Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Back 2 Basics: 4 simple stretches to ease back tension

It seems that almost everyone I meet (well, everyone over the age of 25, anyway!) has suffered from some sort of backache.  Our backs are literally the centre of our lives, through which the spinal column runs.  Whether you are aware of it or not, your back muscles are almost always working in some way or another, whether you are sitting, standing, running, walking, and even sometimes when you are sleeping!

A regular yoga practice is a great way to strengthen the muscles in your back in a balanced way.  But for immediate relief of some backaches, here are 4 simple stretches for when the tension builds up.

These are restorative stretches, and will have the best effect if you hold them each for about 3-5 minutes, so make sure you are comfortable in each stretch!

[NB, readers: Because of their hard working nature, backs are prone to pain and also to injury.  And while I am a certified yoga teacher, I am by no means a back specialist.  If you have persistent pain in your back (i.e. the same pain that has lasted for 2 weeks or more), please consult a specialist!  Also, if any of these or any other yoga postures seem to make your pain worse, stop straight away and consult someone before you continue your yoga practice.]

You will need: a rolled up yoga mat or rolled up blanket, and some small pillows.  I also recommend putting on some blissful music and using an eye pillow for a truly relaxing experience! Use a kitchen timer, mobile phone or a nice chiming app (I like Zen Timer, which has a variety of Tibetan bowl chimes to choose from!) to time your postures for a beautiful back restoring sequence.

If you're feeling stiff, you can warm up your back with Cat & Cow, a few gentle sun salutations, or any other stretches that feel appropriate.  You can also use the following sequence to finish off your regular yoga practice.

1. Heart opening stretch

Open the heart and the sides of your back with this easy, relaxing stretch.
  • Begin sitting on the floor.  Place a rolled up yoga mat or blanket lengthwise behind you, with one end at your tailbone.
  • Gently lie back on the yoga mat or blanket, adjusting the position of the mat or blanket so that your lower back and your head are both comfortably supported (use a pillow under the head if necessary).
  • Open your arms out to the sides, palms facing upwards, opening your heart up towards the sky.
  • Breathe deeply in and out.  As you inhale, focus the breath into the back of your body, and as you exhale focus on releasing tension and letting the muscles in your back relax completely.
  • This stretch is great for releasing the muscles that run alongside of your spine.
2.  Supine Twists

There are many variations of the supine twist, so try a few and find which one feels right for you and gives you the best release.  Here is one simple option.

Supine twists.  Keep the left shoulder on the floor and let your knees sink into the pillow.
  • From the previous pose, gently remove the mat or blanket from underneath you and lie with your back on the ground.  Draw your knees in towards your chest and remain here for as many breaths as you like.
  • When you're ready, stretch your arms out to the sides, palms facing upwards.  Inhale and broaden the shoulders.  Exhale and gently release both your knees towards the right hand side.  For the restorative version of this pose, aim to keep the left shoulder on the ground, using pillows underneath your knees in order to comfortably do so.
  • When your knees are comfortably supported, gently turn your head towards the left hand side.
  • Breathe deeply here for 3-5 minutes, and then switch sides.

3. Lengthwise Stretch
Personalise this stretch by moving the mat to find the best spot to release your back!
  • Sit on your mat and place the rolled up mat or blanket behind you again, but this time place it sideways.  Aim to have the mat running sideways just underneath your ribs for starters.
  • Gently lie back down over the rolled up mat.
  • On an inhalation, stretch your arms up over your head.
  • If you find this too intense, you can try resting your hands on a block or pillow to elevate them off the floor.  Alternately, do the pose with your hands on your belly or in another comfortable position.
  • Personalise the stretch by changing the positioning of the support to find the spot that best releases your back.  Or, find multiple spots and spend a few minutes in each.

4. Child's pose
  • Following the lengthwise stretch, round your spine the other way with a nice long child's pose.  For maximum comfort use pillows or your blanket/mat placed lengthwise underneath you.  Mmmmmm.
Round off with a yummy savasana, meditation or a nice cup of tea.

Readers, what aches plague your backs and how to you release the tension?


  1. Great article! My right back gets tweaked from carrying big trays full of food with my left arm all night long when waiting tables. Reclining twists with Garudasana legs and supported reclining bound angle, followed by paschimottanasana are my go-tos for easing back tension.

  2. Hi. Found you from Suburban Yogini. Love this article. I let my students do #1 while in savasana and they love it!

  3. @Misanthropic - yes, I love the garudasana variation too!! And downward dog / Brahma mudra for more neck-related tensions.

    @LiveLoveYoga - thanks for visiting! I could stay in #1 for ages... it's just so relaxing.

  4. I like all these poses too. Regarding your Supine Twist - I like to also put a blanket or pillow behind my backside to keep myself from rolling out of the twist. If you are interested, I show a picture of this on my blog: http://dorestorativeyoga.blogspot.com/2009/11/supported-reclining-twist.html

    Thank you.

  5. Love all of those! Yum. And the new banner is stunning!

  6. @Sara - that's a great tip, thanks! I reckon, the more blankets and pillows, the better. :)
    @Thanks hon!

  7. Oh, thank you, funny, I was thinking about how my back is hurting just as I read this! Try hoisting around a 20+ pound child around all day and you'll see why :).

    I love #2 and must try #3.


  8. Love your blog and the simple back exercises. Great reading on many of your posts. Love reading fellow yoga teachers thoughts. I would appreciate it if you were to check out my blog as well! http://yogainthegorge.blogspot.com/


  9. Any suggestions on loosening the upper back/shoulders/neck? Too much time on the computer :(

  10. well I can testify to how effective these stretches are for back pain. For me they have become a regular fixture every morning before tea. Another thing really helped with back pain was changing my mattress.