Have you ever heard the saying, “you’re only as young as your spine?” So much of our health can be determined by the health of our spine. All of the nerves that regulate and activate our limbs and internal organs are protected by the spinal column. The surrounding muscles that support our spine do endless work to keep our bodies aligned and upright. Our spines and back muscles do all of this work for us everyday, and we often take their strength and support for granted.
At any one time, more than 31 million Americans are suffering from some sort of back pain and an expected $50 billion is spent annually on treating these issues. With our modern lifestyles of extended sitting, driving, posture issues, stress, and poor sleep practices, it’s no surprise that our backs are suffering. Back pain may be a simple annoyance for some, or terribly debilitating for others. Quality of life can be greatly diminished by a back injury, leading to missed work or family activities.
Fortunately, yoga offers us so many ways to heal and strengthen our back, and it can be as easy as doing a few simple asanas first thing in the morning or just before bed. Yoga itself is a wonderful preventative practice for keeping your spine and back muscles healthy. To benefit your back even further, check out these ten therapeutic yoga asanas for back strength and support.
We’ll start our back-strength stretch with a gentle Child’s Pose. While this asana is typically used as a resting or restorative pose, it does a great job of opening up the spine. While in child’s pose, it can be helpful to visualize a light or blood flow moving all the way up your spine, from the base to the vertebrae of your neck and the base of your skull.
Begin by kneeling on the floor with your knees spread slightly wider than your hips and your bottom resting on your heels. Exhale and slowly lower your torso forward to rest in between your thighs. Place your forehead to the floor, and your arms down by your sides. Feel the stretch between your shoulder blades, then raise your arms up to rest outward in front of you to stretch the back and shoulders. Rest here for a few minutes.
Talk about a full-service back stretch. Cat-Cow is the perfect way to open and stretch all of the muscles of the back – from the wide-stretching Latissimus Dorsi to the deep intrinsic muscles along the spinal column. Try this pose first thing in the morning to help wake up and flush your back with fresh blood flow after a long night’s sleep.
Rest on your knees, hip width apart, and place palms firmly on the ground, underneath your shoulders to come to a tabletop position. Exhale slowly and fully, and roll your back to the sky, tuck your chin to your chest to come to cat. Inhale slowly and arch your back, bringing your navel to the ground, lift the head high to look at the sky. Repeat cat and cow 5-8 times.
This classic transition and rest position is a fantastic way to work on your back strength. While it can be easy to place your focus on the arms, shoulders, or hips during Downward Dog, place your intention on engaging and strengthening your back muscles, all the way from the neck down to your sacrum.
Come to the floors on hands and knees, similar to the tabletop position. With hands firmly planted and toes on the ground, stretch the knees to come to a downward dog position. Start with the knees slightly bent and heels off the ground, then exhale and slowly straighten the legs bringing the feet fully to the ground if possible. Rest here for a few breath cycles.
Upward Dog is a great chest opening exercise with the added benefit of improving back and glute strength. If this pose causes too much tension for you, modify with a Cobra pose by resting your forearms on the ground and lifting the chest from there.
Start by lying face down on the floor, legs stretched back with the tops of the feet resting on the ground. Place your palms alongside your waist with elbows bent. On an inhale, straighten your elbows and guide your head and chest upwards. Draw your shoulder blades back and open your chest. Keep your buttocks and thighs firm and engaged. Hold for 15-30 seconds, then release and slowly lower on an exhale.
Plank in an incredibly powerful pose, helping you to strengthen your body all-around. It’s great for increasing abdominal and core strength, shoulder, arm, wrist, and of course, back strength.
One way to get into plank pose is by starting in Downward Dog. From here, send your torso forward so that your shoulders are aligned over your wrists with arms perpendicular to the floor. Your torso should be parallel to the floor. Lengthen your tailbone towards your heels and your head away from the base of the neck so as to open and stretch the entire spine. Stay in plank for as long as is comfortable, but a few breath cycles is great. Exhale and slowly lower knees to the ground.
Camel can be challenging, especially if you have back issues already, but it is a great way to strengthen and tone all of the deep muscles of the back. Take it slow until you are confident and rest in a child’s pose after to relax the muscles after such a great stretch.
Begin by kneeling on your knees on the floor, with legs and hips perpendicular to the ground. Press your shins and tops of the feet to the floor while keeping your thighs and hips soft. Rest your palms on the back of your pelvis with fingers pointing down along your buttocks. Inhale and open your chest, press shoulder blades together and lean backwards. If you are able to, drop your hands one at a time to grab on to your ankles or feet. Feel the stretch and strengthening of your back muscles. Keep your neck neutral. Rest here for 15-30 seconds. Bring your hands to your front pelvic bones and gently draw yourself forward to an upright position.
Locust pose is a great way to work your way up to deeper back stretches, like our next pose, Wheel. This is a very strengthening pose and benefits the back as well as the core abdominals, arms, and legs.
Lie face down with your arms against your sides and your legs extended. Turn your big toes towards each other. Inhale and lift your head and chest up while raising your arms parallel to the floor at your sides. Tighten and engage your buttocks, thighs, and heels. You will feel the muscles of your core and back engage. Keep your neck long as you look forward. Stay here for 30-60 seconds or as long as is comfortable.
Wheel, or bridge pose, requires a good amount of back strength and stability. Working towards a great Wheel will keep your back strong and flexible, while also activating the strength of the whole body.
Lie on your back and bend your knees to place your feet firmly on the ground. Bring them as close to your sitting bones as possible. Bend your elbows to place your palms on the ground behind your shoulders with the fingers pointing back towards the shoulder joint. Exhale and lift the tailbone to the pubis, engaging the buttocks, with the thighs parallel. Take a few breaths here. Press your hands into the ground to lift the crown of the head. On an exhale, straighten the arms, lift the pubis further, and come into wheel pose. Take 2-3 breaths here, then gently lower back down to the ground to rest. Repeat a few times. Rest in Child’s pose afterwards.
Chair pose is an excellent way to strengthen and tone all of the muscles of the back. It also requires a good deal of focus, so encourages a strong mind-body connection.
Starting from a standing position such as mountain pose, breathe in and lift your arms up along your sides to above your head and point your fingers to the sky. On an exhale, bend the knees and lower your torso so that your thighs are parallel with the ground. The thighs should be parallel to each other as well. Direct the tailbone down to the floor, keep the arms raised and the shoulders lowered and the shoulder blades back. Rest here for 30 seconds to a minute, or as long as is comfortable.
Triangle pose is great for back strength because it provides a great stretch along each side-body. Use your core and back muscles to pull you down and up from Triangle to gain strength in your back.
Begin in mountain pose, then step your feet out 3-4 feet apart. Stretch your arms out to your sides, parallel to the floor. Actively reach them outwards to lengthen. Turn your left food inwards slightly, then your right at a 90 degree angle to the left. They should be along the same line. On an exhale, move your torso over your right hip, making sure to move from the hip and not the waist. Drop your right hand to fall at the shin, ankle, or floor next to the right foot and bring the left arm straight up overhead. Gaze up at your left thumb and rest here for 3-5 breath cycles. Repeat on the opposite side.
Protect and Prevent
These ten poses, when done regularly as part of your practice or as a set by themselves, will build your back strength and prevent the many issues that can arise from a neglected spine. We rely heavily on the health of our spinal cord, nerves, vertebrae and back muscles to have a healthy, active life. One sure-fire way to feel young and spry well into old age is to care for your back. Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to this priceless part of our anatomy. Yoga offers us strength, stability, and release when it comes to our back health – and that is one powerful prescription!