Many of us practice yoga to stretch out our backs and make sure we’re pain and tension-free—and yoga is a great way to do this. It can keep your back healthy, happy, and as bendy as possible. However, it can be very easy to injure your back if you’re practicing poses incorrectly or holding poses with poor form.
Read our list of quick tips below on the three kinds of yoga poses that are hardest on your spine and can give your back the most trouble, as well as how to correct them to make sure you keep your spine safe during your practice.
1. Forward Folds
The most common mistake in any forward fold poses, such as standing or seated forward fold, is to round the spine excessively and collapse in the front of the body. This is usually because we’re tempted to pull ourselves deeper toward our toes, and the easiest way to get a little more length is to round the spine.
However, too much rounding can cause muscle strain, or in extreme cases, a torn ligament or a ruptured disc. Additionally, when you round the back, you just aren’t getting the intended benefit of the pose in other areas of your body, such as your hamstrings. To correct your spinal alignment in this pose, follow these steps:
- Tilt from the pelvis, not from your spine. Sit all the way up with your feet straight out in front of you, nice and tall through your spine like you’re trying to pull the crown of your head up to the ceiling. Pull the meaty part of your glutes away to find the sit bones, and ground your tailbone down into the floor. The crown of your head should fall directly in line with your tailbone here.
- From this position, start to take your chest toward your thighs WHILE keeping your spine straight—no curving! You will start to feel that the tilt is coming from your pelvis, and your whole trunk is moving like the arm of lever—this is what we want! Your tailbone is starting to point backward, away from the crown of your head as your forehead come closer to your thighs.
- Bring your chest as far down toward your thighs as possible while maintaining your flat back and straight spine. When you’ve reached the point where you can no longer descend without curving, stop.
- Keep your chest open. Instead of allowing your shoulder blades to pull apart to either side and collapse your chest inward, pull the shoulder blades back down the spine, and feel like your collarbone is being pulled forward, toward your toes.
This is the most common kind of pose for spinal injuries, and the hardest in which to stay safe. Backbends involve flexion of the spine, like in poses such as Bridge, Wheel, and Cobra.
These poses bring energy into the body, they open the throat and the chest, and they can feel uplifting because of their open, accepting, and active posture. However, the flexed curvature of the spine in these poses can also result in pinched vertebrae or nerves, muscle spasms, and back soreness or twinging, especially in the lumbar (lower) spine.
To keep pain from creeping into your backbends, make sure you’re doing the following:
- Move from your sacrum. Just like we discussed with forward folds, your movement in backbends should start in your pelvis. Instead of drawing your tailbone back, however, we want any motion in a backbend to start with sending the center of your pelvis forward.
- Engage the pelvic floor. To ensure that we’re not sending our pelvis out without proper support from our core, pull the pelvic floor up to your bellybutton. This helps us engage our core, especially our transverse abdominals, or the two big strips of muscles that run down each side of your abdomen. Move your core forward with your pelvis as you begin your back bend.
- As you continue to send your pelvis forward, lift through your chest. Even as you feel your spine curve back, continue to send your sternum out and up. This ensures that you’re still putting space between each vertebra as you bend backward, decreasing any likelihood of pinching.
These poses are usually quite gentle and are meant to stretch and relax your spine, but there are several very important pose cues to keep in mind to get the most out of any spinal twist.
- Keep the spine straight throughout the duration of the twist. Because these poses can be relaxing, it can be tempting to curve the spine. However, it’s important that we keep the spine straight to avoid injury and to make sure you’re really squeezing the spine in the beneficial way we’re aiming for. In a seated spinal twist, draw your spine up straight and tall, like you would for a forward fold. Keeping that straightness in the spine, twist to the side.
- Keep the shoulders back and down, away from the ears: this is a good indicator that your back is staying straight—it’s also helpful to use a mirror to check if the crown of your head is still right above the tailbone.
- In poses that involve both forward folding and twisting, such as flying chair, the flat, straight spine is the most important part of making these poses safe.
- It can also be beneficial to check in with your hips: make sure your pelvis is balanced. This means that both hipbones are in the same plane and neither is coming in front of or above the other. This sets our spine up for equilibrium in any twist or forward fold, and reduces risk of pulling or tweaking any muscles or ligaments.
BONUS: Be aware of your neck.
In any yoga pose, we may want to look and see what we’re doing in the mirror, what the instructor is doing, or what the rest of the class is doing. This is a major cause of tension in the neck.
If we look up, or in any way take our head out of alignment with the rest of our spine, we risk putting undue stress on our cervical vertebrae, or those in our neck. Especially in backbends, it can be tempting to take the gaze to the ceiling in an attempt to deepen the bend, but there’s nothing beneficial about this habit—the best way to keep your neck safe in these poses is to keep the head in line with the rest of the spine at all times.
Back-intensive poses can be some of the most rewarding yoga poses during a practice, both physically and emotionally. If practiced incorrectly or unsafely, however, they can be a big source of unhappiness and pain.
If you have any tips and tricks that you use to make spine-involved poses more comfortable for you, discuss in the comments below…happy bending!