There are numerous ways in which Iyengar Yoga can help to reduce lower back pain. Although there are many causes for lower back pain, it is very common for people to arrive at yoga classes with this pain originating at least in part from tight hamstrings.
Stiffness in the group of 3 muscles at the back of your thighs known collectively as the hamstrings can restrict the movement of your pelvis in relation to the movement of your legs. As a result of this restriction, undue strain can be placed upon your lumbar spine. A practical example of this is when you sit on the floor and straighten your legs to the front (dandasana). In this position tight hamstrings can tend to pull the back of the pelvis downwards thus reducing the curvature of the lumbar spine. This can then put the spine in a more vulnerable position as you attempt to sit upright. You simultaneously feel the tension of the spine being pulled downwards and lifted upwards at the same time.
Knowing that the spine can benefit from improved hamstring mobility can create a dilemma for many people. Positions that allow the hamstrings to stretch will often simultaneously challenge the lower back, potentially aggravating existing discomfort. With this in mind the following sequence looks to present a number of poses that can help you to safely improve the flexibility of your hamstrings in positions where your spine is comfortably supported. Poses that help to release tension from the lower back, and poses that help to improve the range of movement in the lower back are also included.
This is by no means an exhaustive collection of methods that exist in Iyengar yoga for helping with lower back pain. Instead it focusses on simple and practical poses that can be easily incorporated into a home practice. The poses shown here are not intended for anyone who is suffering from acute back pain, nor are they intended to be a replacement for treatment from a medical professional. This post accompanies the video “Iyengar Yoga For Lower Back Pain – Weekly Intermediate Class 49”. This class can be found in the weekly classes section on yogaselection.com.
This pose allows you to stretch your hamstrings whilst keeping your spine long and straight. It is an adaptation of the classical uttanasana pose where you reach down towards your feet. It reduces the common tendency in this pose for the spine to round and pull towards the pelvis.
- Place your hands to the wall at waist height. Ensure that your hands are shoulder width apart, with your fingers spreading and the middle finger of each hand pointing directly upwards.
- Step your feet back so that your body forms a right angle shape with your hips directly over your ankles. Ensure that your feet are placed hip width apart, with your toes pointing directly forwards.
- Look down at your feet without dropping your head. Keep your ears and upper arms level.
- Press your hands evenly into the wall.
- Straighten your elbows.
- Without dropping your elbows bring your back ribs closer to the floor.
- Move your sternum bone towards the wall.
- Lift your kneecaps up, as you press your heels down.
- Press your thighbones back deeper into your legs.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana I (bent leg variation)
This pose will be well suited to anyone working with tight hamstrings. Keeping your leg bent helps you to contain the back of your pelvis and lift your spine upwards from its base. In time it will teach you the techniques that are necessary for practicing this pose with your extended leg straight. In this picture a block is placed on the seat of the chair to ensure that the knee is positioned higher than the hip. Better still would be to use a higher stool if one is available.
- Begin in tadasana standing upright with your feet together.
- Without disturbing the position of your left foot, step your right foot onto the support. Ensure that you have taken sufficient height so that your knee is higher than your hip.
- Check that your right knee aligns directly over your right ankle, with your shin bone perpendicular to the floor.
- Check that your left ankle sits directly underneath your left hip.
- Press your left heel (standing leg) firmly down.
- As you contain the front of your left thigh, turn your inner groin back.
- Ensure that the front of the standing leg faces directly forwards.
- Check that your right outer hip has stayed down level to the height of your left hip.
- With your hands on your hips, move your elbows closer so that your back ribs move in and your chest lifts.
- Ensure that your whole spine is lifting from its base upwards.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana II (bent leg variation)
Just as tight hamstrings can limit the movement of your pelvis, so too can tightness around your hips. This pose helps to address this tightness. The pose is similar in many respects to parsvakonasana, and may be a suitable alternative to that pose for anyone practicing with lower back pain.
- Although a chair is used in this particular image a taller support such as a stool would work even more effectively. Ideally the knee of your bent leg is kept higher than your hip.
- Stand with your left toes facing the wall.
- As you step your right foot up onto the support turn the knee and toes directly out to the side.
- Wedge a block between your bent knee and the wall.
- Position your fingertips to the wall at shoulder height.
- Stabilise the front of your left thigh. Without it leaning forwards, move your right hip socket towards the wall.
- As the hip socket moves in guide your right buttock downwards.
- The purpose of the block is to stabilise the right knee so that it remains stationary as the hip is adjusted.
- As you move your right hip forwards, lift the right side of your chest upwards and forwards.
- As you move your right hip forwards turn the front of your spine to face directly forwards.
Standing Marichyasana III
The first twisting action of this sequence aims to gently improve the range of rotational movement in the spine. This pose can be effective in helping to release tension and hardness from the back. The pelvis is held stable as the spine and ribcage turn.
- The chair can remain in the position where it has just been for the previous pose.
- Stand facing the chair with your right hip touching the wall.
- Step your right foot up onto the chair making sure that your knee is positioned directly over your ankle.
- As you now turn your chest towards the wall, ensure that your knee remains over your ankle, without it leaning towards the wall.
- As your chest turns towards the wall resist your left thigh back.
- This action is intended to stabilise the pelvis so that the front of the left hip does not steer towards the right knee.
- As you turn your chest, lift the left side of your chest upwards.
- Ensure that your chest is lifting, not your shoulders.
- Spread your left back ribs away from your spine.
This pose helps to bring stability to the back of the pelvis. The back waist is encouraged to both lengthen and broaden. Your legs are strengthened, enabling them to more effectively lift and support the spine.
- Stand with your heels slightly less than a thigh bones length away from the wall.
- Lean back into the wall with the back of your pelvis and shoulders.
- In this position the lumbar curve is temporarily removed. Press your whole back waist flat into the wall.
- Have your feet slightly apart so that you can position a block between your knees.
- Place your palms onto your thighs. The pressure of your hands against your thighs will help to lift and open your chest.
- As you bend your knees and slide down the wall keep both heels pressing firmly into the floor.
- Hold the pose with your hips slightly above the height of your knees.
- As you hold the pose; press your outer heels down; squeeze the block with your knees; press your back waist into the wall.
- As you press your sacrum into the wall lift your chest and spine up.
- Without sucking the navel back observe how it naturally moves towards the spine.
- Press your shoulders back into the wall and move your thoracic spine deep into the body.
- To come up, push the floor away with your heels and straighten your legs.
In addition to improving hamstring flexibility, trikonasana is also able to lengthen the adductors on the insides of your thighs. Tightness in these muscles can restrict the movement of the pelvis in standing poses. Even when the chest is correctly turning upwards in trikonasana this restriction can tip the front of the pelvis to face downwards. The following instructions look to address this conflict and bring balance to the movement of the chest, pelvis and spine. (right leg = front leg, left leg = back leg)
- Ensure that you have your bottom hand correctly positioned. If it comes too low down you will find that the hip of your front leg protrudes back. This will exaggerate the tendency of the front pelvis to turn downwards.
- Instead, position your hand at a height that enables you to align the back of the top shoulder with the outside of your front outer thigh. Your front outer thigh moves in and lifts up.
- Make the right side of your spine longer than the left side.
- Start the rotation of the torso from the chest but consciously look to develop this rotation closer to the pelvis itself.
- Right chest turn upwards.
- Right waist turn upwards.
- Front of your pelvis turn upwards
- Your back leg can help to develop this action still further… Left outer thigh turn back, left outer heel press down.
- Coordinate your chest, waist and front pelvis turning upwards. Simultaneously turn the back of your pelvis downwards.
Parvottanasana is a standing pose that is particularly effective at stretching hamstrings. Unfortunately it is consequentially a pose that is often challenging for anyone with lower back problems. A common tendency in this pose is for the back of your pelvis to be pulled towards your legs. This can result in rounding of the back ribs, shortening of the anterior spine and discomfort in the lower back. This image shows how a wall can be used to modify the pose so that your hamstrings are stretched whilst keeping your spine is kept straight and supported.
- Enter the pose from half uttanasana.
- Step your right foot forwards so that the toes of your front foot come roughly the length of your own foot away from the wall.
- Step your left foot back so that you have a legs length distance between your feet.
- Ensure that your front knee is straight. If it cannot comfortably straighten then bring both hands slightly higher up the wall.
- To bring your hips level, turn your left buttock away from your right buttock, and lift your right outer hip up and back.
- Now that you have the basic shape of the pose, to further optimise the pose, press more firmly the big toe base of your front foot down, and contain your outer ankle towards your inner ankle.
- So as to avoid hyper-extension in your front knee, press down the part of the sole where your heel pad and arch meet. Simultaneously lighten the contact of your back heel to the floor.
- Maintaining the stretch of the right hamstring, press your hands firmly to the wall; without your elbows dropping straighten your upper back and move your chest forwards towards the wall.
The use of a chair in this standing twist helps to improve your balance and stability. It also enables you to enter this pose gradually with incremental control. This supported version of parivrtta trikonasana imparts a gentle twisting action to the lower back. This can help to release tension, and improve the range of movement in your spine.
- Position your left heel up against a wall and step your right foot out a legs length distance.
- Place your chair beside your right outer calf. Ensure that the chair is as close as possible to your right leg.
- Reach forwards and place your left forearm and hand on the seat of the chair .
- Hold the top of the chair with your right hand.
- Ensure that your hips are level. Turning your left buttock away from your right buttock will help to achieve this.
- Keeping your hips level, lengthen your left waist and turn it downwards towards the floor.
- Spread your left back ribs downwards, away from your spine.
- Move your left shoulder blade deep into your body.
- Lengthen your spine outwards from your pelvis as you start to come more deeply into the twist.
- Lift your right collar bone upwards towards the ceiling as you look upwards.
In this pose the position of your pelvis is kept stable whilst your spine simultaneously lifts and turns. This pose has the potential to improve the range of motion your lower back, helping it to more easily perform rotational movements.
- Sit sideways on your chair with your right outer thigh against the back rest of the chair. Ensure that your hips are slightly higher than your knees. For taller people this may entail increasing the height of the chair by adding a folded blanket.
- Brace your knees by placing a block between them. As your knees squeeze the block, press your left outer heel down into the floor. This action helps to keep your knees in line as your chest lifts and turns.
- As you turn your chest to the right take hold of the back frame of the chair with both hands. Position your hands at a height that enables you to release your shoulders down and away from your ears.
- Use the grip of your hands to develop the turning of your chest and spine.
- Lift and turn the left side of your chest. Lift and turn your left waist.
- Draw your left thigh bone back into your hip socket.
- Spread your left back ribs away from your spine.
- As you turn your spine, lift the back of your skull upwards and move your trapezius muscle downwards.
This version of pasasana allows you to simultaneously lengthen and rotate your lumbar spine and back waist. This pose will be suited to more experienced students who already have a good range of movement in the lower back. If you are newer to yoga, or working with stiffness or soreness in your spine, consolidate the previous chair twist instead.
- Sit far back in your chair, but ensure that your heels are able to reach the floor. Bring your feet and knees together so that they touch.
- Lean forwards and place your left shoulder across your right outer thigh.
- Close the gap between your left armpit and right outer thigh.
- With your elbow bent, press your left upper arm against your thigh in order to turn your chest upwards.
- Catch hold of the top of the chair with your right hand. As you start to come more deeply into the twist this hand can walk further across to the left side of the chair.
- Keep your left heel pressing down, and your left thighbone drawing back into the hip socket as you turn.
- Draw both thigh creases back into the body as you turn.
- Lengthen the left side of your spine out and over your thighs as you turn.
- Move your sternum bone away from your pelvis as you turn.
This position can bring traction to your lower back. It might be especially helpful for combatting compression in the lumbar spine. Allow sufficient time for your spine to move comfortably through the stages of this pose. It can also be a good counter-pose to include in your practice after a session of backbends.
- Sit far back in your chair ensuring that your heels remain in firm contact with the floor. For shorter people it may be necessary to pace flat blocks under the feet.
- Have your feet slightly wider than the front legs of the chair, and ensure that your shoulders will fit between your knees.
- Keeping your heels firm to the floor and keeping your sitting bones pressing into the seat of the chair, reach forwards and place your fingertips to the floor between your feet.
- Pause here and allow your lower back sufficient time to release.
- if your back feels able to release further then fold your arms at your elbows and let your head hang down between your knees.
- Either stay at this point and consolidate, or reach through the front legs of the chair and grip the cross bar between the back legs of the chair. (Hold the back legs if your chair does not have a cross bar.)
- Pull firmly with your hands against the cross bar.
- Move your back ribs down and lift your head to look across the room.
- Lengthen your navel away from your pubic bone, and lengthen your sternum away from your navel.
This simple but effective pose can help to lengthen and release tension in your lower back. Make sure that your neck is comfortable as you lie back. If your chin is lifting higher that your forehead a blanket can be placed under your head.
- Lie on your back with the soles of both feet placed against a wall. Have your big toes and inner heels touching.
- Keeping your left toes pointing directly upwards, bend your right knee into your chest. Interlock your fingers around the head of your shin bone.
- Gently hug your right knee into your chest.
- As your knee comes towards your chest, resist your right outer hip away from your chest.
- Deepen your right thigh crease away from your chest.
- Resist the back of your right hip away from your ribcage.
- Press the front of your left thigh down.
- Press your left big toe base firmly into the wall.
Supta Padangusthasana I
This pose stretches your hamstrings whilst keeping your spine supported by the floor. In this image a belt is used to grip the top foot, and the leg is being held on a vertical angle. If you have tight hamstrings it is quite likely that you will be unable to raise your leg in this vertical position without your knee bending. If this is the case, keep your knee straight but with your leg angled further away from your body.
- Lie on your back with the soles of both feet in contact with the wall.
- Bend your right knee to your chest and position a belt around the ball of your right foot.
- Straighten your right leg and hold the belt in both hands.
- As you hold the belt keep your elbows sightly bent, and press the back of your shoulders down to the floor.
- Pressing your top foot up into the belt, turn your right outer thigh and right outer hip away from your ribcage.
- Keep the right side of your sacrum moving away from your ribcage.
- With the belt, guide your right foot away from the wall, whilst resisting your right thighbone towards the wall.
- Press the front of your left thigh down.
- Close the gap between the back of your left thigh and the floor.
- Press your left big toe base firmly to the wall.
Supta Padangusthasana II
This pose follows immediately on from the previous pose.
- Keeping your right leg raised up, hold the belt in your right hand and position your left arm out to the side. Check that your hand is in line with your shoulder.
- Pressing the front of your left thigh down, start to bring your right leg down and out to the side.
- The action of bringing your right leg down and out to the side should not make the front of your left thigh lift up.
- Close the gap between the back of your left thigh and the floor.
- Bring the left side of your sacrum down to the floor.
- Anchor the back of your left shoulder to the floor.
- Turn the right side of your chest upwards towards the ceiling.
- With the belt guide your right foot away from the wall.
- Resist your right hip socket towards the wall.
“Legs Up The Wall”
This simple pose helps to bring space to the sacral and lumbar vertebrae. Your legs are elevated, as they are in viparita karani, but the back of your pelvis is kept in contact with the floor. Ideally your sitting bones will come all the way to the wall. If you have tight hamstrings, you may find that getting this close to the wall makes the back of your pelvis lift up. If this is the case, leave enough space between your sitting bones and the wall to ensure that your sacrum is in contact with the floor. The effect of this pose will be optimised by the addition of weights, such as sand bags resting on the soles of the feet. The pose is pictured here in a way that can be conveniently incorporated into a simple home practice.
- The easiest way to get into this position is to start lying on your side with your knees bent in towards your chest.
- Remaining on your side, you shuffle closer to the wall until both of your sitting bones make contact with the wall.
- Once your sitting bones are in contact with the wall, you simply swivel your legs up the wall and straighten your knees.
- At this point assess whether or not your sacrum is in contact with the floor.
- If not, incrementally slide away from the wall until your are able to clearly feel the back of your pelvis is in contact with the floor.
- As you remain in the pose and relax, allow the weight of your legs to gently press the back of your pelvis down and into the floor.
- Encourage your sacral and lumbar vertebrae to release and lengthen.
- Encourage the back of your pelvis to broaden from the centre outwards.
Savasana (Calves on Chair)
This version of savasana gives your lower back more length and space. Your lumbar spine sits much closer to the floor, and relaxes in that direction.
- Lie on your back and rest your calves up onto the seat of a chair.
- Position the chair so that the edge of the seat comes all the way into the back of your knees.
- Allow a slight incline in the angle if your thighs. Ideally your knees sit slightly forwards of your hips.
- Keep your feet apart hip width so that your lower legs remain comfortably balanced on the seat of the chair.
- Use a folded blanket to elevate your skull so that your forehead is slightly higher than your chin.
- Keep your arms comfortably out to your sides. Ideally no part of your arm will make contact with the sides of your body.
- Have your knuckles resting into the floor, your palms facing upwards.
- Shut your eyes and allow your eyes to relax.
- Breathe evenly and smoothly.