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Live Be Yoga ambassadors Jeremy Falk and Aris Seaberg are on a road trip across the country to share real talk with master teachers, explore innovative classes, and so much more—all to illuminate what’s in store for the future of yoga. Follow the tour and get the latest stories @livebeyoga on Instagram and Facebook.
Long before she became a certified yoga therapist and highly sought-after yoga teacher, Alison West was an art historian studying human form. This ability to observe anatomy in detail has served her and her mission very well. “I look at the body as a beautiful sculpture with its variations,” says West, founder and director of Yoga Union and Yoga Union Backcare and Scoliosis Center in New York City. Spending 35 years working with yogis with diverse bodies, needs, and injuries, West believes that supporting the body—and most importantly, the spine—through a comprehensive and therapeutic practice is an important aspect of the future of yoga.
Since 1983, West has trained in multiple styles of yoga (Jivamukti, Sivananda, Ashtanga, and Iyengar) around the world with an enviable roster of teachers (T.K.V. Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois, and Eddie Stern). Ultimately, West decided to focus on yoga for back care and open up a studio dedicated to it because it was why most people came to her to practice. As it turns out, she said that back pain is also one of the most common reasons doctors send patients to yoga.
Through deeper studies of the spine with trainers Bobbie Fultz and Elise Miller, West thoroughly examined a variety of back issues and now specializes in herniation, disc bulges, scoliosis, and spinal asymmetry—just to name a few of the conditions she treats. She has since designed her own program based on these studies and the knowledge gained from working with many students throughout the years. Respect for modern kinesiology can blend with the ancient traditions and texts of yoga, West says, so we may continue to understand the original purpose of yoga as we evolve.
With all the traveling, hauling bags, and sleeping in different beds as we launched the Live Be Yoga tour, Jeremy and I were excited to soak up her invaluable wisdom to support us along our journey. So we joined West at her back-care center and asked her to guide us through these 5 simple poses to help alleviate generalized back pain. Her unique method incorporates a dowel into the exercises, as it is a useful tool in elongating the spine and creating stability in the poses.
Note: If you have chronic or acute back issues or injuries, West recommends speaking to a doctor first and scheduling one-on-one sessions with a physical therapist or a yoga therapist (like herself) to ensure you are supporting your back and not exacerbating an issue. It’s always important to listen to your body and do only what feels appropriate and nourishing.
5-to-6-foot dowel rod (you can also substitute a broom), yoga mat, and a chair if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable.
Hold each pose for 3-to-5 breaths, allowing your inhales to expand fully and your exhales to complete.
5 Poses That Relieve Back Pain
Child’s Pose Variation
Come to the mat on hands and knees. Keeping the toes together, start to widen the knees, bring the forehead to the mat, and send the sitting bones close to the heels. Once there, lengthen the arms in front of you and find your breath. By widening the knees you are able to release the chest lower and reduce rounding in the spine. This is a gentle release of back muscles that may be tight or fatigued. After several breaths, use your hands to support you as you rise out of the pose, so you avoid engaging the back muscles you just released.
Seated Back Extension with Dowel
The dowel is a lovely instrument to assist with extension and stability. This pose can be done on your own or with a partner. Come to a seated position on your mat (or in a chair) with your spine upright and long. Hold the dowel in both hands about shoulder-width apart in front of you. (If your shoulders are tight, hold the dowel wider than shoulder-width apart to avoid pinching.) On an inhale, begin to lift the dowel overhead with straight arms. Hold the dowel overhead as you take slow, full breaths. Begin to reach to dowel higher toward the ceiling to find length along the entire back. If you have a partner, they can stand over you and gently lift it to accentuate the lengthening of the spine.
Tadasana (Standing Pose) with Dowel
Stand with both feet under the hips and the dowel vertically positioned, centered between your feet, and pressing into the floor. Firmly grip the dowel with two hands in front of your nose, drop the elbows, and begin to press the dowel into the floor so you lift and extend the spine. Watch that you do not overarch the low back or flare out the chest. Take a few deep breaths here. This pose decompresses your vertebral discs, releases the muscles of the back, and creates length and strength along the spine and core. It’s also a reminder of what good posture feels like.
Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) with Dowel
Step your feet wide on the mat and turn one foot forward as if preparing for a Warrior II. Keep both legs straight and place the dowel in your front hand so it is vertical on the mat by your front toes. Open both arms wide at about shoulder-height. Your hips should be level and open toward the wide edge of the mat. Standing tall and balanced from the feet up, lengthen both sides of the torso to grow taller. From this length, begin to bend at the hips, lean toward the dowel, and make sure to not collapse your sides. Press the dowel into the floor with the front hand as your back arm continues to stretch horizontally behind you. By pressing firmly into your feet and the dowel into the floor, you will find more length in the spine, creating space between the vertebrae and in the back muscles. Continue to take deep breaths as you hold. To come out of the pose, engage the abdominals toward the spine and press into the dowel to lift your chest upright. Repeat on the other side.
“Sloppy Joe” Asana (Gentle Spinal Twist)
Lie on your back with your feet on the mat and knees up. Keep your feet hips-distance apart or slightly wider and your arms out to the sides in a T shape. Slowly lower one knee to one side, and then lower the other to the same side until the legs are supported by the floor. Hold the posture for a few breaths to allow the lumbar spine to release. Inhale knees back to center, and then lower them to the other side for a few breaths. Repeat, alternating sides until you find a bit more ease in the pose. End with your feet on the mat, knees bent in the center, and spine lengthened on the mat. Note: If there is any discomfort in the knees or hips during this pose, use a blanket or bolster between the knees for support.
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