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Our instinct, when we experience breathtakingly intense lower back pain, is typically either to remain completely still or try to work it out, stretching beyond our comfort level and yanking ourselves into positions that are completely inappropriate at the moment.
These are literally the worst things you can do. When your back is in a tightened and traumatized state, these approaches further aggravate the situation (not to mention your mood) and impede healing.
Instead, you want to seek out passive stretches for lower back pain relief. This works by way of the principle of reciprocal inhibition, which states when you engage one muscle group, you release the opposing muscle group. So by engaging your front body, you passively allow your back body to release, if even a little.
A large part of the problem for those of us who hesitate to move at all is fear. When you’re in pain, it’s understandable to distrust the body and your understanding of exactly how much you can safely move on your own. Passive stretching ensures you don’t overshoot your flexibility and helps reestablish trust between your brain and your body. It also allows you to place more of your focus on calming the nervous system, an overlooked aspect of low back pain that can be more beneficial to a tight back than trying to force an injured muscle into a stretch.
6 stretches for lower back pain
The following passive stretches and stabilization drills include easy forward folds and light twists. As you stretch, you’ll reestablish that understanding and trust in your range of motion and find some relief from pain.
1. Child’s Pose With a Twist
Why this helps with low back pain: Child’s Pose is less about physical release and more about regulating your nervous system, which understandably gets somewhat frazzled when you experience intense pain. The most important thing to keep in mind is to find a version of the pose that feels comfortable. Walking your hands to the side initiates the physical component for your lower back by stretching the quadratus lumborum (QL), a deep muscle that runs along the lumbar spine.
How to: Come into the basic shape of Child’s Pose with your knees apart and your big toes touching or near one another. If this is uncomfortable, try bringing your knees together or tucking your toes. Release your hips toward your heels to the point where you feel a light stretch in your lower back. Focus on taking deep, relaxing belly breaths. Stay here for at least 10 breaths or until you feel like you can regulate your breathing to be slow, steady, and mindful.
From Child’s Pose, walk your hands to one side until you feel a light stretch. Keep reaching your hips toward your heels. Try to release your opposite shoulder, so if you’re walking your hands to the right, relax your left shoulder.
If it’s difficult for you to lower yourself to the floor for Child’s Pose, you can experience the same QL release by standing in a doorway, reaching your arms overhead, and gently leaning to one side. Rest your hands wherever is comfortable on the doorframe. Breathe here for as long as you like. Switch sides.
2. Standing Forward Bend
Why this helps with low-back pain: Similar to Child’s Pose, this stretch is minimally intense and requires very little effort.
How to: Come to standing at the front of the mat with your feet hip-distance apart or wider. Slowly bend forward as you keep a deep bend in your knees. (You’re not worried about a hamstring stretch. Instead, focus on gently stretching your low back.) Release your neck and let your head hang. Breathe slowly and deeply.
3. Standing QL Stretch
Why this helps with low-back pain: A variation on Standing Forward Bend, this is similar to the Half Moon stretch in that it targets the QL.
How to: From Standing Forward Bend, slowly walk your hands toward one side of the mat, bending your knees even more if needed. Try to release your opposite shoulder, so if you’re walking your hands to the right, relax your left shoulder.
4. Bridge Pose
Why this helps with low-back pain: This variation of Bridge Pose isn’t about the backbend. Rather than lifting your chest as high as possible, your goal is simply to engage your glutes.
How to: Come onto your back, bend your knees, place your feet on the floor about hip distance apart, and bring them toward your hips. (They don’t need to be underneath your knees.) Bring your arms alongside your body, bend your elbows, and then really press your triceps down into the ground. This provides support from higher in the back and relieves pressure on your lower back. Push your feet down into the ground and lift your hips. Instead of thinking about backbending, focus on driving your feet down more to engage your glutes. If you want to introduce more hamstring engagement, try to drag your heels toward your butt, which will also engage your glutes more.
If it’s uncomfortable to lift your hips. simply keep your lower back on the mat. This position might bring some measure of relief to your lower back.
5. Tabletop With One Leg Extended
Why this helps with low-back pain: Practicing Tabletop with one leg extended behind you has nothing to do with keeping your heel aligned with your hip or your head and everything to do with keeping your core really stable. Keeping your back leg lifted any amount without backbending is extremely beneficial to your low back.
How to: Come to Tabletop. Draw your navel in and engage your core and pelvic floor as if you were holding in a fart. Extend one leg straight back but keep the ball of your foot on the mat. Engage your core as you slowly lift the leg, using just your glutes or hamstrings and without coming into a backbend. Breathe here. Repeat on the other side.
6. Dead Bug
Why this helps with low-back pain: This is a standard physical therapy stretch for low back pain. Try it after your most intense pain has subsided—when it no longer hurts to breathe and you feel like you can safely move a little.
How to: Lie on your back and slowly bring your knees over your hips. Rest your arms along your sides with your palms facing up or reach them straight toward the ceiling. Lightly draw your navel toward your spine to engage your transverse abdominus. You also want to engage your pelvic floor. I explain to students that it’s like you’re trying to hold in a fart. If it’s okay for you, lower one foot to the mat and then bring it back to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
About our contributor
Hiro Landazuri is the founder of Body Smart Yoga. He empowers others with the necessary tools to grow into their ideal selves. He regularly teaches in-person and online workshops and shares teaching videos on Instagram.