3 Yoga Stretches Changed Fixed For Low Back Pain Relief

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When struggling with debilitating lower back pain, many turn to Yoga stretches to try to relieve the low back pain and stiffness, to “loosen up” the low back and ease the pain. However, in spite of short term relief, many find these stretches ineffective at resolving the issue, and on deeper evaluation, find they’re actually making the underlying issue worse. Today we’ll look at the three most common Yoga stretches for back pain, evaluate them, and give you small modifications that mean you can get the benefit from the stretch without the negatives. You’ll see how some small modifications can make all the difference. At the end we’ll also give you one addition to these that you cannot do without if you’re to make back pain or sciatica a thing of the past!

Evaluating stretches for back pain & modifications needed

For each of these stretches we will briefly outline the stretch, point out the major reasons why the given stretch or Yoga pose is bad and then suggest how you can modify the simple pose to make it more specific to lower back pain and injury. 

Child’s pose for back pain relief:

This is perhaps the most common Yoga pose and is one which back pain sufferers are directed to in the majority of cases. It involves you kneeling on the floor with your lower back rounded knees collapsed and arms stretched out in front of you. In this position, it will provide a long stretch opening out the back part of the vertebra, and the spaces where the nerves come out. You’ll also find that the position can also elicit some stretch for the gluteal muscles. You might typically hold this stretch for 3, 5, 10 seconds or longer depending on the exact goal of the exercise.

Why this stretch is bad if you have lower back pain

Especially if you’ve a herniated disc or other form of disc injury in the lower back, the major issue with this stretch is the rounding of the lower back. This rounding stretches the back portion of the spines’ soft tissues, all the ligaments and muscles that hold the natural backward bending curve in place, supporting the strength of your spine. 

These soft tissues have been trying to heal and tighten back up to restore support and stability, instead you’re routinely pulling them apart, not to mention the squashing effect you have on the front of the discs in your lower back.

The main reason this feels nice is two fold: 

  • The stretch feels nice because stretches feel nice on the muscles.
  • The rounding of the back opens out the holes between vertebrae, creating more space.

Unfortunately both of these come at a cost, mentioned above, and in spite of feeling good in the moment, they are undermining the recovery and stability-restoring healing process. 

Modifying your child’s pose to help relieve low back pain

The nice thing about this stretch is that it does have an ability to effectively target tight hip muscles, namely the gluteals. So we can modify this stretch to protect the lower back, but stretch the hips in an easy way. 

The simple way to modify this stretch is as follows:

  • When sitting on your heels sit with tall posture and a neutral spine
  • Pivoting at the hips lean onto your hands and stick your bum backwards
  • Pivot leaning forwards more with the support of your arms and a neutral spine
  • You will feel a stretch focused to the buttocks region as you keep your spine still
  • Hold the stretch for the desired length, typically 30 seconds and repeat 2 times.

Tip: you might want to slightly open the angle of the thighs to more of a V shape than parallel for this stretch to allow you to move the hips better.

Hip stiffness is one factor that limits back pain recovery, and so having a strategy to allow the hips to move better without compromising the lower back is a vital tool in your toolbox for back pain recovery.

Cobra pose for lower back pain relief

Another common pose that will frequently be recommended for those with back pain. This involves lying on your tummy and pushing your upper body up with your arms, arching the lower back. This movement theoretically is there to take pressure off the front of the discs which is fantastic, especially when so many spend the majority of their day with the lower back rounded and hunched over! You might again hold this for 3, 5, 10 seconds or longer. 

Why this stretch is bad if you have lower back pain or sciatica

When we have an injury to the segment of the spine, especially the L5, S1 segment, the structures that maintain stability and normal bending movements are compromised. This means the joints often do not bend in the proper way, especially backwards. Instead of bending backwards like a hinge, the slide or shear. The effect of this shearing in itself can create more pain in the disc as discs do not like to be sheared, but more commonly, the shearing movement creates pressure by making the little holes between the vertebrae smaller, compressing the nerves and immediately giving sharp local pain, or sciatica. 

This happens because the joints around the injured one still have the natural tension – as they should have in order to function properly. So instead of all the joints of the lower back bending, the “wobbly one” that’s injured is forced to move first as it is the weakest. 

Modifying the cobra stretch to help relieve sciatica and low back pain

This is one of the stretches that really catches those with sciatica most, but also those with lower back pain too. The best way to modify this is to support the backward bending with a pivot point to help those other joints move as well. At the same time, a gentle stretch through the length of the spine helps prevent the little holes between the vertebra where the nerves are from getting much smaller.

In this case we’re going to take a rolled up towel about 3 to 5 inches in diameter and lie over it:

  • Lie on your back with the towel in your hands rolled up, knees bent
  • Engage your core and gently lift you hips and back off the floor (glute bridge)
  • Slide the towel into the “small of the lower back” at the base of the spine
  • This normally means the middle of the towel is opposite the level of your belly button
  • Slowly lower your spine over the towel, and remain there for 30 seconds to 5 minutes
  • You should feel the natural arch of your back supported and a gentle stretch too

Tip: For more information on this great stretch and some additional stretches to support this towel stretch, check out the recent video on simple decompression stretches you can do at home for your lower back.

Too much of our time is spent squashing our lower back and eliminating the lordosis, and those with back pain often have stability issues at the level of their lumbar spine that’s injured. This is an extremely gentle way to restore the natural curve of the back and support your spine with a nice stretch, for some it will feel a little odd or even sore to begin with, but with time it will get much easier and become your “go to” back stretch.

Cat-Cow stretch for lower back pain relief

This stretch is a combination and more of a “mobilisation” compared with the other movements, commonly this is a Yoga stretch that you use to “warm up the back” and make sure all the vertebrae are moving. It involves you being on all fours, dropping your tummy down in the “cow” pose, and then slowly moving to round the entire spine lifting up into the “cat” pose. This has the effect of trying to move the spinal joints from maximal extension, to maximal flexion. All be it done slowly, this stretch is essentially grabbing hold of the injured segment and wiggling it in an attempt to “release stiffness”. Thinking about what we already know, is this perhaps the best idea?

Why this stretch is a bad idea if you have lower back pain

Critically we could say that only half this stretch is bad, the cat position. Generally speaking, trying to move the joints through a full range of motion when injured and trying to recover is unwise. We can always build in movement later on but too many are simply adding to the rounding of the lower back that is already done in excessive amounts through the day. The criticisms of the “cat” part of this cat-cow pose are essentially the same as that in the child’s pose mentioned earlier. 

Generally speaking there is merit in some spinal movement, such as through walking, to prevent excessive inflammation and congestion from building up in the region putting pressure on the nerves, but full movement at the level that’s injured is not necessary or advisable.

Modifying the cat-cow stretch to help relieve lower back pain

There are two modifications here that we can make. The first is to simply go from a neutral position on all fours and drop into the cow position, then return back to neutral. Unlike the cobra which is a forcing up and back of the torso, the simple dropping of the tummy, will offer a bit of a stretch through the length of the spine. The only downfall of this modification, is that the stiffness of the other segments of the spine that are healthier, will often mean that the injured segment of the lower back, commonly L4, L5 or L5, S1 takes more than its fair share of movement. Still this is worth a try pumping gently for 5 to 10 reps at a time. 

Alternatively, lying on our back again with a twisted towel in the same place as previously mentioned for the towel stretch, we can have the same effect with more targeted support through a pivot point.

  • Lie on your back with a twisted towel in the same position
  • The towel should be opposite your belly button in the small of the low back
  • Now with your hands grab each end of the towel and hold it tight
  • Your arms should be by your side and your elbows at 90 degrees
  • Gently lift your arms up, having the effect of lifting your spine with the towel
  • Here you can pump gently for reps of 5 to 10 like an upside down version of the cow

This uses a towel as the pivot point helping the other segments take their fair share of movement at the same time the amount of movement is much smaller than a full cat-cow, without the “bad & unnecessary” rounding of the back.

This ability to gently and safely pump the lower back allows you to help remove congestion and excess inflammation to help ease lower back pain more effectively. It can be combined with something like contrast bathing – alternating hot and cold on the spine – to enhance this effect further. For a step-by-step guide to contrast bathing for back pain you can check out the full article and video after this one.

Bonus: build strength to your spine for long term results

As helpful as these modifications and similar changes to other common Yoga stretches can be, they are still only stretches. Because of the nature of lower back issues, much of the stiffness is in the muscles because of the injury, and stretching is a short term strategy. You must incorporate proper strengthening protocols into your back rehabilitation. This is through the proper core exercises, but also load bearing core exercises that build resilience into the spine itself helping the injured discs and spinal segments rebuild their strength. For a full guide you can check out the Back Health Masterclass we recorded, an 80 minute workshop style video to give you the step-by-step strategies required to rebuild your back health safely. You can of course also check out the membership to Back In Shape here if you want an even more structured approach to fixing back pain for good. 

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