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Have you ever had a backache that stopped you in your tracks and forced you to change everything about your day–or beyond? Acute low back pain is like that! It hurts like a bugger and can impact your quality of life.
Since low back pain affects almost everybody (80% of adults experience it at some point; it’s the most common cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45), chances are that you’ve either already had back pain or know someone who has. Either way, you’re probably super motivated avoid it.
If you’ve been in pain for more than three months and you’ve started to learn to live with it, the medical industry labels it “chronic.” I prefer the term “persistent.” That sounds more manageable than chronic, which implies “you’re stuck with it.”
The Complexity of Back Pain
My first experience with back pain was in 1982 at age 12. I was a healthy, athletic pre-teen, and the idea that by body would utterly fail me due to overuse or imbalance was, until that moment, totally inconceivable.
Then, in 2008 I was truly laid out with low back pain. After a year of trying to “fix myself,” I finally went for imaging and was diagnosed with scoliosis, pars fractures, multiple herniations, degenerated discs and spondylolisthesis.
At the worst point in my pain saga, I remember staring at my slightly crooked reflection in the mirror and sneering at myself, How could you do this to me?! Living with persistent back pain took its toll on me and my family. I wasn’t able to pick up my toddler. I was gaining weight from not exercising. I became increasingly isolated. My personality was changing almost as much as my body; depression and irritability started to seem normal.
After almost a year, I had spent a couple of thousand dollars on massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic appointments. The relief was always fleeting. I’d go home, find myself in pain again a short while later and wonder, Now what?
A More Active Approach to Back Care
I knew there had to be a better way. Feeling frustrated and totally disempowered, I resolved to pursue more active therapies over the costly, invasive, and sometimes addictive therapy treatment options that are often prescribed for those of us with back pain. For the next ten years, aside from my family, my top priority was becoming my own back-rehab boss. I traveled the globe teaching trainings and retreats and learning from some of the greatest teachers and experts.
When my back troubles began, I was working in New York City as a yoga teacher, a certified nutrition counselor, and a certified holistic health coach while also dabbling a bit in craniosacral therapy. I became singularly-focused on learning all I could about spinal anatomy and optimal rehabilitative back care practices. Since then, my mission has been to create an integrated, holistic approach to preventing, relieving, and managing low back pain. I want to empower others to get their lives back without addictive pain meds or costly, traumatic surgery. This is how my Retrain Back Pain® program was born.
Below is a sequence I created that features 10 movements for you to incorporate into your movement diet. While these moves are empowering and generally accepted as safe, no particular set of exercises will ever be right one every person. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to work with a clinician who specializes in your type of low-back condition. Meanwhile, if you have a cranky back, prioritize time in your schedule to cultivate retraining practices that will set you up for a pain-free back.
Sequence: 10 Yoga-Inspired Moves for Low Back Pain
Note: Some of the shapes in this sequence call for a neutral spine. This setup maintains the natural curves of your spine, minimizing stress and strain throughout your spinal structures. To find neutral, lie on your back or stand against a wall. Stack your ribs over your neutral pelvis (meaning your pelvis is neither tucked under or tilted up). Your low back will curve away from the floor or wall.
Utkatasana, variation (Chair Pose)
I like to call this Chair Pose variation “Airplane Froggy Box Squat.” Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), with your legs a little wider than your hips, spine in neutral. Exhale and sit back in an air squat, as you bring your arms out to your sides at shoulder height, palms down, like an airplane. Inhale and push through your tush, coming to stand upright as you sweep your arms overhead with your palms facing each other. Repeat 5–10 times.
Why it’s different: A hip-distance stance gives you a broader base of support and is less stressful on your sacroiliac joint than working with your feet together. By squatting with your arms out to the side instead of overhead, you are strengthening your back without straining it.
Rectus Abdominus Zippers
Lie on your back with a neutral spine, knees bent and the soles of your feet grounded, hip-width apart. Inhale. Exhaling with an “sss” sound (like a snake), contract the abs, drawing your ribs and pelvis toward one another. Don’t lift your hips, shoulders, or head as you do this. Breathe as you hold the contraction. With each subsequent exhale, increase zipping up the front of your abs. Slowly return to a neutral spine on an inhale.
Why it’s different: These are essentially souped-up pelvic tilts. Sequentially isometrically contracting your rectus abdominis muscle is a safe way to train your core without creating back strain.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, variation (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels under your knees. Place your thumbs on your ribs and the pads of your other fingers on your frontal hip bones (a.k.a. your ASIS). Inhale and pull your heels towards your buttocks without actually moving your heels. This is an isometric contraction. Exhale and push the floor away with your heels as you lift your hips into a modest bridge. Hold for 5 breaths. Lower the hips slowly, with control.
Why it’s different: By resisting back bending in this shape, you are activating your glutes to create a true hip extension bridge.
Low Lunge, variation
Start in a Low Lunge, with your right foot forward and your left leg extended. Anchor the top of your left foot to the ground. Draw your legs towards each other while simultaneously pressing down towards the ground through your back leg. Engage your core as you draw your frontal hip bones upward, creating a bit of posterior pelvic tilt (tuck). Lean your torso slightly forward, keeping your pelvis and spine neutral. Elongate your arms and slide a strap or resistance band on your arms (or interlace your thumbs). On your inhale, raise your arms up to frame your face. Maintain a neutral spine and pelvis, and continue pressing down on your back leg. Lean your torso to your right any amount to create a side bend. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Why it’s different: The primary focus is pelvic stability. We are taking out the back-bend part of the low lunge and dynamically stretching while strengthening the muscles of your front hip, psoas, and side core.
Vasisthasana, variation (Side Plank Pose)
Start by lying on your right side with your left forearm on the floor. Instead of placing your palm on the floor, make a strong fist and imagine drawing the bottom corner of your left shoulder blade in towards your ribs. This helps activate your shoulder muscles. Before lifting into the side plank, look down at your body to ensure that your hip bones are stacked and your feet and ankles are active, and draw your toes up towards your face. Squeeze your legs to your midline, engage your core and lift your hips off the ground. Hold for 5–10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Why it’s different: This move helps you focus on integrating your hips and shoulders to your side core without worrying about the wrists and ankles
Supta Padangusthasana, variation (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Start on your back with your knees bent. Engage your core by contracting equally in all directions. Insert your left foot into a strap and create some tension by pulling on the strap with your arm while simultaneously pushing into the strap with your leg. Keep your shoulders grounded. Gently rock your hips toward your left side, aiming your strapped foot out and to the side as you inhale. On an exhale, roll completely over on to the outside of your right hip as you transfer the strap to your right hand and guide your left leg across your body. You will land in a reclined twist with your right leg bent and your left leg straight.
Why it’s different: This dynamic hip flossing movement is a tension-based dynamic strengthener that helps increase hip mobility. Healthy hips are key for optimal spine health.
Dynamic Slow Bug
Stay on your back with both knees bent, prepare to move by engaging your core equally in all directions—zipping up and pulling in like a corset. Raise your arms to the ceiling. Bring your legs up so your hips and knees are at right angles. You’re in the correct starting position when your hands are over your shoulders and your knees are over your hips with both your hips and knees at 90 degree angles. Hold for three full breaths. Then, on an inhale, simultaneously reach your left arm overhead as you reach your right leg away. Exhale and return to start position. Move through three repetitions. Repeat on the other side.
Why it’s different: The slow, controlled moves build body awareness, so remember to take the time to set up your ribs, spine, pelvis, and core before moving your limbs. I recommend working with this variation slowly; try it moving three times more slowly than you normally would.
Marjaryasana-Bitilasana, variation (Cat-Cow Poses)
Prep like you would for headstand practice: Clasp your hands, place your forearms on the ground, place the top of your head on the ground between your forearms. Press your forearms down into the floor and draw your shoulder blades downward as well. This arm set up inhibits your upper back from moving so that you can focus on your lower back only. Alternate between arching (flexing) and backbending (extending) your lumbar spine as you would in a regular Cat-Cow flow.
Why it’s different: Here, you’re focusing on flexing and extending just the bottom third of your back instead of continuously cat-cowing into your “spinal hinge” (the place you bend most easily and frequently)
Balasana, variation (Child’s Pose)
Kneel down, engage your core, and push back into a wide-kneed Child’s Pose. Stay for a couple of breaths. Now reach your arms out and walk them to one side, so that you’re in a gentle sidebend. Stay for three full breaths, then walk arms to the other side
Why it’s different: This move emphasizes lateral flexion (sidebending). With your arms pressing into the floor, you can create a lengthening and strengthening effect all along your side body, from your latissimus dorsi to your hips.
Savasana, variation (Corpse Pose)
Fold a blanket and place it across your hips bones and lie down on your abdomen. You’re in the right position when your pubic bone hangs off the bottom part of the blanket. Allow your head to turn to one side and breathe naturally for 5 breaths or longer. Turn your head to the other side and breathe naturally for another 5 or more breaths. This one’s great to do in bed, with a soft pillow under your low abdomen.
Why it’s different: Propping allows a bit of spinal flexion, which helps you use gravity and your breath to stretch and massage your back muscles, your nerves and your organs!
Bio: Dinneen Viggiano, E-RYT, YACEP, NKT, CST, CHHC, CNC, empowers students to retrain back pain using a holistic approach: mindset, nutrition, breathing, posture, therapeutic self-massage, and functional rehab exercises. An experienced Therapeutic Movement & Back Pain Specialist with 20 years’ experience, Dinneen is a Backfit Pro, a Tune Up Fitness Senior Teacher Trainer, a NeuroKinetic Therapist, a CranioSacral Therapist, Anatomy and Injury Management Teacher, an Orthopedic Functional Exercise Specialist, and a Certified Nutrition Counselor. A true “teachers’ teacher,” Dinneen has been traveling the globe since 2010 teaching professional trainings worldwide. She currently lives in Harlem, New York City, with her husband, her teenage son, and their two rescue cats. Find her at retrainbackpain.com or on Instagram: @DinneenV