Stiff, achy backs are almost an epidemic now in urban lives, especially from sitting long hours at our desks, in front of computers, holding the built-up tension inherent in the posture for hours on our backs.
It’s also insidious—we fail to notice the amount of tension we carry on our backs and shoulders till it turns into chronic conditions like spondylitis and slipped discs.
But there are ways to work around this. Simple, not very time-consuming, and highly effective ways which, if done daily with proper form, will go a long way in both alleviating pain in the back and protecting it from future problems.
These are the fundamental back stretches, the ones to master before you try anything else, and they offer great benefits.
Bhujangasana, or the cobra pose, strengthens the entire back, shoulders and arms and improves flexibility of the upper and middle back. The shoulders and neck are opened up while the chest is expanded. The abdominal muscles are strengthened and massaged, thereby improving intestinal function and digestion. This also helps release some of the anxiety that we often store in this region. After the contraction of the neck muscles, blood circulation improves as the brain receives a fresh supply of blood and the nerves emanating from the base of the spine are invigorated, reducing fatigue and stress. Marjariasana, or the cat pose, increases the mobility of your vertebrae while releasing tension in your cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine. Shashankasana (hare pose) or Balasana (child’s pose) stretches relax the spine and lower back.
Before you begin, make sure you have an empty stomach, having allowed 3-4 hours to lapse after your last meal.
Bhujangasana or cobra pose
This is the first of the back bends and the sixth of the 12 basic postures of hatha yoga practice, the principles of which form the basis for all other back bends. “Bhujang” in Sanskrit means serpent. In English, this pose is called the cobra as the form mimics that of a cobra with its hood raised. Bhujangasana provides a storehouse of physical benefits, and when you are experienced enough to hold the pose for a certain amount of time while breathing evenly, it can help relieve stress and even depression.
The deep muscles of the back close to the spine are continuously at work during the waking state. Because they are short and strong, they are much more difficult to relax than the longer, more superficial muscles. Bhujangasana is the ideal method of contracting them, so that when you come out of the posture, they are automatically relaxed and rejuvenated.
Lay on your belly, making a pillow with your hands on the floor, and rest your cheek on it. Allow your big toes to touch and your heels to fall away from each other. Stay in this pose for a few deep, conscious breaths, observing the rise and fall of your belly against the floor and mentally preparing yourself to get into the pose.
Now place your hands underneath your shoulders, your palms pressed flat on to the floor and elbows tucked close to your ribs. As if you are beginner, keep your feet hip-distance apart, the toes pressing against the floor.
For people more familiar with the pose, the heels should be joined together, and thighs pressed lightly against each other. As you inhale, brush your forehead, nose and chin on the ground and slowly begin to raise your spine off the floor, starting from the cervical area (upper back) and slowly moving towards the lumbar (lower back). Keep the belly button on the ground and abdomen tucked in towards your spine. As you bring yourself up arching your spine, keep your elbows slightly bent and don’t allow them to open out away from your ribs. Make sure not to take your shoulders up towards your ears. Keep your shoulders rolled back and down, your chest open, and gently tilt your head up. Check to make sure you have equal weight on both your hands. As a beginner, you will find more pressure on your hands as you use their support to hold yourself up. Over time and practice, as you begin to build strength in your back, you will find it easier to hold the pose with less effort from your arms.
Hold for a few steady, even breaths and then slowly start your descent with an exhalation. Point your chin out and allow your spine to come down, starting from the lumbar region and ending with the cervical, and finally bringing your forehead down on the floor. Take a few breaths here and then come back up with an inhalation.
Repeat the pose three-five times and hold for as long as you comfortably can each time. As your practice deepens, you can reduce the number of repetitions and focus on holding the pose for a longer period of time while still being able to breathe evenly. On completing all the rounds, go back to the original position, making a pillow with your hands on the floor, rest the other cheek, and allow your heels to fall away from each other while your big toes touch.
Like all poses that ask you to lay down on your belly, avoid this pose during pregnancy.
Marjariasana or cat stretch
From the final resting position of Bhujangasana, bring your hands underneath your shoulders again and slowly bring yourself on to all fours. Knees should be hip-width apart while your arms are shoulder-width apart, with your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Inhale and arch your spine, looking up. As you exhale, round your spine upwards, pull your belly button up to your spine and look down at your belly button. Push lightly down through your knees. On the next inhalation again arch your back and look up and with the next exhalation curl your spine. Repeat this movement about eight times, then with an inhalation bring your entire spine into a neutral position.
Shashankasana or hare’s pose
From the last neutral position in Marjariasana, exhale and slowly lower your buttocks on to your heels, with the top of your feet in contact with the floor, and fold your chest down on to your thighs. If you have difficulty bringing your buttocks down to your heels, you may fold a blanket and place it between your heels and buttocks. Initially, keep your arms stretched out in front of you, making your spine as long as comfortably possible, and visualize your breath moving through the base of your spine to the top of your head. With every inhalation and every exhalation, let your breath trace its way down to the base of your spine. Finally, bring your arms close to your legs and surrender completely into this fetal position, giving your entire spine and back a complete rest.
Once you are done with the entire sequence of poses, it is vital to go into Shavasana (corpse pose) to relax your entire body. Lay on your back with your arms at a 45-degree angle to your body and your feet hip-distance apart. Take 5 minutes to just be in the pose and relax.
Tara Goswami is a Delhi-based author, artist and yoga teacher trained in the Sivananda form of yoga at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Kerala.