Yoga for Back Pain

This is a beginner-friendly sequence of 10 easy yoga poses for relieving and preventing back pain. This practice is gentle and restorative, intended to stretch and relive stress in the spine and back muscles.

The 10 poses are described in more details below:

  1. Makrasana / Crocodile Pose – Begin the practice by laying prone on your belly. You can rest your forehead on your hands, or if it is more comfortable, turn your head gently to one side and lay your head directly on your mat with hands folded above you. Take deep belly breaths and feel how your breath causes your lower back to rise and fall, relieving tension and giving a slight massage. Take 12 breaths (at least a minute).
  2. Balasana / Child’s Pose – Press up and back into Child’s Pose. You can choose one of two variations, whichever is more comfortable for you. The first variation is to keep your knees together so that your chest can rest on your thighs, with arms relaxing alongside the body. The second variation it to bring your knees apart as wide as the mat, keeping toes touching, and stretching your arms forward.
  3. Marjaryasana-Bitilasana / Cat-Cow – Come into a table-top position: shoulders over wrists, hips over knees. On an inhale, open the chest and look up. Exhale, round the shoulders and look towards your belly. Yes, you are encouraged to navel gaze here! Repeat with the breath at least 5 times.
  4. Anjaneyasana / Low Lunge – From a table-top position, step forward with your right leg into a low lunge. Place hands on your right thigh for support, squeeze your glutes and feel the stretch in your left hip flexors. On an inhale, raise your arms up, circle the right wrist with your left hand. On an exhale, bend to your left. Come back to center on the next inhale, circle left wrist with right hand, and on the next exhale, bend to your right. On an inhale, come back to center and reach both arms straight overhead. On an exhale, cactus or goal post your arms, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Repeat the lengthening and “cactusing” movement 3 times along with your breath. Switch legs and repeat this sequence on the other side.
  5. Salamba Bhujangusana / Sphinx Pose – Lay prone on your belly. Prop your upper body up with your elbows directly under your shoulders and forearms parallel to each other in front of you, belly stays on the mat. Push shoulders away from ears and find length in your neck and spine. Gaze at a point toward on the floor several feet in front of you. Take a block and pick the height that is comfortable for you to prop your forehead upon for a supported version of Sphinx Pose. Sink into this pose for 1-2 minutes. If and when it gets too uncomfortable, pull back into Child Pose (whichever variation works for you) as a counter pose to Sphinx Pose and rest there for a moment.
  6. Uttanasana / Forward Fold – Find a wall. Stand with back to wall about half a foot away. Lean back to press hips against the wall. Fold forward, bending knees as much as necessary for torso to rest on thighs. Let head hang down. Hug opposite hand to opposite elbow, or let hands rest on the floor. Sway side to side.
  7. Tadasana / Mountain Pose – From Forward Fold, roll up, vertebrae by vertebrae to standing so that head comes up last. Spread toes. Plant feet. Distribute weight evenly across feet. Stack knees over feet, hips over knees, shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders. Imagine you are a marionette and a puppeteer is pulling a string connected to the crown of your head straight up. Slide shoulder blades down your back and extend your arms down through your pinkie fingers.
  8. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana / Bridge Pose – Lay back down on your mat. Bring your heels as close as you can toward your butt. Engage your glutes and lift your butt off the floor. Slide a block under your sacrum at the height that feels good to you. Rest into the supported Bridge for at least 5 breaths. You can put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to make sure you are taking those deep belly breaths.
  9. Reclined Twist – Removing the block and coming back down to the ground after Bridge Pose, keep your knees bent and gently sway them to the left and then to the right, “windshield wiping” your legs. Extend arms out into a T-shape for stability. You should feel a massage in your lower back. When ready, cross right ankle over left knee and twist to the right. Rest here for a few breaths. You can cactus your arms and look toward your left. When ready, switch sides.
  10. Savasana / Corpse Pose – If you have two blocks and a bolster, you can set yourself up in one of two supported savasana variations. The first is a heart-opening Savasana, with one yoga block set on its middle height to support the head and one yoga black set on its lowest height to support the back with a bolster set at an angle on the blocks for comfort. The second variation is to create a “Stonehenge” like structure with two blocks and a bolster to elevate your lower legs in Savasana. Reference the illustration above. Ideally, you should take 5-10 minutes in Savasana at the end of this practice. When you are done, roll to one side off your props into a fetal position and gently push yourself back up to a seat. Give yourself a hug for doing yoga!

You can download a FREE printable PDF of the illustrated sequence below:

Please let me know if this helps you!

Yoga stick figure notation in the style of Eva Lotta Lamm’s Yoga Notes.

How to be Bendy, Keep it Yoga, and Avoid Yoga Injury

I was lying in a savasana at the end of a self-created yoga flow, when I had this idea float through my mind that the reason that yoga asana practice can be particularly dangerous is that yoga is marketed as healthful. As with many other beginner yoga practitioners, I am very attracted to and actively practicing towards more advanced poses such as crow, wheel and handstand.

There is so much to be gained from working toward these challenging and beautiful poses: strength, flexibility, mental fortitude and concentration. However, no other practice with such an emphasis on extreme flexibility describes such physical achievements as healthful. We all know that ballet dancers and gymnasts are prone to injury and tend to have short careers, so we should be very careful when pursuing yoga poses that push our bodies toward acrobatics. In recent years, many prominent yogis famous for Instaworthy extreme yoga poses have disclosed serious yoga injuries associated with hyper-mobility. Jill Miller details her total hip replacement here and Laura Burkhart describes her own injuries and lists many other prominent yoga influencers with injuries in this article (which includes wonderful tips on how to avoid yoga injury). I think that if we do not pursue such so-called “advanced” yoga poses with the right intentions, they cease to be yoga at all. As Glenn Black is quoted as saying in this NY Times feature titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (please ignore the terrible photo shoot that accompanies this piece): “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.”

A common definition of “yoga” is “union”; yoga is a practice of connecting mind, body and spirit. In the West, yoga has gained popularity as a fitness tool, a way to workout, lose weight and look good. We need to be aware that contemporary wellness culture has conflated a person’s outward appearance with their physical, spiritual, and mental well-being, exploiting our anxieties about physical appearance to market us goods and services. (See The False Promises of Wellness Culture” for a recent history of wellness culture.) There is currently a movement among social-justice conscious yoga teachers to bring yoga back to its roots of mindfulness, meditation, and inclusivity (yoga is for everyone!) and remind us that yoga is not just about bendy poses. (The Yoga is Dead podcast lists some great resources here.) However, asana (physical practice) remains the easiest entry point to yoga for most people because physical practice is the easiest way for most people to get into a meditative state — ask any runner, long-distance hiker or rock climber.

It is absolutely beneficial to your health to improve mobility and core strength, and learning how your body moves and how you can control it brings so much confidence and joy. What we should and do learn from yoga asana practice is to listen to our bodies, trust our bodies and love our bodies. If you use a yoga asana practice to check in with your body head to toe every day (it can be as simple as a 5 minute savasana!), you become familiar with your body and notice when things feel out of sorts or simply wrong. In my yoga teacher training, our instructor emphasized that any yoga pose will look different in each body, and how to tell whether you are in a pose or not should be based on what you feel (e.g. a stretch in your hamstring) and not what you look like (e.g. whether you are touching your toes). If you come from an athletic background, you are probably already familiar with what “good” pain feels like (e.g. tightness that can be softened by a warm-up, soreness from hard work) and how that is different from “bad” pain indicating over-use or injury. If you are coming to yoga from a mostly sedentary lifestyle, then it may take a while to develop this self-knowledge. This self-awareness is especially important right now when a lot of us are doing yoga at home by ourselves without an experienced instructor or even someone else to spot us.

I have a friend who quit yoga because too much Downward Dog caused/exacerbated carpal tunnel. The truth is many yoga poses are hard! Even ones as basic as Downward Dog. The strength needed to do them correctly cannot be developed by going to a conventional vinyasa flow class at your local studio once a week, or even 3 or 5 times a week. As with any other physically challenging sport, you must train strategically. Personally, I have found Karin Dimitrovova’s Core Play extremely helpful to my practice (not affiliated, I don’t get any benefit from linking her here). I was able to build up the wrist, shoulder and core strength necessary for Downward Dog to become a restful position. Google around and you can find a lot of great advice and drills for yoga strength and mobility training on the Internet. For example, this article has great advice and exercises to help with properly grounding down through the hands to avoid carpal tunnel. Of course, evaluate everything with your own judgment!

Yoga Sutra 2.46 states “sthira sukham asanam” — asana should be steady and comfortable. The original purpose of asana was to prepare the body for meditation. Listen to your body, take care of it and learn to trust it. With love, discipline and patience, you will be able to reach your asana goals. Remember, the benefits of yoga come from how you feel, not how you look.

Yoga and Liberation: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 4:34

“Freedom is a reversal of the evolutionary course of material things, which are empty of meaning for the spirit; it is also the power of consciousness in a state of true identity.”

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 4:34

I just finished reading Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of the Yoga Sutras, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. She translates the Sanskrit word yoga as “discipline,” the discipline for achieving spiritual freedom. Miller defines freedom (kaivalya in Sanskrit) as “the isolation and liberation of the human spirit from material nature.”

The last sutra 4:34 concludes: “Freedom is a reversal of the evolutionary course of material things, which are empty of meaning for the spirit; it is also the power of consciousness in a state of true identity.” Miller’s commentary explains that Pantanjali means that when the spirit achieves its true identity, it is liberated to be an omniscient observer to the world rather than a suffering participant subject to temporal constraints and ceaseless change.

But what does that really mean? And do I want that?

Then I listened to this lovely Real Talk Radio Podcast episode Hiking, Grief, & Liberation with Amanda Jameson, where Jameson describes an experience that, to me, fleshed out the type of spiritual liberation the Yoga Sutras are dedicated to achieving. At least, this is what I hope they are talking about, as it’s something I can get behind.

In relevant part (from 0:29:40), Jameson:

I just remember standing at the top of that valley and feeling more peace than I think that I had felt in just a really long time. And have you ever felt the rightness of a moment? …. To me, it doesn’t feel faded, it doesn’t feel like I was meant to be here, but it feels so much like you’ve lifted the veil a little bit almost, and you’re seeing what could be and just both within yourself and in the wider world. And it’s just this feeling of smallness combined with this feeling of love for the land and for yourself, and just this feeling of compassion, I guess is the word, for this life journey that we’re all on. And the most heartbreaking, but I also think that one of the most beautiful things about moments like that is that we do have to move on eventually… just knowing that that moment will end is part of that moment’s beauty. And I don’t know that anything has taught me that particular lesson as much as through hiking.

Her evocative description of her feeling of peace in that moment calls to mind the omniscient perspective and non-attachment of the yogic ideal of freedom. The ladies go on to have a beautiful conversation about how to bring that feeling of peace from thru-hiking (“when you hike hard enough for long enough that the bullshit in your brain stops”) back to more aspects of front-country life and what liberation means or feels like in the context of finding a way to live that is less harmful, to ourselves, to others and the planet.

While most of us will never achieve something as radical as letting go of all desires, attachments and completely erasing our own egos, there is wisdom in the idea of liberation through changing one’s perception. Even if in historic context the liberation sought by yogis was liberation from the karmic cycle and yoga is not mentioned in the podcast, this conversation was enlightening to me about how spiritual liberation can be relevant to my life and align with values of activism and social change. Give it a listen!

How to Begin Any Yoga Practice (or Any Day): Spine Stretch in 6 Directions

Warming up the spine is crucial to safe yoga practice. Every yoga practice should begin by stretching the spine in six directions. You may not have realized, but if you recall any yoga class you have attended or Youtube video you have followed, the teacher probably began by leading you through some spinal stretches such as the popular cat-cow sequence. Even if you do not practice yoga, stretching the spine is important to spinal health in general, so stretching the spine in 6 directions every day, particularly at the start of the day, is a good idea.

The Six Directions

Your spine can move in six directions:

1) Spinal Extension – Lengthening the spine and opening the chest. These movements are often described as “backbends”, but I think it is more beneficial and safer to think of them as “heart openers”.

2) Spinal Flexion – Stretching the back by bending forward.

3 & 4) Lateral Flexion – Bending to the right and left, lengthening the sides of your body.

5 & 6) Rotation – Twisting to the right and left.

By stretching the spine in six directions, we maintain spinal mobility and release tension in the spine, create room for the lungs and massage the organs in our abdominal cavity.

How to Spine Stretch in Six Directions

Below is a graphic of how I like to do spine stretch in 6 directions, either from a seated or standing position. I like to keep it simple, no yoga pose knowledge or experience is needed.

In stretching the spine, focus on finding length rather than the trying to achieve a deep bend. This will help you gain mobility without putting undue pressure on your lower back. Move to where you are comfortable. Feel free to wiggle a bit to loosen up, but do not forcefully bounce or jerk yourself into a position that is not comfortable. Remember to breathe. Generally, inhale to lengthen and exhale to bend. This is meant to be the beginning of a yoga practice or something you do first thing in the morning when you roll out of bed, so be gentle!

Note: Yoga stick figures are in the style/notation of Eva-Lotta Lamm’s Yoga Notes. I am working my way through her wonderful workbook.

Yoga Philosophy: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.33 The “Four Locks and Four Keys” Sutra and Social Change

“To attain calmness of the mind, cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked.”

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.33

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. It is a collection of 195 verses or sutras (literally “threads”) that are the first known systematic and organized documentation of the much older philosophical tradition of yoga. It is one of the required readings for my yoga teacher training and I am currently working my way through two translations of the sutras. (More info about the books at the end of this post.)

I have struggled a lot with Eastern philosophy in the past, especially Buddhism’s focus on suffering, having only a high school world history secondary source based understanding of these schools of thought. The aim of Yoga is to control one’s own mind and liberate one’s own consciousness. How do we reconcile that with a desire to help others and effect change to better the world? Barbara Stoler Miller explains that Yoga Sutra 1.33 is about changing our “perceived relationships with other creatures on earth.”

Yoga Sutra 1.33 states: “To attain calmness of the mind, cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked.” (Note: This is my personal “clean-up” of the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation to make it a bit more natural in English.) It is known as the “Four Locks and Four Keys” sutra and is a lot of people’s favorite sutra.

Sutra 1.33 seems especially resonant in the COVID times. The pandemic has made class and income inequality starkly apparent. #stayhome is insensitive and out-of-touch for people who cannot simply work from home. We have record unemployment; at the same time, the stock market is booming. But what if instead of feeling jealous or assuming bad things about the people who still seem to be doing well, we befriended them and learned what they are doing to stay happy? And what if instead of feeling smug and criticizing the life choices of those less fortunate, we treated them with compassion and empathy? Wouldn’t our communities feel closer and less divided during these trying times?

Personally, the second half of Sutra 1.33 has been useful in restoring my mental health after the ravages of 2020 as we entered 2021. I expended so much emotional energy over the summer of 2020 trying to police mask-wearing in the retail store I worked in, to the point that I had a nervous breakdown and quit my job. I realize now that it is useless to confront an anti-masker, but at the time I tried being friendly, being harsh, putting up legal ordinances and scientific information and funny memes all over the doors and on the plexiglass at the register… to no avail.

Instead, Yoga Sutra 1.33 advises us to “disregard the wicked.” Sri Sachidananda’s commentary warns us not to try to advise or engage with wicked people because they seldom take advice and you will lose your own peace for naught. I experienced this firsthand.

Does cultivating “disregard for the wicked” mean that we turn a blind eye and do not stand up to the injustices we see in the world? I don’t think so. I think the wisdom of this sutra is that it prompts us to focus on the changes we can make to ourselves, and avoid focusing on others’ behavior.

How does this apply to thinking about how to be a good neighbor during the COVID-19 pandemic, how to be actively anti-racist, how to be an engaged citizen in our delicate democracy, how to address the climate crisis? In the context of thinking about how to effect change in the world, I think this means that we should focus on the actions we can take ourselves, and avoid focusing on changing the minds of people who disagree.

For example, in trying to get local government to seriously address the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no use for me to get in a shouting match with someone who refuses to wear a mask, but I can write to my city council in support of keeping a mask ordinance in place and I can call my state senators and representatives to ask them to oppose efforts to lift the Idaho Governor’s emergency declaration (which would hinder the state’s ability to receive COVID related aid from the federal government).

So next time you catch yourself picking a fight with someone on Facebook or Googling “Why is Mitch McConnell so evil?”, take a step back and redirect that energy from anger/despair over “how could someone think that way?” to thinking about what action you could do to address the underlying problem (e.g. vote, attend your city council meetings, get to know your local law enforcement, support local newspapers and reporters, write to your representatives and congressmen, volunteer). In that way maybe you can maintain a bit more mental calm and emotional energy to continue to fight the good fight.

I’m going to try to implement this as a mindfulness practice when I get riled up by political issues. If you try it too, please let me know how it goes. I would love to hear about your small (or large) wins in the comments below.


Note: I am a yoga philosophy beginner, not an expert by any stretch of the imagination! My understanding of the sutras is based on reading the following two translations :

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Amazon affiliate link)– Sri Swami Satchidananda’s version was recommended by my yoga teacher training, and his commentary is a very influential reading of the sutras in the contemporary yoga community in the West. However, I find a lot of the commentary insufferably elitist and there is a lot of analogizing to Christianity (which I understand is reassuring to a lot of yoga beginners in the West) without any context about how the sutras were historically interpreted in the Indian philosophical tradition.
  • Yoga: Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali (Amazon affiliate link) – I found Barbara Stoler Miller’s version when I was looking for more academic and historical context for the sutras, rather than the musings of any one particular yogi or guru. I would recommend this version for anyone looking for a first time introduction to the sutras because it focuses solely on the sutras themselves, organizing them in a way that is concise and readable and contextualized in Indian philosophical tradition.

Yoga Philosophy: Saucha, the first Niyama

saucha

My small yoga win for the day is practicing saucha by taking my first shower in 3 days.

Saucha, often translated as “purity” or “cleanliness” is the first of the five niyamas of yoga philosophy. It refers to purity of mind, speech and body. The niyamas are one limb of the 8 limb path of yoga (Ashtanga Yoga), described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (Asana, or physical practice, is another limb.) In my yoga teacher training, we were taught to think of them as guidelines for how to interact with ourselves. The five niyamas are saucha (“purity” or “cleanliness”), santosha (“contentment”), tapas (“austerity” or “discipline”), svadhyaya (“study” of the self and study of texts), and ishvara pranidhana (“surrender” to a higher power or greater consciousness). They are beautiful values for bringing yoga off the mat and into our daily lives.

I came home from snowboarding and contemplated not showering before doing some yoga, because what if I get sweaty again? Then I thought to myself, honestly, I’m just going to do some stretching and nothing too intense. Post shower, I feel refreshed both physically and mentally. If the point of yoga is connection of mind, body and spirit, I am much more ready for my asana practice now.

This is a reminder that yoga doesn’t have to be hard and it’s not only a physical practice. I am grateful for the opportunity to slow down and reflect on this niyama.

Other simple ways to practice saucha are tidying up your house or even just your workspace, taking out the recycling, eating healthy. Small things that maybe you aren’t super motivated to do, but make you feel good after.

What is your small yoga win for the day?