Strengthen (Don’t Crunch) Your Back in Salabhasana
Often prescribed by yoga therapists and physical therapists alike, salabhasana (locust pose) is a particularly safe and effective way to strengthen your inner core and back muscles—actively extending the spine, while protecting your lumbar (lower back) curve.
As safe as the pose may be, however, salabhasana isn’t always so therapeutic for your low back, nor does it always feel so great. Many students experience a “crunch” or sharp twinge in their lumbar region as they lift their legs into the full pose. (Sound familiar?) A common pitfall is to over-squeeze your butt cheeks, externally rotating the legs and closing off the low back. Ouch!
As safe as the pose may be, however, salabhasana isn’t always so therapeutic for your low back, nor does it always feel so great.
The immediate solution, and a cue that many yoga teachers give: Stop clenching your butt, and soften your glutes.
The dilemma created by that common instruction is that in order to lift your legs and keep your spine safe, you must use your glutes in the pose. It’s nearly impossible to extend your legs without involving your butt muscles. Your quads, hamstrings, and glutes will undoubtedly all be active in salabhasana. Active, but not clenched. It’s when the glutes take over that the low back goes crunch.
So how do you keep the glutes from taking over in locust pose? You go for length rather than lift. Rather than driving your heels toward the ceiling (jamming into your lumbar spine), focus on reaching your legs back as you pull your sternum forward and up—lengthening your entire spine and protecting your low back.
Easier said than done, I know. So let’s give it a try.
Begin by lying flat on your belly with your legs extended straight out behind you, with toes pointed and the tops of your feet on the floor. Place your forehead on the floor, and reach your arms back alongside your body with the palms of your hands turned down toward the floor (thumbs pointing away from your sides). Straighten your arms and draw your shoulder heads away from the floor.
On an inhale, press your palms down strongly and lift the front of your chest and head away from the floor, reaching forward through your sternum and keeping the back of your neck long. Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels, and reach back through the inner edges of your feet. Spread your toes, engaging your legs, and press all ten toenails down. (Yes, toenails down. Remember, your legs are still on the ground at this stage).
Continue to actively reach your legs back until the tops of your feet begin to float away from the floor. Remember, the key is length, not lift; your feet will naturally go up as you reach back through your inner legs and extend your hips. As best you can, try not to clench your butt muscles. Rather, concentrate on lifting your inner thighs and releasing your outer legs down toward the floor, even reaching your pinky toes toward the floor. (Rolling your pinky toes down will encourage a slight internal rotation at the hips and pelvis, creating space in your lumbar spine.)
Remember the key is length, not lift.
As you extend your legs back and lengthen your sternum forward, lift your hands off the floor and take a a few breaths in full salabhasana.
(Side Note: For those with particularly tender low backs, or those recovering from a back injury, half locust pose can be a great option. Rather than lifting your legs and feet off the floor in the pose, keep your feet grounded and reach back through your inner thighs. With the toenail side of your feet down, spread your toes and actively press the tops of your feet down into the floor (especially the pinky toenails, which tend to roll up). Leave your legs heavy but active on the floor as you lengthen forward through the spine and lift your chest.)
When you feel ready to challenge yourself further, you can try practicing the pose with your arms extended out to the sides at shoulder height—or harder yet, out in front of you, in-line with your ears. You can also interlace your fingers behind your lower back (my personal favorite), reaching your knuckles toward your heels to deeply open the muscles across the front of your chest.
There are also a number of added exercises you can do in salabhasana. A few of these:
Pulse in and out of the pose dynamically, conditioning your thighs and glutes.
Keeping your feet and legs on the floor, with your palms stacked under your forehead, lift and lower your head and chest, conditioning the back muscles—in particular the upper back muscles, as well as the deep abdominal muscles.
Alternately lift and lower the opposite arm and leg (with the arms out in front of you). This is a great contralateral exercise that helps retrain functional movement patterns, strengthens your core, and stabilizes your low back.
Once you understand the healthy biomechanics of locust pose in your body, allow yourself to work with its many variations. The options are endless!
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (E-RYT 500), freelance writer and author of "Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga". She has been featured in Yoga Journal, Om Yoga Magazine, Mantra Yoga Magazine and Sweat Equity Magazine, and regularly contributes to YogaUonline.com. Highly knowledgeable in biomechanics and posture alignment, as well as restorative yoga practices, she has a passion for helping people find more ease, comfort and functionality... Read more>>