Back on Track
So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key. —The Eagles
Yes, I'm dating myself here—quoting a '70s rock band to illustrate a point about yoga. But these lyrics perfectly describe one of the great benefits of a regular yoga practice. Steady practice helps us to identify when our suffering is optional, and it empowers us with the tools to transform that suffering.
One of the most common forms of suffering that arises from living in a modern culture is back pain. But somehow the message that a regular yoga practice can unlock a tight, aching back and resolve chronic pain doesn't seem to have been broadcast to the population at large. A quick Internet search on the words "back pain" turns up zero yoga-related results unless you go digging for them. On pages where users ask each other the best way to resolve their back problems, they are advised by other users to see a massage therapist, a chiropractor, or a doctor, or to take Motrin. Of course, massage, manipulation, and medicine can each help to free up tense back muscles in its own way, but these options don't give people the tools to cast off their own shackles. And even though a few insightful respondents do recommend elementary stretches, no one has uttered so much as a tweet about the elephant in the chat room: yoga.
Maybe someone needs to write a hit song about it.
The message should definitely be more widely circulated, because freeing your entire back from ordinary muscle tension, and the pain it brings, can usually be done by practicing just four simple poses— one forward bend, one pose that combines a sidebend with a forward bend, one sidebend, and one twist—plus a passive backbend, each day. These poses systematically stretch every muscle in your back, with the exception of a few arm and shoulder muscles. As you practice the sequence of poses on these pages, you'll see that when yoga unlocks the chains that bind the back, it does so with a combination, not a key.
It's best not to introduce these poses too abruptly. Start by spending a few days loosening your muscles partway with gentle, supported poses that involve similar movements, such as Supta Padangusthasana and Supported Child's Pose.
Use your intuition and an honest assessment of the sensations in your back muscles to gauge when a stronger stretch would feel more like a relief than a threat to them. Then gradually introduce the back-stretch sequence. You can stave off tension-induced back pain indefinitely by practicing these poses on a regular basis, either on their own or after gentler preparatory poses. When you reach this stage, you should add a fifth pose, the passive backbend shown on page 75, to balance out your practice.
Muscles and Fitness
To fine-tune your practice and get the most out of each pose, it helps to have a general idea of how your muscles work. In addition to the well-known large muscles of the back, such as the trapezius, latissimus, and rhomboids, you have well over 200 intrinsic back muscles, and their primary function is to move or stabilize your spine and trunk. Trying to stretch all of them deeply with just four poses seems like a tall order, but that's exactly what this sequence will do.
You can stretch all of your intrinsic back muscles, at least to some extent, by curling your head, neck, trunk, and pelvis forward toward the fetal position. This is what you'll do in (Garland Pose), variation 1. To see why this variation of Malasana with a chair works, and to improve your practice technique, visualize your back muscles with the help of the illustrations.
Think of these muscles as a series of elastic bands—some long, some short—that connect the back of your skull, spinal vertebrae, rib cage, sacrum, and hipbones to one another. When you round forward, the anchor points where the muscles attach to the bones move apart from one another, and this is what stretches the muscles. If you connect the dots between these points, they form a wide arc that defines the curve of the back. Each muscle stretches over a segment of that arc.
To get the most stretch from this variation of Malasana, systematically lengthen each segment, without skipping any, by bending your back bit by bit, tucking your hips under, and working your way up the spine, one vertebra at a time, all the way to your neck and head. Deep, natural breathing will increase the effect, because your inhalation widens the arc of your back, and your exhalation tightens the curl.
The first variation of Malasana with a chair is the best for stretching three long muscle groups that run vertically, or nearly vertically, along the vertebral column. They are the spinalis muscles, which connect to the central spines of the vertebrae; the longissimus muscles, which run from the head to the sacrum, connecting to the sides of the vertebrae along the way; and the semispinalis muscles, which start at the base of your head and continue along the vertebral column, connecting the central spine of one vertebra to the side of another one many segments below. (Adding a slight twist of the head and upper back while sidebending them in the opposite direction will increase the stretch on the semispinalis muscles.)
When you practice any trunk-flexing movement such as Malasana, be careful not to overdo it, because forced flexion can injure the disks and other soft tissue that hold your spine together. Even though you can stretch many of your intrinsic back muscles by rounding forward, you can increase the stretch on some of them by adding a sidebend to the forward bend. This movement, which you create in variation 2 of Malasana, intensifies the stretch by creating a larger gap between the vertebrae on one side of the spine than either a forward bend or a sidebend does alone.
This variation of Malasana is best for stretching a group of short muscles near the center of your lower back, the interspinales muscles in your lumbar spine. It's important for you to limit flexion in this pose by resting your chest and belly on your thigh, because excessive spinal flexion in combination with a sidebend can be even more dangerous for the disks and other soft tissue around your spine than excessive flexion on its own.
Several muscles in two distinct groups get their strongest stretch when you simultaneously twist your trunk in one direction and sidebend the opposite way without bending forward. The variation of Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend) used in this sequence maximizes the lateral arc of your body, and this creates more stretch than any other movement on certain muscles that run vertically up the sides of the vertebrae or the back of the rib cage. These include the iliocostalis, the intertransversarii, and the quadratus lumborum. To maximize the stretch on these muscles, systematically separate each rib from its neighbor, individually sidebend each vertebral segment, sidebend your waist and neck, and breathe naturally but deeply. The second group of muscles that gets maximal stretch from this variation of Upavistha Konasana responds as much to the twist as to the sidebend. It includes midlength muscles that run diagonally from the center of one vertebra to the side of another, namely, the rotatores longi and multifidus. To stretch them fully in this pose, create a very strong twist, without skipping any level, before bending to the side, and reinforce this twist as you sidebend to your maximum.
There is one set of very small muscles very deep in the spine—the rotatores breves—that you can stretch effectively only by twisting; in fact, they're barely affected at all by forward bends or sidebends. That's why, to complete the back-stretching sequence, it's crucial to include a potent twist like the supported Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist) variation included here. You'll benefit from practicing this pose toward the end of the sequence, because the previous poses will soften the larger back muscles that would otherwise prevent each vertebra from twisting to its full potential. As you work your way up your spine in this supported twist, consciously release and rotate every vertebra as much as you can in relation to the one below it. Since each vertebra of the upper back is attached to a pair of ribs, it's easier to rotate these vertebrae if you allow the ribs to turn relative to one another. Finally, whenever you twist, exhale softly to release the grip of the diaphragm muscle and intercostal muscles on the rib cage.
The passive backbend that concludes this back-stretch sequence lengthens your abdominal muscles. Since the first four poses increase flexibility in the back muscles, it's important to keep your abs flexible, too. If your back becomes looser than your belly, the relative tightness of the abdomen will bend your spine forward, and your back muscles will tense up by reflex to oppose this.
This back-stretch sequence includes a passive backbend because an active backbend makes you tighten your back muscles. Since even a passive backbend places the back muscles in a shortened position, it's usually best not to introduce this pose into your back-stretch practice when you first learn this sequence, while your back muscles are still tight. Tight muscles are in a state of contraction, and if you shorten them, they may automatically contract even further. Instead, practice the forward bending, sidebending, and twisting poses for as many days as it takes for your back tension to subside before adding the backbend.
So go forth and practice to liberate your back from the chains that bind it! Having a tight, painful back is so familiar to many of us, and so common among the people we know, that it's easy to assume there's nothing we can do about it. But for ordinary back tension and the pain that comes with it, yoga offers clear relief and reliable prevention. And best of all, the most likely side effects are a peaceful mind, increased energy, and the joyful feeling of freedom restored.
Set Your Back Free
Here are four poses that will systematically stretch all the intrinsic muscles of your back, plus a passive backbend to help bring your front and back body into balance. Practice on an empty stomach, and go only as far into each pose as you feel comfortable.
You're most likely to keep your back loose and pain free by practicing these poses regularly before your muscles become tense. You can also practice this sequence to ease moderate back tightness and discomfort before it becomes chronic pain or an acute injury.
If your back muscles are already tight and painful, start with gentler, supported poses, introduced one at a time over several days, preferably under the guidance of a teacher. When you sense that a stronger stretch would feel more like a relief than a threat to your back, gradually introduce the poses in this back-stretch sequence.
NOTE: This practice is meant to relieve simple muscular tightness in your back, and it may be inappropriate for muscle spasms, disk injuries, sacroiliac-joint dysfunction, spondylolisthesis, or other back problems. If you have back pain, or suspect a disease or injury, check with your health care provider before trying it.
1. Malasana (Garland Pose), variation 1
Sit tall in a chair with your legs about a foot apart. Push your hands down on the arms or seat of the chair to take some of the weight off your pelvis. Without flexing your back or neck at first, tilt your pelvis, spine, and head forward as a unit (as you do when you're initiating a forward bend), until you can't tilt the pelvis any further. Now let your back round over, starting at the bottom of the spine and working your way up to the top.
Bring your torso toward or between your thighs, and rest the backs of your hands on blocks or on the floor under the chair if they go that far. Let your head hang down. If you are still comfortable and want to increase the stretch, gently tilt your tailbone down toward the chair seat and curl your back further, one vertebra at a time, from the base of your spine all the way up to your neck and head. As you progress, draw your belly up toward your lower back, your breastbone toward your upper back, and your head toward the front of your tailbone to round the spine more. Use 8 long breaths to stretch the spaces between your back ribs and to release tight spots.
2. Malasana (Garland Pose), variation 2
From variation 1, lift your chest to thigh level and place your left palm on your outer left thigh near the knee, with the thumb on top of the thigh. Place your right hand on your outer left ankle, then use both hands to sidebend your trunk gradually to the left until you can rest your chest and belly well across your left thigh. Lengthen your right waist and bend your neck gently to the left and down. Hold for 8 breaths, then repeat the sidebend on the other side.
To exit the pose, bring your trunk back to the center and push your hands down on your knees to help you sit up.
3. Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), variation
Sit on the floor with your legs wide apart and your pelvis elevated on enough folded blankets to allow you to easily keep it fully upright (not slumped back). Press your right hand down into the floor behind you and your left hand down into the floor in front of you, sit tall, and use your arm strength to twist your entire trunk to the right as far as you can.
Continuing to twist to the right, lean to the left directly over your left thigh, walking your left hand forward away from your thigh on the floor in front of you while still pressing it down. Move your right hand to your right hip. Now, without losing the twist, let your right sitting bone feel heavy and move it toward the floor. Systematically bend your spine and rib cage to the left from bottom to top, ending by turning your head to face forward, sidebending your neck and allowing your head to hang down.
Finally, reach your right arm over your right ear toward your left foot and press your left hand into the floor to rotate your breastbone toward the sky. Work deeper into the pose for 8 breaths, then repeat it on the other side.
4. Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist), variation
The fourth pose is an active, prone variation of Bharadvajasana. Fold two blankets long and narrow, and stack them to create a rectangle approximately 27 inches long, 9 inches wide, and 5 inches high. Sit on the floor 6 inches from one end of the blankets, with your right hip joint exactly in line with the long centerline of the blankets and your right thigh perpendicular to it.
Bend your knees and place your left ankle on top of the arch of your right foot. Sit tall, twist your whole trunk toward the blankets, and lie down, reaching your breastbone as far away from your pelvis as it can reach. If you can look to your right without straining your neck, rest your left ear on the blankets. Otherwise, look to the left and rest your head on your right ear. Push your right palm down firmly into the floor to systematically increase the twist, one vertebra and one rib at a time, from the base of the spine to the top of the neck. Work deeper into the pose for 8 breaths, and then repeat it on the other side.
5. Passive Backbend
Include this passive backbend as your final pose to stretch your abdominal muscles while allowing your back muscles to remain relaxed.
Sit on one end of the two folded blankets you used for the twist, facing away from the other end. Keeping your knees bent, lie down and rest your shoulder blades on the far end of the blankets, with the very top of your shoulder bones hanging 1 inch off the end and the rest of the bone supported by the blankets.
Rest your head on the floor. Lift your pelvis, tilt your tailbone away from your head, and set it back down. Straighten your legs forward, keeping your toes pointing upward. Reach your arms overhead and rest them on the floor, or, if your shoulders are tight, support your arms on a stack of blankets. Stay for 2 to 3 minutes and then roll to your side to release.
Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.