Asana Practice: Free Your Low Back

This session is popular as the low back has become synonymous with pain in our culture.  We investigate how weakened abdominal muscles, hamstring strain, and imbalanced movement patterns lead to dysfunction. The class includes therapeutic movements and postures to unwind and realign the spine, cultivating the awareness necessary to free your low back. There are a myriad of causes of low back pain, and many researchers believe that much of the discomfort experienced is due to stress and emotional holding rather than physical ailment. We are a highly driven culture and a habit of overdoing can be mapped onto our yoga practice, creating further tension. For guidance in practice we can turn to yoga sutra 2.47 from the Sadhana Pada, the section of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras on yogic practice:

Prayatna shaitilya ananta samapattibhyam
"By relaxation of effort in the pose one merges with the infinite."

This sutra (along with the previous sutra 2.46) encourages the practitioner to find a balance between sthira- steady and focused effort, and sukha- a sense of ease.

In the 8 fold path of the Buddha dharma this is described as Right Effort or Balanced Effort; an attitude of non-striving which allows the body and breath to open and relax. Instead of 100% effort, use 80% effort in your asana practice, reserving the other 20% for ease in your breath and an internal relaxation. The breath is our best guide in becoming mindful of when we are pushing beyond our capacity, causing stress and contraction. When the breath is ragged or withheld we are actually creating a stress response in yoga practice which can lead to low back pain. In tracking the breath and internal sensations throughout your practice your will build "somatic intelligence"- the ability to feel internal sensations and subtle movements key to healthy alignment in asana and safe practice.

The following quote by Sheng Yen a Chinese Buddhist scholar and teacher captures this gentleness in practice:

"Be soft in your practice, think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in it's course. It will go on its way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight, it will take you there."

The structure of this workshop reflects this: a balance between gentle unwinding movements practiced supine and therapeutic asanas. In Free Your Low Back we point to a few possible muscular imbalances that could cause low back discomfort and practice movements and postures to mitigate them.

Because the feet are our foundation in standing, walking, and running, if the arches of your feet are collapsed all structures above (including your knees, hips, and lower spine) will mis-align. Learning to lift your arches is a key component to relieving strain patterns in the spine.

If your hamstrings are tight on one leg, it can pull that side of your pelvis downward, creating a habitual side bend in your lumbar spine. Alternatively, if your hamstrings are weak your pelvis will tip forward causing excessive lumbar lordosis (a deepened lumbar curve) and possible compression. Below is an image of the hamstrings. Notice their attachment to the sits bones (ischial tuberosities) and visualize how unilateral restriction could cause lumbar imbalance.

The quadratus lumborum is a square shaped muscle that originates on the crest of the pelvis and attaches to the lowest rib. Like the hamstrings, the QL is a paired muscle, one on each side of the spine. If one QL is shortened it will pull your pelvis upward, side bending and possibly rotating your spine.

The psoas is your main postural muscle and has many functions and effects on your total body. To put it simply, if your psoas is tight, weak, twisted, or shortened unilaterally, it can cause compression of your lumbar discs and spinal nerves. In addition, the psoas is partially responsible for maintaining the correct distance between the vertebrae and if supple and strong assures length in your lumbar spine. Due to excessive sitting, the psoas is often restricted.


We practiced several rocking and gliding movements performed supine to bring hydration and release to the lumbar area. These movements included arching and lengthening the lumbar and cervical spines, gentle repetitive twisting actions to relieve spinal in-congruencies, and movements designed to release the outer hip and lateral leg, which can also be a culprit in lumbar discomfort. We followed these gentle movements with an asana sequence designed to release the outer hips and lateral leg, lengthen the hamstrings unilaterally, balance the sacrum and pelvis, and stretch both sides of the spine evenly. We also practiced poses to traction the lower spine, bringing greater buoyancy in the spinal discs and relieve nerve compression.

Asana sequence:
Please note that all poses should be learned with an experienced teacher and this sequence may not be beneficial for all practitioners. If you are pregnant or have specific health concerns, consult an experienced teacher or leave a question for me in the comments section, to find out whether the poses are safe and beneficial for you.

Supta Padangusthasana(supine hand to foot pose) - this pose is one of the best for releasing lumbar strain and safely stretching the hamstrings. It can also be done with a strap over the head of the thigh of the vertical leg and looped over the heel of the down leg. This releases the thighbone away from the pelvis. Also, moving the top leg across the torso opens the outer hips and IT bands, and can release strain in the back muscles.

Supta Dandasana and Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (supine staff pose)this sequence is one of the best and safest ways to strengthen the lumbar, psoas, and deep core muscles when practiced with "balanced effort".

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)- we practiced this pose in partners. One person takes the pose, their partner loops a strap over the tops of their thighs and pulls straight back. This effectively creates traction in the lumbar, releasing strain.

Tadasana (mountain pose)- Stand with a block between your feet, touching the inner bases of your big toes and your inner heels. Draw your inner ankles away from the block to lift the arches of your feet. Notice how lifting your arches brings wakefulness to your inner legs, core muscles, and allows for a softening or release of the neck and shoulders.

Trikonasana(triangle pose)- triangle works the body unilaterally, creating even length on the both sides of the spine and accessing the psoas. Triangle also strengthens the legs for spinal support.

Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch)- This pose stretches the hamstrings unilaterally, releases the outer hips, gluteal muscles, and iliotibial bands (IT bands). It also stretches the quadratus lumborum unilaterally.

Parivrtta Trikonasana(revolved triangle pose)- this pose brings congruency to the spine and strengthens the legs.

Eka Pada Virasana (one legged virasana) at the wall- kneel with your back to the wall and come into a low lunge with your back shin and top of your foot on the wall. Draw your tail bone down and stretch your spine upwards. Hold for equal time on both sides. This poses is a deep unilateral release of the psoas and all the hip flexors.

Eka Pada Salabasana (one legged locust pose)-pictured with both legs lifted, we worked with just one leg lifted for greater ease and ability to track the contractions in the hamstrings and low back. This pose strengthens the entire back body for better posture and lumbar strength.

Janu Sirsanana (head to knee pose)- this pose is amazing for releasing strain in the sacro-iliac area. It also stretches the quadratus lumborum unilaterally.

Jathara Parivarttanasana (supine twist) - this supine twist encourages congruency in the spine and suppleness in the spinal discs.

Viparita Karani (inverted lake pose) excellent for bringing blood flow into the spinal discs and relieving stress for improved breathing and relaxation.

Savasana (corpse pose)- with the calves on a chair. Rest is essential for balancing the stresses of living and can be the antidote to lumbar pain. Positioning the legs in this way creates gentle release of the lumbar discs.