10 Yoga Poses That Can Hurt Your Back & What You Can Do Instead

So you finally made it to a class at the hip new yoga studio in town, but rather than feeling like a peaceful warrior at the end, you felt like your body had just been through a battle. To make matters worse, the next day you woke up with an intense back ache.

Full wheel pose requires lower body strength, spine, shoulder and wrist flexibility. (Image: Michael Gray)

If done correctly with breath, awareness and slow progressions, yoga can be beneficial for reducing back pain, increasing flexibility and building strength_._ The problem is that many new students come to yoga class unprepared for poses they've never done before. They may have a host of mobility issues, muscle imbalances or chronic aches and pains. Back pain being the most common (approximately 8 out of 10 people will experience back pain at some point).

Here are a few common yoga poses that can potentially increase or lead to back pain when done incorrectly and what you can do to avoid pain and injury.

Lack of hamstring flexibility can cause the low back to round excessively in forward folds. (Image: Michael Gray)

1. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)

Forward folds help create space between the vertebrae and counter gravity's downward pull. But since many people lack the flexibility in their hamstrings, the lower back rounds, which lengthens the connective tissue, weakens the back and creates instability around the lumbar spine.

Bring the ground to you by placing your hands on blocks, bend your knees, and hinge at the hips as you maintain length in your spine. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Bend your knees. Bring the ground to you by placing your hands on blocks. Hinge at the hips maintaining length in your spine. Compress your abdomen to your thighs by engaging the abdominal muscles. Maintaining the compression, begin to straighten your legs as much as your flexibility allows.

Lack of mobility in the mid spine (thoracic spine) can lead to compression of the low back in backbends. (Image: Michael Gray)

2. Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)

When yoga students can't extend the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine may take the hit in backbends such as Upward Facing Dog. "The body will take the path of least resistance, if the thoracic spine lacks mobility the lumbar spine experiences excessive lordosis (sway in low back)," says David Lee, sports chiropractor and functional range conditioning mobility specialist. "This causes compression and possibly degenerative changes, too."

Mobilize every part of your spine with this activation drill. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Cat cow is a highly effective yoga pose for back pain, but to get even more out of the move, add activation with the segmental cat cow. The slow, controlled movement brings activation to each segment of the spine to improve mobility.

HOW TO DO IT: Begin on your hands and knees. Exhale as you round your back, pull the belly button toward your spine and tuck your chin toward your chest. Starting at the tailbone, release one segment of your spine at a time, relaxing through the lumbar spine, thoracic spine (mid-back) and finally, your cervical spine as you lift your chin upward into full flexion. Then reverse the motion. Be aware of what segments feel stuck. Breathe into these spaces and remember to move slowly.

Hovering inches from the ground in chattarangua requires full body strength and strong core engagement. (Image: Michael Gray)

3. Four-Limb Staff Pose (Chaturanga)

The main problem you see in Chattrarangua is the sway back due to lack of core strength. Without strong core engagement, the spine gets compressed. The key is to not only hug your navel to your spine, but to also activate the glutes and legs, slightly tucking the hips to lengthen the tailbone towards your heels.

Build strength for proper body alignment in hollow body pose. Aim to keep your low back on the mat. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Hollow body position is an excellent core strengthener that teaches proper body alignment for Chattarangua along with a host of other advanced asanas from Warrior III to Handstand, but it's even great for helping to improve daily movements such as standing, sitting and walking, as it improves body alignment.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back, lift your legs up to 90 degrees. Pull your navel into the spine, press your low back down into the mat. Roll your shoulders off the mat. Lower your legs to your lowest point where you can keep the low back on the mat.

If hip flexors are very tight one may overarch the low back to compensate. (Image: Michael Gray)

4. Crescent Pose (Anjaneyasana)

Many people compensate for lack of hip flexibility by overarching the lower back, which can cause over time. Instead of trying to straighten out the back leg, it's better for your lower back to keep a bend in the knee and activate the glute of the extended leg.

Bending the back knee and tucking your hips can help stretch the hip flexors and protect your low back. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Keep your back knee bent. Tuck the hips by rolling the frontal hip points up towards the rib cage and drawing navel to spine. Squeeze your glute to feel the stretch in your hip flexors.

Standing twisting poses require lower body strength, thoracic spine mobility, and balance. (Image: Michael Gray)

5. Revolved Side Angle (Parivrtta Parsvakonasana)

Revolved side angle pose or any twisting pose can potentially lead to low back pain if done incorrectly. This is another pose that requires thoracic spine mobility for the twist along with core engagement. The key is to try to to keep the sacrum stable so you don't over twist at the low back.

Create more stability by lowering your back knee to the mat and aim to keep your hips even as you twist from your mid-spine. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Bring one knee to the ground to find stability. Twist and bring your hands together. On the inhale lengthen the spine and on the exhale press your hands together and press your upper arm against your upper leg to move deeper into the twist.

Forward folds can overstretch the low back to compensate for lack of hamstring flexibility. (Image: Michael Gray)

6. Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana)

Forward folds stretch the hamstrings, but if performed improperly, forward folds may do more harm than good. The two main problems are lower back rounding, which creates strain, and the hips hinging behind the ankles, which stresses the hamstrings and the tendons in the back of the knees, says traveling yoga teacher Joan Hyman.

In forward folds think about lengthening your spine as you hinge at the hips to feel the stretch in the hamstrings. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Sit up tall with your legs together. Engage your quadriceps (tops of thighs) to lengthen your hamstrings. You can put a slight microbend in the knees. Hinge at your hips while maintaining a long spine. You will feel the stretch at the top of the hamstrings rather than the low back.

Boat pose is an excellent core strengthener as long as you are using your deep abdominals muscles and not rounding through the low back. (Image: Michael Gray)

7. Boat Pose (Navasana)

Boat pose is an excellent yoga pose to strengthen the core and create total body strength and coordination, but the main mistake people sometimes make is a rounding through the back — both upper and lower. This decreases core activation and can hurt your back if done excessively.

Place your toes on the mat and ground your sitting bones as you find length along your spine. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Instead of lifting the legs, bend the knees and touch your toes down to the ground or place your feet flat on the mat. Ground down through your sits bones and lengthen the spine by drawing navel, back body, and waist in toward your midline to support the spine. Think about lifting your sternum up.

Full wheel pose requires lower body strength, spine, shoulder and wrist flexibility. (Image: Michael Gray)

8. Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)

Full wheel pose, urdhva dhanurasana, is a challenging pose for many, as it requires lower body strength, spine mobility, hip flexor and quadricep flexibility, and shoulder and wrist flexibility. This pose may compress the low back if a student lacks the above mobility prerequisites and performs this pose too fast and too early in their practice. Backbends, particularly one as full on as wheel pose, should be worked up to gradually.

Supported bridge pose is a restorative posture that helps lengthen the low back. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: You can still get the benefits of backbends with a more gentle version. Supported bridge is a great alternative to help create length in the lower back.

HOW TO DO IT: Place a block under the sacrum relax on your back breathing deeply into your low abdomen and low back.

Plow pose stretches the back and helps to calm the nervous system. (Image: Michael Gray)

9. Plow Pose (Halasana)

Halasana is a pose that provides a deep low back stretch. It opens the spine and shoulders, and stimulates the thyroid gland. It's a deeply grounding and calming pose if performed with ease, but if not, it can be uncomfortable and injurious to the spine, particularly the cervical spine. If a student lacks engagement of bandhas (spinal locks) to help support the spine and transfers weight to the neck versus across the shoulders, it can be problematic.

Modify shoulder stand and plow pose by setting a yoga block under your sacrum and extending legs up towards the sky. (Image: Michael Gray)

The Fix: Like supported bridge pose you can place a block under your sacrum and lift the legs up toward the sky or lie on your back facing a wall and place your legs up the wall to receive the benefits such as a stretch for the low back, restoring energy levels and improving circulation.

Relieve low back pressure by placing a bolster or rolled up blanket under your knees in savasana. (Image: Michael Gray)

10. Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Savasana is a pose for deep relaxation. It's the final rest at the end of a yoga class to allow time for integration, but if you're not used to lying on a wood floor, it can be uncomfortable.

The Fix: Lying on your back, place a small pillow or rolled-up blanket under your head if you want. Place a bolster or rolled up blanket under your knees to protect your low back. Find length through your lower back and relax the pelvis and hips. Let your arms rest by your sides with your palms facing up.

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