so that your ASIS bones (the bony bits at the front of your pelvis) are hanging off the back edge of the blanket. Bring your forehead to the floor and extend your arms behind you. As with cobra, activate the legs by pressing the tops of the feet into the mat and drawing your inner thighs up toward the ceiling. On an inhale, lift your head chest and arms off the mat, reaching forward through the crown of your head and back through the fingertips as the legs and feet are firmly rooted on the mat.
The shoulder blades draw closer together as the collarbones broaden, opening the chest as the musculature of the back lifts you away from the mat. Importantly, the goal of this pose is not the height of the chest but extension through the spine. As your initiate the backbend, focus first on lengthening the head and chest forward and then up toward the ceiling – spontaneously proclaiming “I’m the king of the world” is purely optional.