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Strengthening the Back and Core
A lot of back problems stem from weak or imbalanced muscles and poor core strength. These yoga poses will build a strong support for your back, while improving your posture and breathing.
Standing tall and in proper alignment takes more strength than you might think, but good posture is crucial for good health. Start with your feet about hip-width apart, toes pointing forward. Keep a soft bend in your knees and make sure that your hips and knees are aligned directly over your ankles. Tuck your bottom so that your tailbone points towards the floor; this helps lengthen the lower back. Lift your chest up and out of your abdominal area. Rotate your shoulders up and back, and allow your shoulder blades to move toward each other. With your gaze forward, drop your chin just a bit and feel the back of the neck lengthen. Your ears are in alignment with your shoulders and your head should feel suspended directly over your body. Breathe deeply and evenly, allowing the abdomen to expand and contract.
While standing in basic Mountain Pose, stretch your arms up over your head with palms facing inward. Keep the shoulders relaxed and away from your ears. Notice an additional lengthening in your spine and rib cage. Breathe deeply and evenly. This pose also has a cardio benefit because your heart has to work harder to pump blood up to your fingertips.
Seated Mountain Pose
Do you slump over your desk and devices when you work? You’re not alone; many people work this way. Unfortunately, this puts a strain on your back and restricts your breathing. Starting from your Standing Mountain Pose, notice how tall you feel. Now, while maintaining that tall spine, bend your knees and hips, and sit down. The knees are still aligned over the ankles and the chest is lifted. Other than the bend in your hips and knees, everything about Standing Mountain Pose remains the same. For a greater core benefit, try this pose seated at the front edge of the chair.
Tight muscles are usually painful ones, and they are often caused by inactivity and poor range of motion. These yoga poses are intended to help you loosen up to stay active and pain-free.
(An important note: Check with your doctor if you have high blood pressure, acid reflux or osteoporosis before practicing this pose.) Start by standing tall in Mountain Pose. Take a deep inhale. Then exhale while folding forward at the hips and reaching for the floor with your hands. It’s not important how far you can bend, or even if you can touch the floor; you’re just trying to get a deep stretch in the back of your body. Hold this pose for a few easy breaths and feel a lengthening along your hamstrings and spine.
If you have high blood pressure, acid reflux or osteoporosis, you can modify this posture and still get a good stretch. Place the seat front of a sturdy chair up against the wall and stand behind it about three feet. Bend forward from your hips while placing your hands, arms outstretched, on the back of the chair. Relax, hold the pose, and breathe gently and evenly.
Backbends help open the front of the body while also building strength in the core, back and buttocks. However, when practicing backbends, it’s very important to support the small vertebrae in the neck. From Standing Mountain Pose, clasp your hands together at the base of your skull. While keeping your spine lengthened and your tailbone dropped, engage your core muscles and gently bend backwards. Keep the back of the neck long and the weight of your head in your hands. Breathe deeply and gently.
Seated Cat Curl
This posture helps build motion and flexibility all along the spine. Start from Seated Mountain Pose while sitting on the front edge of a chair. Inhale deeply and gently arch your back while extending the arms back behind you. On the exhale, bring the arms forward out in front of you and try to bring your navel to your spine while curving your lower back toward the back of the chair. Repeat, linking the motion to the breath. This posture is also a very calming if you are feeling stressed.
Raking leaves and shoveling snow can involve a lot of twisting in the spine. We also twist our spines when backing our cars out of the driveway. This pose massages the inner organs, lubricates the spine, and is good for lower back pain, neck pain and sciatica. Plus, it just feels good! Stay in Seated Mountain Pose, sitting forward on the edge of your chair. Take a deep inhale and lift your arms overhead. Exhale while dropping the arms and twisting your torso to the left. Let your right hand rest on your left knee and your left arm reach around to the seat back. Keep your spine lifted, shoulders parallel to the ground and the gaze over your left shoulder. Breathe gently, and with each exhalation try to twist just a little further to the left. On an inhale, lift your arms back over your head and return to a forward-facing position. Now exhale and repeat on the right side.
Be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
Judi Bar is Yoga Program Manager at the Cleveland Clinic. She designs programs for patients and employees and is a registered advanced yoga teacher E-RYT 500 and yoga therapist.
Sally Sherwin, Certified Yoga Instructor, also contributed to this article.