Over the years I've noticed that injuries and physical ailments tend to come in waves. One month I might see a spate of shoulder issues and the next month everyone seems to be having knee trouble. I'm not sure why this is but it's just an observation. Recently, I've heard a lot of lower back complaints. Several students have commented that I should have a book or at least a list of poses and their descriptions to practice at home. Well, here's the next best thing, a blog.
A lot of lower back trouble tends to stem from a weak core. Studies show that people with the strongest core muscles have the least amount of lower back pain. Poses such as plank, (the push-up position); forearm plank; staff pose (seated with legs straight and arms up over head); hunting dog (on all fours with right arm extended forward and left leg extend back in line with the hip and then switch sides); leg lifts (laying on your back with your hands under your hips lift your straight legs perpendicular to your hips on the exhalation and lower parallel to the floor on the inhalation. Keep your knees bend if it's too much for your back); are all good examples of core strengthening poses. Mountain pose is also a great pose for the back because it puts your posture into proper alignment. Stand with your big toes together, heals slightly apart. Bend your knees and tuck your tailbone under you. Then straighten your knees as you lift up through your lower abdominal muscles as if zipping your jeans. Keep your shoulders rolled back. This pose teaches you to use your abdominals to hold up your lower back which puts less pressure on that area.
Keeping the lower back flexible is another way to alleviate aches and pains in that area. Poses such as cat/cow (on all fours inhale your spine toward the ceiling and drop your head and tail. Then exhale and lift your head and tail as your stomach drops down. Repeat at least ten times); sphinx pose (on your stomach with your elbows underneath your shoulders and your shoulders dropping down away from your ears. You may lift your feet perpendicular to your knees with your feet flexed); locus pose, (laying on your stomach with your arms extended to the sides, lift your head and chest with your gaze at the floor. You may also lift your feet off the floor by engaging your hip and thigh muscles to help you lift) all help create strength and flexibility in the lower back.
Hips and hamstrings are also another key component of a healthy lower back. The hip series is wonderful for soothing lower back trouble. You will need a strap for these poses, but an old necktie or bathrobe tie works just as well. Lay on your back and bring your right knee to your chest. Loop the strap over your foot and extend the leg toward the ceiling. Keep the knee straight which might mean lowering the leg a bit. Press down through the back of your left leg. Hold for five-ten breaths. Then holding the strap in your left hand, take the right leg toward the left side of the body just to the point you feel the stretch in the side of your hip and thigh. Hold again for five-ten breaths. Then with the right hand holding the strap, take the right leg out to the right side just to the point the left hip wants to lift off the floor. Place your left hand on the top of the hip to encourage it to stay down. Hold five to ten breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Also part of the hip series is Thread-the-Needle pose. This pose can be complicated but once you get into it it feels awesome. This pose is one of the best poses for sciatica related to the piriform muscle in the hip. Often this muscle becomes tight and impinges the sciatic nerve as it runs down from the spine to the leg. Bring your right knee to your chest and cross your left ankle over your right thigh. Make sure the whole ankle is crossed over and the foot stays flexed. Run your left hand between the legs and hold onto the back of the right thigh. The right hand will meet the left but from the outside of the leg. Draw the right knee toward the chest until you feel a good stretch in that hip. Repeat on the opposite side.
Another common cause of lower back discomfort is a misaligned sacral-iliac joint. Often it feels as if there is a kink on one side of the hip and one hip may be higher than the other. There are two good poses for this. The first is a great quick fix if you just need to loosen it up. Standing on a block with the unaffected leg (a stair or curb would also work.) Swing your affected leg from the hip. Try not to bend the knee and watch that your toes don't stub the ground. You aren't kicking a soccer ball. Because you are standing on one leg, it is best to hold on to a wall for better balance.
The second pose always amazes students because it's so simple and yet effective. It involves laying on your back with the knee of the unaffected side at the chest and the affected knee bend with the foot on the floor. Slowly slide the heal of that foot down until the leg is fully extended. Then gently bounce the heal of that foot without letting it touch the floor. Once the leg feels a bit tired, slowly slide it back in. With both feet flat on the floor and knees bent, gently sway your knees side to side to check your hips. They should feel more balanced.
Hopefully, these poses and exercises help manage your lower back challenges between yoga classes. Remember to always keep your breath moving and work within your comfort level.