Yoga Practice

This One Little Tool You Can Find at a Hardware Store Can Help Heal Your Back Pain

Try these eight ways to practice with a dowel and watch it quickly become your new favorite yoga prop for back pain.

Alison West Back Pain
Zev Starr-Tambor

Decades ago, Kevin Gardiner, one of my Iyengar teachers, brought out short wooden dowels as props for Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand). That immediately sparked my interest in this tool and how it might be used in other ways in class. I bought a dozen five-foot wooden broom handles—and later bought shorter and longer versions—to experiment with.

Dowels, small-diameter rods of any length—made of wood, metal, or plastic—have become some of my favorite props because they’re so versatile. They provide alignment feedback, gentle leverage, and traction (stretching your spine) to relieve pressure and help you lengthen muscles and release joints. And they can be a point of resistance, a tool for core work, an aid to balance, and more. Dowels can support sound posture and be used creatively to allow you to experience poses in novel ways.

See also Yoga for Back Health: 3 Simple Poses to Traction the Spine

If you experience back pain, a dowel is particularly useful because it can help you discover safer movement patterns to protect your back. These new patterns can prevent compression of your spine during core work, forward bends, and side bends (lateral flexions)—allowing you to lengthen and strengthen your muscles without causing additional strain.

You can think of a dowel as an external representation of your midline to help you find strong axial extension, which is a full lengthening of your spine. For example, if you place the dowel in front of you and close to your body in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and pull down on it, your chest will lift and your spine will lengthen. For those with back pain due to disc problems, this action lessens pressure on intervertebral discs and nerve roots. A dowel can also offer stable support on the floor at one end while allowing safe movement and traction at the other end in poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). And it can offer ease in poses such as Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), since not as much range of motion is required when you use a dowel.

See also Yoga for Back Health: Got Computer Neck? 3 Simple Poses for Pain Relief

I now teach with a six-foot dowel with a 1.25-inch diameter, but you can use a shorter dowel—such as a five-foot paint-roller pole or broom handle—for most poses. A six-foot dowel is best for Revolved Side Angle Pose or Utkatasana (Chair Pose).

To experience the soothing, stabilizing benefits of yoga with a dowel, make a trip to the hardware store, then try this sequence. If you are experiencing back pain, make sure to check in with your doctor before trying anything new.

1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Tadasana Mountain Pose with Dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

Using a dowel for Mountain Pose can relieve pressure in your lumbar spine through axial extension. If you tend to slouch or have hyperkyphosis (exaggerated rounding of your upper back), it will also help you to lift and open your chest as you pull on it.

Stand in Mountain Pose with your feet hip-width apart. Place the dowel between your feet so that it’s near the middle of your feet but slightly closer to the balls of your feet than your heels. Reach up to clasp the dowel, one hand over the other, so that your hands are roughly in front of your forehead for the best leverage. Relax your shoulders and neck. Pull down on the dowel to lengthen your spine. Imagine that you’re moving your back ribs and the back of your pelvis away from each other to prevent overarching your lower back. The action of your arms helps to draw the bottom of each of your shoulder blades down without pinching and moves your mid-thoracic spine and ribs in. Again, avoid lifting your shoulders. Hold for 5 breaths, pause, switch your hands, and then hold for another 5 breaths.

See also 5 Steps to Master Tadasana 

2. Preparation for Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

preparation for extended side angle pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

In lateral standing poses, a dowel can be used in many ways. This version, with one arm up and one arm down, allows you to rest your head against the dowel once you move into the pose and to use it as light resistance to help turn your trunk away from the floor. Resting your lower hand on the dowel and using it for support takes weight off your front leg and hip. Pressing the dowel against your leg gives your front sit bone a point of resistance against which to press forward. This preparation can also be used for Triangle Pose.

Hold the dowel vertically in your right hand, and walk your feet apart about 4 feet, or a full leg length. Turn your right foot toward the front of your mat, and position the dowel in front of your right leg, just above your knee joint. Lift your left arm above your head, keeping your elbow bent, and take hold of the dowel, palm facing forward. Holding the dowel in place, bring your right arm and shoulder forward in front of the dowel. Take hold of it with your right hand facing back, palm against the dowel.

See also Extended Side Angle Pose

3. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

extended side angle pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

On your next exhalation in the prep pose, bend your right knee, and let the dowel slide through your upper left hand as you bend at your right hip to move into Extended Side Angle Pose.

Depending on your range of motion and body proportions, you may need to move the dowel forward toward your knee as you bend it: Position the dowel so that it’s against the back of your right shoulder. (You can also move the dowel on a slight diagonal. Explore as needed.) Press your right shoulder against the dowel, and press your right sit bone forward as you lengthen your lower back. Press your left hand forward against the dowel as you press your lower hand back against it. Roll your chest open, starting this action in your mid-thoracic spine. Slowly turn your head until your left ear presses against the dowel; gaze at your left hand. (If you experience any discomfort in your neck, stop turning your head or come out of the pose.) Having the dowel behind your head as you turn your gaze up can prevent your head from moving too far back and help you avoid neck strain. Make sure the dowel is still against the back of your right shoulder and not leaning somewhere out behind you. Maintain a long line from your left foot through the crown of your head. Hold for 6 breaths. Switch sides and repeat the prep and full pose. Do this pose one more time on each side to get used to the mechanics and to experience the effects more deeply.

See also What You Need to Know About Your Thoracic Spine

4. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose)

revolved side angle pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

A dowel allows you to enjoy this pose without having to force a range of motion you may not have in your hips or spine. You can also maintain a more neutral spine to avoid strain. The dowel gives you something to grasp without having to round your back or overleverage the twist. This light, airy version of the more challenging, abdominally compressed pose is a boon to those with spinal issues, hyperkyphosis, or hyperlordosis (exaggerated arching of the lower back), other lower-back and sacral issues, or general stiffness. It’s also wonderful for people with long torsos. However, it is not entirely without effort, as you won’t be able to bear weight on your lower arm. (Rest the dowel on a chair or bed for additional support if you need it.)

Start with your feet about 4 feet apart, right foot forward, left foot turned in 45 degrees. Place the dowel to the outside of your right foot, and hold it with your right hand as you thread it under your right leg so that the bottom of it rests to the outside of your left foot. On an inhalation, bend your right knee while maintaining an upright trunk. (But lean forward as needed if you experience strain in your lower back.) Inhale. On your exhalation, take your entire torso forward about 45 degrees. Allow the dowel to slide down your right outer thigh so that it’s closer to your knee. When you feel stable, reach for the dowel with your left hand, keeping your elbow bent and slightly lifted. This change in hands will encourage you to square your hips and shoulders to the front in preparation for the rotation. Reach forward through your left elbow. Place your right hand on the back of your right hip, and draw your right elbow back to open the right side of your chest. Press your right foot firmly into the floor to offer support to the front of your pelvis and trunk and to avoid collapsing into your right groin, which can exert too much stress on your sacroiliac (SI) joints or the labrum (rim of cartilage) of your hip. Firmly hold the dowel and anchor your outer left heel on the mat (or a blanket if you have trouble keeping your heel down). Gently twist to the right through the entire length of your body. Imagine that you are turning your bladder to the left as you turn your heart to the right. This will take excess leverage out of your lumbar spine and your SI joints. Lengthen through from the crown of your head to your right outer hip and left heel. Hold the pose for 5 breaths, lengthening the exhalation a little each time. Exhale to release. Repeat on the other side. 

See also Ease Low Back Pain: 3 Subtle Ways to Stabilize the Sacrum

5. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

chair pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

By using a dowel, you’ll be able to remain in this pose a little longer with less effort in your legs, tractioning your spine as you pull down on the dowel.

Stand in Mountain Pose with your feet apart, about the width of one of your own feet. Center the dowel between your legs and move it onto an incline so that it reaches 10–16 inches back on the mat. Move your hands up the dowel, with one hand higher than the other, until they are just below its highest point and your arms are straight. (If you have tight shoulders, bend your elbows slightly.) Holding firmly onto the dowel, move your sit bones back and down as if you are about to sit in a chair. Your breastbone may touch the dowel as you traction your spine. Your pubic bone may also touch the dowel, but do not force this by tucking your tailbone or shortening the front body. Pull down on the dowel to create lift in your spine and lightness in your legs. Move forward and back a little until you find the optimal support of the dowel. Do not try to keep your knees over your ankles! Practicing this pose is like skiing down a mountain—your knees need to move forward for your chest to be able to lift. Hold for 5–7 breaths. Switch your hands. Hold for another 5–7 breaths.

See also Find Your Seat of Power: Chair Pose

6. Pasasana (Noose Pose)

noose pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

The dowel allows for more space in your abdomen while you still retain some of the effort and rotation of this pose. Support at your heels is helpful if you have tight calves, weak hip flexors or ankle muscles, or limited range of motion in your ankles.

Place your block on the mat and the dowel behind it, across the width of the mat. Stand in front of the block, facing away from it, with your feet separated by the width of your foot. Bend your knees and flex forward, chest parallel to the floor, and place your hands on the floor. Rest both heels on the block. Lift your torso and sit on your heels. Reach back with both hands and pick up the dowel. Bring the dowel behind your lumbar area just above your pelvis, and hold it with both hands widely spaced. Rotate your trunk to the right. Keep your gaze straight ahead. Crook your left elbow under and around the dowel and rotate your trunk farther to the right to assist with putting your left hand either on your left knee, your right knee, or your outer right calf. Keep your gaze forward and lengthen your spine. Imagine turning your bladder to the left as you turn your heart to the right. On an exhalation, wrap your left back ribs around to the right and press your right hand firmly into the dowel. Hold for 5 breaths. Lift up and bring the dowel back to its starting position; switch sides.

See also Challenge Pose: 4 Steps to Master Pasasana 

7. Navasana with legs on the floor (Boat Pose)

boat pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

Having the dowel behind you and holding onto it firmly will keep your spine tractioned as you work your core. Lean back only a small amount if you lack core strength, have been injured or ill, or have a spinal issue.

Sit on the mat in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Place a block behind you and put the dowel in front of it and behind your back. The block will help to prevent you from falling over backward if you start to lean back too far. (You can also do this near the wall instead.) Reach your hands up on the dowel as high as you can. Keep your hands separate, one slightly higher than the other. The palm of your lower hand can face forward as it holds the dowel. The palm of your upper hand can face back and wrap around the dowel. As you lean back, the movement will cause the dowel to traction your arms overhead, creating spinal length while you work your core and hip flexors. Leave your hands as high as possible, but work within your shoulders’ range of motion—which may mean bending your elbows a little. Focus on maintaining that length as you lean back a little farther. Hold for 3–5 breaths. Switch the grip of your hands, and hold for another 3–5 breaths.

See also Strong to Your Core: Full Boat Pose

8. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

seated forward fold pose with dowel
Zev Starr-Tambor

You’ll get the same traction that you do in a dowel-modified Boat Pose in this pose, which provides spinal length and encourages you to maintain a neutral spine as you come to pelvic flexion. You may also find, if you have the ability to come forward about 30–45 degrees, that released abdominal breathing begins: The support of the dowel frees your abdominal muscles from the work of supporting your spine and allows your abdominals to release forward, which can create a more peaceful, expanded breath.

Sit on a block at a height at which you can lean forward comfortably without rounding your back. Place the dowel between the top of your legs and down into the front edge of the block. (A foam block offers a more receptive surface, but you can use a wood or cork block, folded blankets, or anything similar. You can also sit on the floor, make a fold across your yoga mat, and nestle the dowel in front of your pubic bone.) Reach your hands up as high as you can, placing one hand just above the other. (Bend your elbows if you feel any strain.) Let the base of your breastbone touch the dowel if your body proportions allow it, and lift your breastbone along the dowel. You can rest your forehead on the dowel if this feels comfortable and does not induce lumbar flexion (rounding). Firm your legs. Hold for 5–7 breaths. Switch your hands. Hold for another 5–7 breaths.

See also Seated Forward Bend

About the Author
Alison West, PhD, C-IAYT, is the founder and director of Yoga Union and the Yoga Union Backcare & Scoliosis Center in New York City. For more ways to protect and support your spine, sign up for her online course, Yoga for Back Health: A 6-Week Clinic for Mobility, Strength, and Pain Relief. Sign up today! 

See also 7 Best Yoga Props, According to 7 Top Teachers Around the Country