Does your lower back cry out to you when you first get up, or does it get angry at the end of a long day?
Who hasn’t suffered with a cranky lower back at least once in a while? In my case, it’s a combination of too much sitting and a naturally flat lumbar that sometimes has me feeling a little tweaky in my back. Even if you have a really flexy lower back, it can sometimes feel overworked from backbending, especially if, like many people, your lumbar is much more mobile than your upper spine.
There may be times when you feel stress in the lower back but the culprit might actually originate from somewhere other than your back – tightness in the hip flexors or the psoas muscles (the large muscles that connect and wrap from your mid/lower spine to your upper legs and work to flex and extend your thigh) can also present as tension in the lumbar.
To give your lumbar some love, try this sequence that gently stretches your entire spine in all directions and allows the hip and psoas muscles to release in supported poses. You’ll need a yoga blanket and/or a block or two. If you don’t have either, you can improvise with a large thick bath towel and throw pillows. Hold all poses for between 5 to 10 deep breaths.
- Start in a kneeling seated pose, legs together with butt on heels, tops of feet facing the floor or, if more comfortable for you, sit on top of a block or pillow or blanket folded into a small square placed between your feet. Use the amount of support that enables you to sit up straight with a long neutral spine. Clasp your hands in front of you, fingers intertwined, straighten your arms overhead and turn the palms toward the ceiling, stretching your side body as long as possible. There is actually a Sanskrit name for this arm position – baddha guliasana – which to me sounds like something out of the Sopranos.
- Keeping the arms in the same position, sit firmly on your sit bones (your left one will want to lift) and side-bend over to the right, continuing to keep your side body long. Reverse your clasp so that the opposite thumb is on top and side-bend to the left.
- Place your left hand on the outside of your right knee, lengthen your side body, raise your right arm up, twist to the right and place your right hand on the mat behind your right hip. Extend on your inhale and twist more deeply on your exhale. Repeat on the left.
- Take your blanket and make a tight short roll by rolling it up from the shorter side. Take a child’s pose (balasana) with the blanket roll lying right in front of your hip creases to create some space in your hip flexors. Knees can be apart or closer together depending on what feels good to you, and arms should be relaxed along your side with hands close to your feet. Place a block or pillow under your forehead if it doesn’t reach the mat with your hips pressed on your heels. It’s more important to keep your hips back than to reach the floor with your head. Allow your back to round slightly and your shoulders to relax.
- Remove the blanket roll and slide flat onto your belly, legs extended straight. Cross your forearms in front of your shoulders and place your forehead onto your wrists. Let your legs open at least hip width apart and let your toes point in slightly toward each other (crocodile or surfboard pose).
- Stay in the same position, but let your right leg bend out to the right in the direction of your elbow, going only so far as is comfortable for you. Keep your lower leg at about a right angle to your thigh. Allow the right hip to relax. Repeat on the left.
- Still lying on your belly, take your blanket roll and place it under your chest. Place your forearms in front of the roll and take Sphinx pose with arms shoulder-width apart and parallel to the long edge of your mat. Keep your legs at least outer hip-width apart. Push into tops of your feet and your legs, pull your chest forward and relax your sternum on the blanket roll. If your neck feels tight, let your head drop and rest your head on a block or throw pillow(s). Let your pelvis relax into the mat.
- Remove the blanket and roll over onto your back. With knees bent and feet on the floor, take your block at the lowest or medium setting (or a throw pillow) and place it under your sacrum (the triangular bone at the bottom of your spine right below your lower back). Relax your arms by your side, allow the shoulders to relax into the mat and the sacrum to release into the support underneath you. If you’re craving a deeper stretch, extend your legs straight out in front of you, continuing to relax your shoulders and your sacrum. Hear your psoas muscles say “aahhh”.
- Bend your knees again if you straightened them and remove the block or pillow. With bent legs held together, keeping both shoulders relaxed to the floor, take the knees over to the right. If they don’t reach the floor with your shoulders down, place the blanket roll under your legs so they’re supported and released. Repeat on the left.
- Take your blanket and unroll it, then make a long roll with it by folding it once and rolling it along the long side. Lie on your back, bring the soles of your feet together to rest on the floor close to your groin, knees bent out to the side. Place the middle of the blanket roll over your feet, then wrap the ends under your lower legs and knees to give your legs some support. Scrunch it up to provide as much support as you need. If this is uncomfortable, move your feet more forward away from your groin into a diamond shape (tarasana). Keep your legs externally rotated and allow your hips to release. Press your hands gently on your inner thighs and allow gravity to do its work.
- Move the blanket roll away, keep your knees bent with feet on the floor, move your feet out so that they’re mat width apart and let the knees knock in toward each other into “constructive rest”. Let your lower back sink into the mat.
- Take the blanket roll and place it under your knees. Make it a narrow thicker roll if you need to. Let your legs extend straight out, feet apart, and lie back into savasana!
Experiment with adjusting the levels and types of prop support to find what works for your personal proportions. The important thing is to find space, comfort and release.
Practice this sequence in the morning or before bed and your lower back will thank you!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She, unfortunately, did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement last year, she completed her 200-hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko, and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.
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