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The Best Yoga Moves for Your Back

author image Jody Braverman
Jody Braverman is a professional writer and editor based in Atlanta. She studied creative writing at the American University of Paris and received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Maryland. She also received personal trainer certification from NASM and her 200-hour yoga teacher certification from YogaWorks.

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The Best Yoga Moves for Your Back
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At any given time, more than 30 million Americans experience lower-back pain, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Back pain is also one of the most common reasons people miss work, and it’s the second most common cause for doctor’s office visits, the ACA reports. Poor posture, weak back muscles and a sedentary lifestyle are major contributors to back pain. The key to treating and preventing back pain is increasing your activity and building a healthy back that is both flexible and strong, and a regular yoga practice will help you do that. Check out which yoga poses can help your back.

How Yoga Benefits the Back
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Many people spend long periods of time sitting each day, which can wreak havoc on the back. Especially if you tend to slouch, your posture suffers -- the mid-back muscles become overly lax, and the chest and hip flexors tighten. “Just by doing a yoga practice you can improve your body mechanics, your postural stabilization and your flexibility,” says Atlanta-based physical therapist David Mesnick. If you have chronic low-back pain, practicing yoga can be a viable treatment option to reduce pain and increase mobility, according to a study published in the journal Spine in September 2009. Researchers found that participants who engaged in biweekly yoga classes designed for lower-back pain for 24 weeks exhibited “statistically significant” reductions in functional disability and pain intensity compared with a control group receiving standard medical care.

Related: What Are the Benefits of Vinyasa Yoga?

Flexibility, Strength, Stability and Mobility
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Improving the health of your back with yoga isn't just about becoming more flexible, it also means developing strength, stability and mobility -- the ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion -- says Clif Bar’s in-house yogi Sadie Chanlett-Avery. “Generally speaking, what we need for backs is greater mobility in the hips and greater stability in the lumbar spine.” Chanlett-Avery recommends a combination of forward folds, backbends and twists to build mobility and flexibility of the spine and standing poses to build strength and improve stabilization.

Related: Stretches to Improve Low-Back Flexibility

Start with Sun Salutations
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Many yoga classes begin with a few rounds of sun salutation, which is a series of poses meant to help warm up the muscles for the subsequent poses. Each of the poses built into sun salutation has a specific effect on the spine. For example, you begin in forward fold, which brings the spine into flexion -- rounding the spine forward -- and in upward-facing dog, you extend the spine, coming into a slight backbend. Downward-facing dog also brings the spine into mild flexion. In chaturnanga (essentially a lowered pushup), you’re contracting your core, which targets the muscles that stabilize your spine. Even if you only did repetitions of sun salutation as your practice, you’d be getting an effective therapeutic workout for your back.

Related: What Are the Benefits of the Sun Salutation in Yoga?

Counteract Sitting All Day With Backbends
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When you sit for prolonged periods of time, your hip flexors are shortened and your back is often rounded. It can be a major cause of postural imbalance and back pain, so including backbends in your practice is crucial. Not only do backbends put your body into a position opposite of what it’s used to, but backbends also help lengthen the hip flexors, open the chest and strengthen the back muscles, when done correctly. Cobra and supported bridge pose are good postures to open and stretch the front side of the body, including the abdominals and hip flexors, while postures such as bridge pose, bow pose and locust pose help build strength throughout the back and in the hips.

Related: Back Pain From Sitting at a Desk

Stretch It Out With Forward Folds
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Forward folding helps create length in the spine, separating the vertebrae to relieve compression. Forward folds, such as the standing forward bend and the seated forward bend, keep the spine strong and flexible while helping to relieve tension in the back. However, it’s crucial not to overdo it in these postures. Prolonged sitting causes many people to have tight hamstrings, which can make forward-bending postures challenging. Pushing too hard in forward folds can lead to injury and overstretching of the low back. When forward folding, focus on bending at the hip creases rather that rounding the spine ; engage the quadriceps muscles on the fronts of the thighs to encourage the muscles on the backs of the thighs -- the hamstrings -- to open.

Related: 10 Yoga Moves to Remove Stress and Relax You at Bedtime

Limber Up With Side Bends
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Along with forward folds and backward bending, lateral flexion of the spine -- or side bending -- is also an important part of a yoga sequence for the back. Side bending helps stretch and strengthen the oblique muscles along the sides of the body, further adding to the overall flexibility and stability of the back. According to yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad, the quadratus lumborum muscle, which is found deep in the back of the waist, is one of the most important muscles stretched in a side bend. Gudmestad says this muscle often becomes tight and contracted during long periods of sitting. Just as with forward folds and back bends, it’s important not to collapse into the pose; focus on lengthening through each side of the body to create a long spine.

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Gain Mobility With Spinal Twists
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Twisting poses come in all varieties -- seated, standing and even inverted -- and they’re an integral part of a well-rounded yoga practice. In addition to improving digestion and promoting the health of your internal organs, they also help promote full range of motion in the spine, something many people lose living a sedentary lifestyle, says yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad. Twisting poses, including seated twists, revolved triangle pose and half-moon pose, increase range of motion in the shoulders, hips and spine and lengthen the soft tissues surrounding those joints that become shortened with lack of movement. For optimal back health, Gudmestad recommends practicing a spinal-twist pose once or twice daily.

Related: Yoga Twists to Improve Circulation in the Back

Create Stability With Standing Poses
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Although standing poses probably aren't the first things that come to mind when you think of the best yoga poses for the back, they’re important for building strength and a solid foundation for the spine, says yoga teacher and holistic fitness trainer Sadie Chanlett-Avery. These include postures like triangle, eagle and extended side-angle poses. In these poses, you’re rooting through the legs and using your deep core muscles to stabilize the spine. The key in these poses is to focus on creating that solid foundation rather than hanging out in “loosey-goosey flexibility land,” as Chanlett-Avery calls it. Focus on engaging the muscles around the spine and through the hips and legs.

Related: Yoga Postures to Help Bad Knees

Other Beneficial Poses
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Some poses can’t be classified as forward bends, back bends, twists or standing postures, and some aren't even traditional postures, but they’re still highly beneficial to include in your healthy-back yoga practice. Cat-cow posture, which is performed on all fours and involves rounding and arching your spine, helps warm up the spine and increases range of motion. “My absolute favorite pose, which isn't taught nearly enough in yoga classes, is just a basic squat,” says in-house yogi at Clif Bar Sadie Chanlett-Avery. “It’s a basic human movement that corrects a lot of our postural imbalances,” she says, adding that squatting, if done correctly, promotes full range of motion in the hips and stabilization in the spine.

Related: How to Do Body-Weight Squats

Starting a Healthy Back Practice
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Although there are specific poses that target the back, all yoga poses have benefits for back health. Whether you attend your first yoga class at a studio or use a DVD at home, starting a regular practice now will bring you short-term relief and long-term benefits. Atlanta-based physical therapist David Mesnick recommends that beginners -- especially if they are currently experiencing back pain -- take classes from a skilled yoga teacher. Let your teacher know your condition before your first class so that he can offer modifications for poses that may be contraindicated. Once you feel comfortable with the poses, Mesnick says, you can get a DVD or take an online class in the comfort of your own home.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

When Caution Is Necessary
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Some people need to use caution when engaging in any kind of activity, including yoga. Atlanta-based physical therapist David Mesnick says people with acute back pain should not do yoga and should consult their health care providers. Certain poses are contraindicated for certain back problems. For example, Mesnick warns that people with foraminal spinal stenosis, in which there is a narrowing of space between two or more vertebra and compression on the nerve, should not do back-bending poses. “On the flipside, people with history of herniated discs are going to have to use caution when doing forward-bending and twisting poses, such as downward dog and forward bends,” adds Mesnick. Always consult your health care provider before starting a yoga practice if you have an existing back condition.

Related: Yoga Exercises for Someone With a Bad Back

Ready, Set, Go!
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Whether you’re currently experiencing back pain or you just want to ensure a healthy back as you age, yoga can help. However, to experience the benefits you have to do it regularly, and it should be part of a “full-movement diet,” says yoga teacher and holistic fitness trainer Sadie Chanlett-Avery. In addition to yoga, work more activity into your day, whether it’s walking around the block, running, riding your bike to work or playing with your kids in the backyard.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

What Do YOU Think?
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Do you suffer from back pain? Do you currently practice yoga or do you plan to start a practice? Has yoga helped you manage your back pain? What poses did you find helped the most? Share your experiences below with the rest of the Livestrong community.

Related: 12 Amazing Paddleboard Yoga Poses (and How to Do Them)

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