Yoga & Fitness

7 Ways You Can Modify Yoga Poses for Low Back Pain

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Some situations in life require you to figure out how to make things work despite discomfort. Paying bills. Communicating in relationships. Sitting through endless work meetings. But cringing because you don’t know how to alter yoga poses for low back pain isn’t one of those situations.

The last thing your yoga practice should create is suffering. Yet studies estimate more than 80 percent of Americans will suffer from lower back pain at some time in life, which means most of us would benefit from knowing ways to adjust common yoga poses for low back pain.

The following variations create the same basic shape and stretching or strengthening in the body as common yoga poses but they do so in a more supported fashion. As such, they’re less likely to cause strain and pain. Most of these adjustments are subtle, which means you can continue to practice along with the rest of class or easily include them in your home practice.

If you still experience pain in a variation, immediately come out of the pose. Similarly, if you’re ever in a class and experience pain, let your teacher know. Most yoga teachers will tell you that they know students are uncomfortable only when they see grimaces or if students ask at the end of class what they could have done differently. Don’t wait until after the fact to express your need for a modified version of a yoga pose. The teacher may be able to offer a variation that helps.

Consult with your primary care physician if you experience low back pain and obtain their clearance prior to continuing your yoga practice.

7 Fixes in Common Yoga Poses for Low Back Pain

Explore the following modifications addresses your unique body and needs. You may find that a tweak that works in one pose will also works in a similar pose.

(Photo: Andrew Clark)

1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: A typical cue for Mountain Pose is to bring your big toes to touch. However, that alignment places pressure on your lower back, especially if you have inflamed muscles in that region. Taking your feet apart creates more space in the entire pelvic region and creates less muscular tension in your lumber region.

How to: Stand with your feet at least a couple inches or even hip-distance apart. Let your weight distribute evenly between your feet. Relax your hands at your sides, palms facing forward. Breathe.

Person in a Standing Forward Bend variation with bent knees
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

2. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: The simple standing forward bend can exert a considerable amount of pressure on your lower back, especially if you tend to experience tight hamstrings.

How to: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart or wider. Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees as much as needed to be comfortable. Relax your neck and shoulders and rest your hands on the mat, blocks, a stack of books, a stack of pillows, even an ottoman.  Breathe.

Woman demonstrating Chair pose
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

3. Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: Similar to Tadasana (Mountain Pose), the traditional cue for this standing pose is to bring your big toes to touch. Taking your feet apart creates more space in the entire pelvic region and, as a result, places less strain on your lower back.

How to: Stand with your feet at least a couple inches and up to hip-distance apart or wider. Let your weight distribute evenly between your feet. Reach your arms alongside your ears, palms facing one another. Engage your abdominals to counteract the tendency to backbend. Breathe.

Man with dark hair practices Cobra Pose on a wood floor. The background is white. He is wearing light blue clothes.
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

4. Cobra (Bhujangasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: An invigorating backbend, Cobra Pose can easily compress your lower back—especially if your upper back is stiff. Instead, create the same shape but in a less-intense backbend by barely lifting your chest, a variation commonly referred to as Baby Cobra.

How to: Make your way onto your belly with your feet hip-distance apart or wider. Bring your hands beneath your shoulders. Press down through the tops of your feet and toes and draw your chest forward and slightly up as you keep your gaze forward and slightly down. Breathe.

Woman performing a Camel Pose modification with a block
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

5. Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: Most of us know that being able to touch your fingers to your toes isn’t the objective of Came Pose. Still, it’s human nature to want to try to force yourself as close as possible, which brings tremendous compression to your lumbar region. There are a number of ways to modify the pose and minimize the fallout of the yoga pose for your low back pain, including bringing your hands to your hips, tucking your toes under, placing blocks outside your ankles to rest your hands, or practicing the pose facing a wall so you can press your pelvis forward. But we find the following variation to be especially supportive.

How to: Kneel with your knees beneath your hips. Stack a couple of blocks in between your heels. Inhale and lift your chest, exhale and keep pressing your hips forward as you lean back and reach for the top block with your hands. Continue to bring your hips forward and lift your chest. Breathe.

(Photo: Andrew Clark)

6. Head-to-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana)

Why you need to adjust the pose: When sitting on a blanket in Janu Sirsasana isn’t enough to relieve your low back discomfort, Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) is an ideal alternative. It’s a safe and effective way to stretch the hamstrings while protecting your low back. And you don’t need to exacerbate pressure on your lower back by holding yourself upright in a seated position.

How to: Make your way onto your back. Bend one knee and place that foot flat on the mat. Draw your other knee toward your chest, loop a strap or towel around the ball of that foot, and reach that heel toward the ceiling, bending that knee as much as needed to be comfortable. Release your lower back and shoulders into the mat. Breathe.

A person demonstrates a variation of Savasana (Corpse Pose) in yoga, with a rolled blanket under the knees
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

7. Savasana

Why you need to adjust the pose: Lying flat in Savasana with your legs extended places stress on the lumbar region of your back and causes an intense stretch in your hip flexors along the fronts of your thighs.

How to: Slide a bolster, rolled blanket, blocks, or a pillow beneath your knees and allow yourself to release.

RELATED: The One Yoga Cue You Need to Know If You Experience Low Back Pain

This article has been updated. It was originally published on June 8, 2016.


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