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Feeling tight in your upper or mid-back? Yoga poses for back pain, combined with focused breathing techniques, can open up those sticky spots in your body, while expanding your chest and sides to help you breathe easier and more fully. This sequence by yoga teacher Dana Slamp shows you the way.
Most people conceptualize their lungs as only living in the front of the chest—thanks in part to the two-dimensional anatomy charts we glanced at briefly back in high school biology. But your lungs are three dimensional and quite movable, and, as it turns out, the most oxygen-receptive part of your lungs is located in your back. Our lungs expand into our sides, distend our bellies with the downward contraction of the diaphragm, lift our collarbones, and yes, expand our backs when we take a full inhalation. Practicing this “global breathing” can support lung and heart health, allowing for greater oxygen saturation in the blood.
see also Poses for Your Back
The bronchial passages are like an inverse tree that expand down into the lower lungs, and the lungs are tilted slightly to make room for your heart. Thanks to this tilt, there is simply more “lung space” near the lower part of the thoracic spine, filled with the microscopic alveoli responsible for gas exchange. In fact, lying on your belly has been shown in a hospital pilot study to increase the oxygen saturation by ten percent!
A Sequence and Breathwork for Back Pain
In this sequence, take full advantage of your lungs with stretchy asana designed to open your intercostal muscles and oxygen-receptive lower back lungs. Then, enjoy a sweet and accessible breathing practice to boost your immunity and create coherence in your mind and body.
Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull-Shining Breath)
Find a comfortable seat on a pillow or a yoga block. Tuning into the flow of your breath, take a few shoulder rolls and gentle twists. As you do this, allow your mind to arrive on the mat. To begin Skull-Shining Breath, sit with a nice long spine, extend your arms in a “V” with your thumbs out as if hitching a ride. (If you are pregnant or on a heavy day of your menstrual cycle, practice slow deep breaths here.) Exhale out of your nose, making a sniffing sound, while quickly snapping your low belly in. Let the inhale be easy and focus on the exhale as you pump your low belly in each time. Pick up the pace–completing 40 to 108 skull-shining breaths.
Rest briefly in Balasana (Child’s Pose). Remain in Child’s Pose and begin Victorious Breath (ujjayi breath, where you breath in through your nose and slightly constrict your throat as you breath out through your nose. The exhale feels like you are trying to gently fog up a mirror.)
Standing Side Bend
From Child’s Pose, take a few Cat/Cow flows, synching your movement to your breath. Play with staying in the Cat pose for a few breaths–directing the breath into your back. Counter with a Puppy Pose for 5 breaths, then make your way to Down Dog for 5 breaths. Feel free to take one vinyasa flow to warm up–or three Sun Salutations A’s if you need more heat.
Come to the top of your mat and clasp your hands over your head, pointing your index fingers. On an inhale flare open your side ribs and stand as tall as possible. Begin to trace a line across the sky and directly over to the right to come into Standing Side Bend (also knowns as Standing Half Moon Pose) with your arms remaining overhead. Breathe, especially into your left side, looking up optimistically. After at least five breaths, use your inhale to come upright–becoming taller still. Repeat on the other side. Counter with a gentle rag doll forward fold, bending your knees deeply until your spine hangs over the legs.
Anjaneyasana (Low Crescent Lunge, Variation)
Step your left foot back and tap your back knee down for crescent lunge pose. Inhale and raise your arms high to the sky, expanding your inhale into the front, side, and back of your rib cage. Interlace your hands behind your head, gently releasing the weight of your head into your hands. Continue to extend your spine in this long arc. Crescent lunges can help lengthen and relax the psoas muscles, which are connected to the diaphragm via a tendinous arch. Explore this shape with 5-8 breaths–allowing your belly to move with the slow, deep breaths.
see also Crescent Lunge
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend, Variation)
Release your hands down to the mat, lifting your back knee and turning to stand in a wide straddle with your toes facing the long edge of your mat. Take a few breaths, and then reach both hands towards your front ankle, shin, or onto blocks if your ankle feels too far away. Bend your back knee while keeping your hold on your ankle–looking for a sense of length in the right side of your back. This variation targets the quadratus lumborum–a fan-like muscle that is also connected to the diaphragm. For 5-8 breaths, explore “puffing out” the back with your breath to relax and release any tension.
Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Monkey Pose)
Slowly spin to the front of the mat in a runner’s lunge, placing your back knee down again. Lengthen your front leg for the Half Monkey Pose. Sigh out, and allow your upper body to fold over your front leg. It’s okay to round your back (flex your spine) here–but allow gravity to guide you and release any holding or pulling in the pose. Your head may want to relax as well as you breathe into your back, searching for the movement of the floating ribs at the bottom of your back rib cage. Explore the back-breath in this shape for 5-8 breaths.
On an inhale, lift your head and lengthen your spine. Step back to Down Dog and use a gentle vinyasa to link to the other side. After the second side, rest briefly in Child’s Pose.
see also Spinal Flexion vs. Spinal Extension
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Unfold into Down Dog and take an easy walk to Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) at the front of your mat. Bend your knees deeply and roll up to stand, planting your feet firmly in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Find your gaze point at the horizon, then hug one knee into your chest. Engage your low abdominal muscles as you walk your hands down your shin to loop your hands under your flexed foot like a stirrup. This will cause your back to round, so keep your low abs engaged and your gaze foreword for balance.
Optionally, you may work on lengthening your lifted leg by kicking your foot into your hand (or a strap) until your leg is extended straight out in front of you. Keep your standing leg firm the whole time. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
As you are in the pose, check your breath: Are you still breathing slowly through your nose? If so, consider shifting your gaze to the earth below you, tucking your chin and bringing your forehead to your knee. Come out of the pose the same way you came in and regulate your breath in Mountain Pose. Repeat on the other side.
After practicing both sides, be sure to take a vinyasa of your choosing to move and “neutralize” your low back. Take five breaths in Down Dog, lengthening your spine.
To create variety in this pose and/or more easily catch hold of your lifted foot, hook this yoga strap around your aerial foot.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Find a kneeling position, then lift your hands and upper body in preparation for Camel Pose. Place your hands with the fingers pointing down on your sacrum. Inhale and lift your chest. Gently open up your chest and hip flexors–the front of the body–with 3-5 breaths. Afterwards, enjoy a few Cat/Cow flows, then rest in Child’s Pose.
see also Camel Pose
Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
Child’s Pose is an ideal place to explore back-breathing. For those wishing for a little more of a stretch, try Rabbit Pose. Reach back to hold onto your heels. Tuck your chin until your forehead faces your knees (you should be able to see your knees). Begin to lift your hips as you hold firm to the heels and breathe into your back. Stay for at least 5 breaths, or release back into Child’s Pose at any time.
Try this yoga blanket to support your knees and shins in this pose.
Supported Spinal Twist
Glide forward until you are on your belly and bring your forearms to the earth in Sphinx Pose for a few easy breaths. Then find a bolster or two pillows and place them in front of you along the length of your mat. Turn both knees to the left so that the right side of your thigh and belly are closest to the pillows. Place a folded-up blanket between your knees until your thighs can rest in a parallel position. Turning towards the pillows, inhale and lengthen your spine as you lie, belly side down, on the pillows. Enjoy this deep rest, feeling the props gently massaging your right low belly as you breathe. Allow your breath to come into its natural cadence–perhaps feeling the movement of the back with the breath as well. This pose can be enjoyed for 3-8 minutes. Be sure to leave time to practice on the other side.
Try this yoga bolster to get super comfortable in this pose and in other restorative poses.
Research shows that the positive effects of this breathing technique can begin after about 5 minutes of practice. Heart-Centered Breath stabilizes your heart rate variability–which in turn helps the systems of the body work in coherence. Focusing on positive feelings can improve your mood and further support you and your health.
Before or after your Savasana, come to sit comfortably. Allow your spine to become long and your shoulders relaxed. Soften and lower your eyes, or close them if you prefer.
● Bring your awareness to the center of your chest.
● Begin to breathe slowly and deeply, visualizing that you are breathing into the center of your chest.
● Keep all your attention here, breathing slowly in and out through your heart space.
● Visualize oxygen and relaxation permeating your chest…flowing through and across your lungs and chest.
● Begin to expand your exhale to a count of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
● …And your inhale to a count of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
● Continue to breathe in and out for a count of 5, feeling this ease and relaxation washing around your heart and lungs…throughout your body.
● Now think of something or someone that gives you a feeling of appreciation and care. It could be a person, a pet, or your favorite vacation place. Feel that gratitude again by breathing in your appreciation for this soul or place.
● Visualize breathing in that positive feeling through your heart space, really savoring that feeling of gratitude.
● On the exhale, breathe out that feeling of appreciation as if sharing it with your person, place, or other being.
● Continue to breathe in and out for a count of 5 each time, savoring this heart-centered feeling of care.
● Please continue for at least 5 minutes on your own, bringing your body and mind into coherence and stability.
About our contributor
Dana Slamp is a writer, a certified yoga therapist, and the Founder of Prema Yoga Institute, New York’s IAYT-accredited yoga therapy school. Her background in the arts and spirituality informs all that she creates. Dana has presented at Yoga Journal Conference, Telluride Yoga Festival, and teaches retreats and workshops internationally. She’s delighted to offer the IAY Yoga Therapy Program, an online RYT500 course and more alongside PYI’s diverse faculty at www.premayogainstitute.com. A self-confessed “Dog Mom,” Dana currently lives near Central Park with her dog Cooper. For online classes with Dana, check out Equinox+ and YogaAnytime.