Yoga for Back Pain: Stretch and Strengthen

There are many many causes and treatments for back pain, depending on the cause. This article will outline general back health exercises that are not specific to any one diagnosis or cause of low back pain. Read on for yoga stretches and strengthening postures that can aid in relieving low back pain.

There are many many causes and treatments for back pain, depending on the cause. This article will outline general back health exercises that are not specific to any one diagnosis or cause of low back pain. Read on for yoga stretches (more: yoga stretches for runners or for neck pain) and strengthening postures that can aid in relieving low back pain.

As always, if you have pain, or pain worsens, during a motion or activity, stop and consult your physician.

Disclaimer: Although I am a physical therapist and certified yoga teacher by profession, I am not YOUR physical therapist or yoga teacher. This article is for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and does not establish any kind of therapist-patient or student-teacher relationship with me. I am not liable or responsible for any damages resulting from or related to your use of this information.

Improve your Posture: Help your back pain

One of the first things I typically educate people on is posture. A lot of times, simply adjusting your posture can make a world of difference in how your joints, and in this case, your spine or back feels.

Yoga stretches can help improve posture by counteracting the habitual patterns we typically get into. Think: slouched position, rounding in the spine and forward head and shoulders. Sound familiar? Driving, typing, watching TV, using a handheld device, eating dinner. These are all examples of times most people assume a forward flexed posture.

Yoga can help improve your posture through both strength and flexibility postures. Additionally, you should pay attention to your posture throughout the day and make readjustments into better alignment frequently. Practicing good posture regularly is the only way to make it better.

So if you want to improve your back pain, do the following yoga exercises and for goodness sakes, sit up straight!!

Stretch and Strengthen to Alleviate Back Pain

There are four poses highlighted here for flexibility and another four for strength. These poses are by no means exhaustive of postures/stretches that can help with back pain, but these will target the six main movements of the spine (flexion, extension, right and left side bend, right and left rotation) as well as the main postural strength muscles of the spine.

Images shared from Yoga Journal’s pose finder at, an excellent resource for yoga postures as well as pose flows.

Yoga for Low Back Flexibility


This is really two poses but they are typically done in concert with one another. This is a great pose flow to work on both extension and flexion of the spine. In addition, you can get some core engagement of the abdominals as well as the arm muscles.

This is also excellent pose flow to warm up the spine, especially first thing in the morning if you tend to feel tight or stiff.

Areas/Motions targeted:

These two poses will work on flexion and extension of the spine. The direction typically lacking for most is extension, which helps to reverse the forward slouched posture as described above.

How to do it:

  • Start by getting onto all fours.
  • Make sure that your knees are lined up directly under your hips and that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are all in alignment.
  • Take a deep breath in. On the exhale, use your abdominals to pull the spine upward toward the ceiling, creating a gentle rounding in the spine.
  • This is known as flexion of the low back.


  • On your next inhale, allow the belly to drop down to the earth, creating extension in the spine.
  • If your spine is especially tight, you may not be able to extend very far. That’s ok, just start with what your body can tolerate.


  • Flow back and forth between flexion and extension or Cat and Cow poses.
  • Remember to coordinate breath with your movement. In fact, allow the breath to initiate the movement.
  • You can linger in either pose for a few breaths if the stretch is feeling good to your body.
  • Continue alternating between each direction until this feels complete.

Gate Pose

Gate pose

Areas/Motions targeted:

Right and left side bending of the spine. This also helps activate the obliques (abdominals) as well as stretch the hip flexors if they’re especially tight.

How to do it:

  • Start in a high kneel position, meaning that you’re on both knees, shins resting on the floor
  • Extend your left leg out to the side
  • Take a deep breath in and reach your right arm up to the sky
  • On the exhale, place your left hand on your left leg and slide it down your leg so that you stretch out the right side body
  • Make sure that your hips are in line with one another, don’t let the right hip come forward (This will often happen if your hip flexors, the muscles in the front of the hip, are very tight)
  • Stay here for a few breaths
  • To exit the pose, bring the body back to upright, releasing the arms down by the sides
  • Tuck the leg back underneath you
  • Repeat on the opposite side

Optional Modification(s):

  • If you have sensitive knees, you can place a folded blanket or towel under the knee, or even fold over the side of your yoga mat long-wise to give your knee extra cushioning.
  • If this is still too much for your knees, take the pose to seated: gently cross the legs and perform the same side bending motion with one arm overhead and one hand on the floor.

Spinal Twist

Areas/Motions targeted:

Right and left rotation of the spine. This motion is important for daily activities when going to reach for something or even simple activities like turning to load the dishwasher or the dryer or getting into or out of your car.

How to do it:

  • Start by lying on your back on the floor or your yoga mat
  • Pull both knees up toward the chest
  • Extend the arms out to the side into a T position as shown
  • Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, drop both knees over to one side
  • Hold here for a few breaths to open the low back
  • Take a deep breath in, then on the exhale, engage the core and pull the knees through center and over to the other side.
  • Again, hold for a few breaths before returning back to center and releasing the pose

Optional Modification(s):

  • If the weight of the legs feels like too much of a stretch, use a block or a rolled blanket or towel to prop under the knee once in the twist. This will limit the amount of rotation you’re experiencing in the spine. Over time, you can gradually reduce the size of the prop to move further into the twist.
  • If you want more of a stretch, take the hand on the same side that you’re twisting to and place it on the outside of the top knee to give yourself some over pressure to move deeper into the twist.


Areas/Motions targeted:

Extension of the spine, stretching hip flexors. The hip flexors have connections to the low back so if they are tight, they will create a pull on the spine. This results in stiffness and pain.

How to do it:

  • Start by lying on your stomach on the ground or on your yoga mat
  • Pull your elbows under your shoulders, resting your forearms on the ground.
  • Stay here breathing evenly, allowing the low back and front of the hips to stretch out.
  • To exit the pose, drop back down onto your stomach, turn the head to one side, resting your cheek on the ground. Do this for a few breaths before getting up.


If this feels like too much of a stretch, you can try a few things:

Simply lie flat on your stomach with the head turned to one side

Or, take a pillow (adjust the number or height of pillows as needed) and place it under your chest and just breathe here for a stretch.

If you’re looking for more of a stretch, you can press up onto the hands into cobra pose to gain more extension in the spine. Make sure you are able to maintain both hips in contact with the ground. If you can’t yet, stick with sphinx for a bit longer.

Yoga for Low Back Strength

Bridge Pose

Areas/Motions Targeted:

Strengthening for the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. Working on extension range of motion of the lumbar spine (low back) as well as stretching the front line of the body.

How to do it:

  • Start by lying on your back with both knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  • Rest your arms down by your sides, palms resting on the floor.
  • Take a deep breath in and on the exhale tighten your abdominals and glutes, lifting your buttocks up into the air.
  • Breathe here for a few breaths before lowering back down.
  • Make sure you are taking full, deep belly breaths in this posture and that you are keeping your core engaged so that the hips don’t dip down toward the earth.

Optional Modification(s):

If you need more support, you can use a yoga block or a folded towel or blanket and place it under your sacrum. You can then rest your body weight onto the prop for a supported bridge pose. Make sure that your support is on the bony part of your low, low back, nearly at your buttocks. You don’t want it to be resting on your spine at all. You can adjust the height of your prop by moving your block to a different setting or folding your blanket more or less, depending on what your body needs or can tolerate.

If you want to make this more challenging, you can roll the shoulders underneath the body as shown above, opening up the chest wall, and clasp the hands underneath you, arms still resting on the floor or yoga mat.

Locust (Modified)

Areas/Motions Targeted:

Strengthening for the glutes, hamstrings and spinal extensors.

How to do it:

  • Start by lying on your belly on the floor or your yoga mat
  • Rest your chin on the mat so that your gaze is straight ahead, or if your neck is sensitive, you can turn the head to one side and rest the cheek on the mat
  • Arms are down by the sides, palms down
  • Ground down through the hips, pressing the hips and the pubic bone into the mat
  • Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, tighten one leg, lifting the leg up toward the sky
  • Keep the knee straight and the hip bone in contact with the mat
  • Take another inhale and then on the next exhale lower the leg back down to the earth.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Optional Modification(s):

If it’s not comfortable having the palms down, you can rotate the shoulders for a palms up position.

Don’t worry about how much you can lift your leg off of the ground. If you are maintaining good form and you’re lifting even one inch, you’re getting the benefit of this exercise.

If this feels especially difficult, you can modify this by coming into table top position (on all fours as in cat/cow above), and lifting each leg out behind you alternately, as in the image below. The key here is to keep the hips pointing down toward the ground. The tendency is to let the hip roll back and the spine to rotate. Resist the urge to allow this to happen so that you can really work your spinal and hip extensor muscles.

Warrior III

Warrior iii pose with arms overhead

Areas/Motions Targeted:

Strengthening for spinal extensors, glutes and hamstrings as well as the scapular and shoulder muscles.

How to do it:

  • Start in Tadasana or mountain pose (standing on your mat with feet together and arms down by your sides)
  • Raise your arms out to the side into a T position. This will afford you improved balance as you move into the pose
  • Gently shift the weight onto the left foot.
  • Take a breath in, and on the exhale, charge the upper body forward, lifting the right leg behind you
  • Hold here, balancing, until you feel complete, and then raise the upper body and lower the leg simultaneously.
  • Repeat on the opposite side
  • Remember to keep your spine straight and both hips facing toward the floor
  • A soft bend in the standing knee is also helpful as you ground down through the foot into the earth

Optional Modification(s):

The ultimate goal would be to get both the chest and the raised leg parallel with the floor. However, it takes a bit of balance as well as strength in the spine and flexibility in the hamstrings of the standing leg to achieve this. It’s okay if you’re not there yet. You can come into a partial Warrior III, as long as you keep the spine straight and a long line of energy from the crown of the head to the foot on the extended leg.

If you need more assistance with balance, perform this pose next to a chair, wall or countertop. Place one hand on the support and the other can be out to the side.

If you’re looking for more of a balance challenge, bring the arms up overhead with biceps by the ears, into prayer position (anjali mudra) in the front of the chest or into prayer position behind the back (reverse anjali mudra).

Dolphin Plank

Areas/Motions Targeted:

Core muscles for general strengthening: spinal extensors, abdominals, glutes, quads, shoulders and scapular stabilizers

How to do it:

  • Come into a prone position by lying on your belly on the floor
  • Tuck the arms underneath you so that your forearms are resting on the floor
  • Make sure that your elbows are directly beneath your shoulders and that your forearms are parallel with each other
  • Tuck your toes under and on your next exhale, tighten your abdominals and glutes and lift your belly up off of the ground
  • Hold this position through a few breaths.
  • Make sure that your hips and chest are not sagging down to the ground. You want to maintain a straight line from the crown of the head down to the heels of the feet.

Optional Modification(s):

If you’re not quite able to hold dolphin plank with good form, you can perform a modified plank by coming up on the knees instead of the toes. The same principle applies in that you want to keep a long line of energy from the crown of the head down to, in this case, the knees.

If this is still feeling quite challenging, you can do dolphin plank in standing with forearms on a wall and feet back a little ways. Then, progress to dolphin plank on a countertop or edge of a bed. Progressively work your way down to the ground as your strength improves.

Yoga for Back Pain: Stretch and Strengthen

It’s important to not only stretch the back to work on spinal range of motion and muscle flexibility, but also to work on strengthening the back, abdominals and other core muscles (hips, shoulders) in order to improve your posture, and thus, your pain.

With improved flexibility and strength, maintaining a good upright posture will become much easier.

Posture. Flexibility. Strength.

That’s it.

You can do it. You can improve your back pain with these exercises and tips.

More tips, LIVE trainings and advice on injury healing and prevention:

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