Several studies have shown that yoga is in fact an effective way to help relieve back pain. For example, one study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that participants who practiced yoga or stretching were twice as likely to cut down on pain medications prescribed for back pain when compared with those who managed symptoms on their own.
No matter what your situation, you should always first consult your doctor before starting a new fitness routine—no matter how gentle and low-key it may be. But once you get the go-ahead, you can use the following eleven poses—suggested by Beth Shaw, president and founder of YogaFit and author of Yoga Lean—to stretch and strengthen your back and ultimately, relieve any nagging aches and pains in your back.
"This position releases your lower back, especially after standing or sitting for long periods of time," Shaw says.
To get in: Lie down on the floor. Bring your knees to your chest and extend your left leg along the floor. Place your right foot on the floor and push to lift and shift your hips slightly to the right. Use your left hand to draw your right knee gently towards the floor. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths before gently untwisting and returning to the starting position, then repeat on the other side.
“More than 80 percent of Americans experience some lower back pain in their lifetime,” Shaw said. “Holding and breathing in forward fold will not only help you lengthen your tight hamstrings and lower back muscles, it will also relax you, combating the harmful effects of stress on your mind and body.”
To get in: From a seated position, extend your legs. Pull your toes back towards your body. Reach forward, placing your hands on your legs, ankles, feet or on the floor. Using your abs, draw through the top of your head.
Shaw says this is an active stretch that helps elongate the back and that’s also a great de-stressor after a long exhausting day.
To get in: Start on all fours with your arms stretched out in front of you. Then sit back so your glute muscles rest just above your heels. Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths and repeat as many times as needed.
“This is a classic pose that targets back extensors, which support your low back, spine and posture,” Shaw says of down dog. “It is the cornerstone of flow yoga practice and is used as an active resting position as well as restorative.”
To get in: From child's pose reach forward with your hands and press them into the mat with fingers spread wide. Lift your hips into an inverted V. Push back through the balls of your feet. Keep your head between your arms as you lift your tailbone to the sky. Sink your heels towards the floor without rounding your back.
“This pose stretches the hip rotators and flexors and isn't an obvious pose for aiding with back pain,” Shaw said. “However, tight hips can contribute to lower back problems down the line.”
To get in: Start in downward-facing dog with both of your feet together, then draw your left knee forward and turn it out to the left so that your left leg is bent and almost perpendicular to your right. Lower both legs to the ground. Keep your back leg extended behind you and for added strength rest your head to the ground. After 5 to 10 breaths switch sides.
Triangle pose is great for strengthening the back and legs,” Shaw said. “It’s one of my favorite poses because it moves energy in four directions. It can lengthen muscles along your outer hip and stretches the hamstrings, pectorals and intercostals.”
To get in: From Warrior II pose, straighten your front leg. Reach forward, then lower your hand to your shin or ankle. Lift your back arm to the sky, opening your chest. Look up, down or straight ahead, finding a comfortable place for your neck. Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths then switch.
Shaw calls this “the perfect pose for a sore back.” “The cat cow movement stretches and loosens back muscles,” she explained. “It is a great energy builder that moves energy stuck in the lower back and midsection.”
To get in: Starting on your hands and knees, assume the cat pose—create a C shape with your spine, bringing the heart center toward the tailbone and rounding your middle back toward the sky. Moving into cow, create a C shape with your spine but in the other direction. Pull the heart center away from the tailbone, lifting in the crown of your head to the sky. Stack shoulders over wrists, hips over knees. Hold the pose for 5 breaths in each direction.
“This bend stretches the hamstrings and back muscles while also providing release to the overworked shoulders,” Shaw said.
To get in: Place your feet hip-width distance apart. Raise your arms overhead, bend your knees and fold forward, leading with your chest. Extend your arms to the side as you bring your hands to the floor. Grab opposite elbows and frame your face.
“This pose is an excellent way to stretch the front of your hips and open your chest,” Shaw said. “This pose also targets muscles deep in your lower back and hips that are difficult to reach when upright.”
To get in: Lie on your back with palms down. Slide your shoulders away from your ears. Bring the soles of your feet to the floor, hip-width distance apart. Press through your feet to lift your hips. For a greater challenge interlace your fingers under your body. Walk your shoulders toward each other so your body is resting on the outside edges of your shoulders. Look to your chest and move up and down with your breath.
“This pose works to open up your chest, stretch your abdominal muscles and engage your back,” Shaw explained.
To get in: Start lying flat on the floor with your palms face down by your ribs. Bring your legs together and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Use the strength from your back and not your hands to lift yourself off the floor. Look back for a satisfying release of the back.
“This pose safely stabilizes and strengthens your lower back,” Shaw said. “It's a great way to ward off back pain and injuries.”
To get in: Lie on your belly with your arms at your sides, palms down. Engage your abdominals and glutes as you lift your upper and lower body off the ground. Move up and down with your breath. If you are suffering from great back pain start the pose by folding your arms in front of your face and resting your forehead on your forearms in front of you. From this position, lift one leg at a time.