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A little more than 16 years ago, I was nearly halfway through a crosswalk in downtown Los Angeles when I saw a car racing straight at me. Something inside of me instantly calculated that my strongest chance at survival was to jump straight into the air. I sprung up as fast as I could, and as my body started to descend, I collided with the car’s windshield. I later learned that bystanders blocks away heard the collision.
I somehow walked away from the accident without life-threatening injuries, although I suffered cuts and bruises and developed a bad limp. Prior to the incident, I was a runner. Now, simply walking became an issue. My knee would unexpectedly buckle from beneath me and I experienced chronic lower back and neck pain. I resigned myself to the disheartening fact that I might never run again.
I went through rounds of appointments with doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists, although it wasn’t until I began to practice Yin Yoga that I was able to recover completely from the accident. In the years since then, after I began to teach Yin Yoga, I’ve witnessed how the practice can benefit others with acute and chronic pain.
Why so many suffer from lower back pain
Not everyone’s experience with lower back issues is as dramatic as mine. But the pain we suffer is similar. The most common type of pain reported to health care practitioners is low back stiffness, soreness, and pain. Experts estimate more than 80 percent of the population will experience lower back pain at some time during their life, and sadly, some will eventually experience this as a chronic condition.
One of the biggest contributing factors to lower back pain is a lack of movement, especially sitting for extended periods of time. And in our society, we do a lot of sitting—working, eating, driving, binge-watching TV, to name a few. The excessive time we spend in a position that compresses our lower spine can potentially lead to the atrophy of important connective tissues, as well as pinched nerves and slipped disks.
Pain is the body’s warning sign that something is wrong and attention is needed. Although pain medicine is sometimes required, we want to be careful about completely blocking our body’s messaging system, especially for long durations of time. When we honor the wisdom of the body, we remain aware of any issues and can strive to address the root cause rather than just the symptom.
How Yin Yoga helps lower back pain
When you practice Yin Yoga, you find a stretch in which you meet your edge of resistance, you remain still, and you linger for time, typically no more than five minutes. This creates a pressurized effect on the deep fascia, or connective tissue, in your lower back and surrounding areas. The physiological response is to increase the production of hyaluronic acid throughout the fascia, which in turn enhances hydration of those tissues and increases their health and resilience. The regular practice of Yin often results in increased flexibility and mobility.
Yin Yoga is not the solution to all forms of lower back pain. It can, however, help prevent it and, in certain cases, minimize discomfort or help restore the body to health. (When experiencing pain, it is always advised to consult with your health care provider to determine the best course of action, especially when dealing with skeletal causes of pain.)
A Yin Yoga practice for lower back pain
Meet each pose with gentleness, relax into stillness, and trust the innate wisdom of the body to improve your overall health and well-being. If something doesn’t feel right, please allow yourself permission to skip or modify the pose.
Dangling Standing Forward Bend
Begin in a standing position with your feet about hip-width apart. Allow your torso to fold forward toward your legs. Grab your elbows with your opposite hands. Allow your head, neck, and entire upper body to relax. Stay here for 2–3 minutes.
Standing Twisting Arch
From Dangling, bring your hands to your waist and, leading with the chest, inhale and slowly rise all the way up to standing. Bring your arms overhead and interlace your fingers with your palms facing upward. As you’re ready, gently rotate your torso to the right, lean back a little, and tilt your head slightly back to look upward. You want to twist and arch at the same time and look for a stretch in the lower back. Stay here for 1—1.5 minutes. Repeat on each side.
From Standing Twisting Arch, as you’re ready, make your way to a kneeling position. Bring your big toes together and separate your knees wider than your torso. Fold forward from the crease of the hips and place your forehead on the mat. Place the arms by your sides or bring them forward while bending the elbows and relaxing the shoulders. Drop your hips back toward your heels. Close your eyes and relax your head and neck. If you experience tightness in your hips, you can place a folded blanket, pillow, or block under your forehead or place a rolled blanket, pillow, or bolster on the backs of your legs beneath your hips. As you relax into the posture, try and breathe all the way into your lower back. With each inhalation, feel your belly and lower back expanding, and each exhale feel these areas deflating like a balloon. Stay here for 3–5 minutes.
From Child’s Pose, come to all fours and bring your wrists under your shoulders, your knees under your hips, and the tops of your feel flat on the mat. Inhale as you drop your belly toward the floor and spread your collar bones (Cow).
Exhale as you press into your hands, round your back, and lift the back of your heart toward the sky (Cat). Repeat slowly as you allow your breath to lead the movement for 1 to 2 minutes.
From Cat and Cow, come to a seated position and extend one leg straight forward. Bend the opposite knee, and position the sole of that foot against the inner upper thigh of your straight leg. Inhale and reach your arms overhead, exhale and fold forward from the crease of the hips while lengthening your sternum forward. Grasp the foot or shin of the straight leg and relax in the forward bend. Feel free to modify by using a strap or towel to reach around the sole of the foot. Stay here for 3–5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
Half Butterfly Side Stretch
From Half Butterfly, turn your chest to face the same direction as the bent knee and turn to roll that side body and ribs open toward the ceiling. Slide your bottom arm inside your straight leg or rest it on a prop. Reach your other arm upward or overhead. Remain here for 2 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
From Half Butterly, make your way onto your belly. Slide your forearms forward, aligning your elbows directly under the shoulders or just a little forward, palms down, middle fingers pointing straight ahead, and all four corners of the hand pressing evenly into the mat. Draw the heart forward and relax your shoulders away from your ears. Allow your chin to tilt slightly downward. Feel free to close your eyes as you focus on the natural flow of breath. Stay here for 3–5 minutes.
In your own timing, make your way from Sphinx Pose onto your back. With the soles of the feet on the mat, lift your hips, and place a block, folded blanket, bolster, or pillows under the sacrum until you find proper support and stability. Release your weight onto the support and rest the arms by yours sides with your palms facing up. Feel feel to close your eyes and focus on the breath moving in and out of your belly. Stay here for 5 minutes.
From Supported Bridge, move the prop off to the side and release your lower back onto the floor. Draw both knees into your belly. Keeping your right knee in, extend your left leg straight along the floor. Reach your right arm to the right. Place your left hand on your outer right knee and guide it all the way over to the left. Relax your shoulders. Stay here for 2–4 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
The final pose of the sequence. From Reclining Twist, straighten your legs and arms away from the centerline of your body. Soften the entire body, close your eyes, and allow the effects of the practice to penetrate into the body like a slow rain seeping deep into the earth. If you feel any tension in the lower back, slide a bolster or pillow under your knees. Relax deeply for 5 minutes or longer.
After Corpse Pose, slowly begin to transition out of your Yin Yoga practice. Bring the effects of the practice into the rest of your day.
About our contributor
Travis Eliot is a renowned yoga and meditation teacher and author of A Journey Into Yin Yoga. He teaches his signature classes, workshops, festivals, and sold-out retreats around the world. He is the co-founder of Inner Dimension TV and the creator of many online yoga programs.