Yin Yoga for Cranky Backs: A Go-To Sequence for Tension Relief


Covid symptoms aren’t the only health repercussions associated with this pandemic. After months of sitting perched on a kitchen chair pulled up to the computer, or slumped over a laptop on the couch, many of us may have aching backs. Our spines simply weren’t designed for the vast number of video conferences and Netflix binges, or for the reduced access to our trusty physiotherapists, massage therapists, and osteopaths. And even after solving the ergonomic issues and getting our bodies moving, we still seem to have numerous pings and pangs.

Below is a yin sequence that can help get our backs into a happier place again and to prevent future discomfort. You’ll need a bolster, two blocks, and one or two blankets, as well as two sandbags (optional) for this 60-minute sequence.

Opening: five minutes

Sit in a comfortable seated position. Lift the crown of your head up to the ceiling. Find an alignment of your neck and back so that your head feels less heavy and your spine feels as tall as possible. Relax your shoulders and hips. Tuck in your chin and slightly retract your shoulder blades. Breathe deeply. After five minutes, support yourself in coming up to standing.

Dangling/Squat Combo: six minutes total (two minutes of dangling and one minute of squat done twice) 

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your knees relaxed. Fold forward and clasp your elbows with opposite hands or rest your elbows on your thighs. 

If you aren’t feeling any sensation of stretch in your hamstrings, try clasping your wrists behind your legs while still slightly rounding your back. 

Hold for two minutes before moving directly into a deep squat. As you flex your hips and lower down, first move your heels and then your toes progressively farther apart until you reach a comfortable stance. End with your toes pointing out to 45 degrees. From there, press your elbows into the insides of your knees and provide counter pressure by pushing your knees back into your elbows. Lift your chest and your gaze and bring your hands together in front of your heart.

Your heels may not be on the ground and that’s fine—you can place a folded blanket or mat under them. Hold for one minute. 

To come out, place your hands on the floor and lift your hips. Bring your feet back to hip-width apart and dangle once again, this time attempting to straighten your legs a bit more. Hold for two minutes, and then take a squat again for one minute. Coming out of your squat the second time, sit down on the mat, lengthen your legs out in front of you, support your weight on your hands behind your hips, and shake out each leg. 

Bent-Knee Twist: six minutes (three minutes each side)

Lie down on your back. Shift your hips over to the left an inch or two, then bring both knees into your chest. Let your arms extend out into a T and ease both knees down to the right, allowing them to rest on the floor, a blanket, or a bolster. Reach your left arm overhead (supporting your left shoulder with a folded blanket if it lifts off the floor). 

Hold for three minutes, and then bring your left arm back into the T. Move your bent knees back toward your chest and let the soles of your feet rest on the mat. Shift your hips back to the midline and then over to the right side one or two inches. Repeat the twist on the right side and then sit up.

Supported Sphinx: five minutes

Move onto your belly with your legs extended, tops of your feet and pelvis pressing down into the mat. Place a bolster under your chest. Drape your upper arms over the bolster and rest your forearms on the floor in front of it. 

Check for a mild sensation in your low back. If the sensation is too intense, remove the bolster, bend your elbows out to the side, and rest your forehead on stacked hands, fists, or forearms.

If the stretch is too light or nonexistent, rest your forearms on the bolster and/or bend your knees and allow your heels to drop down toward your glutes. 

Stay for five minutes and then remove your bolster (if you're still using one) and release your chest to the mat (if you aren't there already) with your forehead supported on stacked hands, fists, or forearms. Ease yourself up to a seated position from there.

Caterpillar: six minutes (five minutes, plus a one-minute counterpose)

Extend your legs out in front of you and keep your knees and ankles relaxed. You can sit on the edge of a bolster or folded blanket if you prefer to elevate your hips. You can also put a rolled blanket or blocks under your knees if you’d like. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward and down, and then fold forward, letting your spine round and your head release. From there, you can place a bolster on top of your legs or a block on your thighs and under your forehead for extra support. 

Stay here for five minutes. To come out of the pose, slowly lift your head and lengthen your spine. Bend your knees, and place the soles of your feet on the floor, removing props as necessary. Place your hands behind you on the floor (fingers can point toward your hips or away from them, whichever provides the most ease). Press into your hands to lift and lower your hips so that your shoulders are in line with your wrists and your knees are directly over your ankles. This counterpose, called hammock (which you can see depicted in this article), can be done for one minute.

Cow and Cat With Lateral Bends: three minutes

Move into tabletop. From all fours, inhale to lift your tailbone, heart, and gaze, reaching your chest and tailbone away from each other and letting your navel release toward the floor. Exhale to round your back, drawing your navel toward your spine and looking toward your legs and stomach. Repeat for a total of five breaths. Then bend your spine sideways to the left as if trying to bring your left shoulder and hip together. Feel the openness of your right side and look over your left shoulder to allow the stretch to travel into the right side of your neck. Switch sides.

Repeat four more times on each side for a total of five on each side.

Supported Fish: five minutes

Come into a seated position. Place your bolster horizontally about a third of the way down from the top edge of your mat so that when you lie down on your back it will support your low to mid back and the top of the bolster will be in line with the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. The crown of your head can rest on the mat or you can place a block on the lowest setting under it. You can rest your arms alongside your body or place your hands on your belly. 

For more sensation and stretch, raise your arms overhead and let them rest on the floor above your head. 

You can extend your legs or bend your knees. 

Stay here for five minutes and then ease over to one side and use your hands to support yourself in coming into a seated position. Move the bolster off to the side.

Cat Tail: eight minutes (four minutes each side)

Lie down on your left side and bend your right knee, resting it on the mat in front of your body. You can keep your right leg bent or extend it, keeping your right foot on the floor in either option. Bend your left elbow and prop your head up on your left hand. Bend your left knee and grasp your left foot with your right hand. 

Stay for one minute, actively pulling your left foot toward your glutes. Then release your left foot and inch that foot and thigh farther back, widening your legs apart. Extend your left arm and arch your back slightly, resting your head and shoulders on the floor and looking at your left foot, creating a gentle backbend and reclining twist. Hold for three minutes, then switch sides. 

Twisted Root: eight minutes (four each side)

Lying on your back, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor next to each other. Cross your left thigh over the right and drop both knees over to the left side. Release your right shoulder toward the floor. You can place a sandbag on the front of your shoulder or a blanket under it, if needed to assist. You can also place a sandbag on your left hip or upper outer thigh. If you like, you can place a bolster or block under your left knee if it hovers above the floor. 

Hold for four minutes, then switch sides. After repeating twisted root on the second side, hug both knees into your chest. Rock side to side, back and forth, or any way that calls to you.

Savasana: eight minutes

Choose a position for savasana that feels the most relaxing. It could be lying on your stomach, side, or back. Use as many props as you wish so that tension ebbs away from your neck, back, and hips. For the first two minutes of savasana, direct your breath and focus to the entire length of your spine. Then release your concentration and relax into the experience of the pose for the remaining length of time.

Photography: Andrea Killam

About the Teacher

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Janice Quirt
Janice Quirt first discovered yoga as a child in the 70s, watching her mother flip through a yoga book... Read more