During my years as a private yoga instructor, I’ve had the opportunity to work one-on-one with a number of men who suffer from chronic low-back pain. The husbands of students or clients of mine often took some convincing, quick to buy into the idea that yoga is not for men. But at the end of the day, they experienced enough discomfort to finally give yoga a try. They were completely surprised by the relief they experienced from just a few tailored sessions.
My most rewarding client to date has been a man named Greg. A high-powered financial advisor in his early fifties, Greg suffered from low back pain. When we first met, he was living a completely sedentary life and taking pain medication for his back. We began his yoga therapy sessions slowly—with gentle movements, basic stretches, and a few restorative poses, and finally worked up to a prescribed asana routine that we practiced together twice a week. By the end of our third week, Greg enthusiastically reported that he couldn’t believe how much better his back was feeling, and that he was then able to sit and stand with little or no discomfort.
Completely sold (and convinced that I should become a physical therapist!), Greg continued our sessions, and I added more poses, movement, and strength-building exercises as his body gained more mobility. Three years later, we are down to one session a week, and Greg no longer experiences chronic back pain. He now hikes and swims regularly and is quick to attribute to yoga his newfound quality of life. Not only does his back no longer prevent him from doing the things he once enjoyed (like flying more than 24 hours to South Africa), he has completely caught on to the calming effects of the breath and looks forward to the relaxation he receives in savasana.
What I’ve learned from working with Greg and my other men with low-back pain is the following: Simple is effective, less is more, and the conditions for safety must be met for relief to occur. In other words, slow and methodical is the name of the game, and it is essential to work with the breath to relax and gently open the body and release the low back.
Men actually do not suffer from lower back pain as much as women do. With my men, however, I’ve found that their pain is more likely to be a symptom of tight hamstrings and lack of spinal extension and mobility, whereas in my female clients the pain usually has other causes. In general, men are more likely to suffer from chronically tight hamstrings that pull down on the sitting bones, tucking (posteriorly tilting) the pelvis under and flattening the low back—that is, taking the natural curve out of the lumbar spine. Add to that our cultural proclivity toward poor body mechanics, long hours of sitting at a desk each day, and the resulting tight hips from all that sitting, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an achy low back. In the majority of cases (in the absence, of course, of an underlying spine or spinal disc issue or nerve-related pain), the prescription is fairly straightforward: Open the hips, lengthen the hamstrings, and gently invite some movement through the pelvis and spine.
This simple yoga sequence for men was designed to do just that: to safely and effectively release the low back, while lengthening the spine. The entire routine takes about 20 to 30 minutes, but feel free to pick and choose a few poses at a time—remembering that less is more, and a little bit of movement every day can go a long way.
You will need a strap, two or three folded blankets, and a block. Having a basic yoga mat is helpful but not necessary if you’re practicing on a carpeted surface.
You’re also going to need your breath. If breathing in and out of the nostrils doesn’t work for you right now, just deepen your breath as best you can. As your body opens up, your capacity to breathe deeper will expand. For now, just make sure you’re breathing as smoothly as possible.
Child’s Pose One of the best yoga poses for men is child’s pose. It provides a lovely stretch for the low back and gently opens the hips.
Place a blanket across the back half of your mat (if you’re using one), and come onto your hands and knees, with your knees on the blanket. Bring your big toes toward each other, and slide your knees wide apart. Press your hips back toward your heels, lowering your torso to the floor between your knees. You can place your forehead on the mat if that’s accessible, or stack your hands or fists underneath your forehead. Release your elbows to the floor, relax your shoulders, and remain there while you take a few deep breaths. Stay in child’s pose for as long as you’d like.
If you experience any knee pain, or are having difficulty lowering your buttocks to your heels, place a block under your sitting bones to lift the buttocks. If that isn’t enough of a lift, place a folded blanket directly behind the knees; if you need more support, use a bolster across the heels (further decreasing the flexion in the knees); and if knee pain persists, come out of the pose altogether. Puppy pose can be a nice alternative if child’s pose is painful for the knees or lower back.
Cat-Cow When low-back pain strikes, the body’s natural tendency is to protect itself by locking up (an awesome function of our central nervous system). The longer we hold ourselves in protection mode, however, the more stagnant our bodies become—wreaking havoc on our muscular system. The body was designed to move; it wants to be in motion and needs to move to be healthy. Bringing slow, controlled, gentle movements into the pelvis and spine helps to retrain the brain, signaling to the central nervous system that it’s safe to move again.
Begin in tabletop position on your hands and knees, with your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders (fingers pointed forward, and knees directly beneath your hips). Spread your fingers evenly apart, and evenly root down through the pads of your fingers and the mounds below your fingers. As you inhale, lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to drop toward the floor; reach your sternum forward and up, and lift your gaze slightly, coming into a cow stretch. As you exhale, press down through your hands and knees, round your spine toward the ceiling, and drop your tailbone and the crown of your head toward the floor, coming into a cat-like position.
Repeat, lengthening and arching your spine on each inhale, and rounding your spine on each exhale. Concentrate on moving your pelvis, which at first can be difficult and a bit foreign for many men. Reach through your sitting bones as you lengthen your sternum forward and up, broadening your collarbones and chest in cow pose; and really scoop your tailbone under as you lift through the low belly in cat pose. Try about five rounds to start.
Variation: Try circling your hips, shifting your weight to one side, reaching your hips back toward your heels, and then shifting to the opposite side and lifting up to complete the circle and return to center. Then repeat. Start slowly, really feeling through your outer hips and side bodies. Allow the circles to get larger if you’d like, and don’t forget to reverse the direction.
Bound Angle Pose Stretching the inner thighs and releasing the groins, bound angle pose helps create space in the low back. I’ve also found the pose extremely beneficial for improving postural awareness, and for strengthening the deep core muscles along the spine. (Keep in mind that the instructions that follow are specifically for people whose pelvises are chronically tucked under due to tight hips and hamstrings.)
Start seated on one or two neatly folded blankets—with the flesh of your butt pulled out from underneath, and your sitting bones connecting to the blanket with your legs extended in front of you. Then bend your knees toward your chest and open them out to the sides, bringing the soles of your feet together. Place the backs of your hands against the front of your knees and straighten your arms, lengthening up through your spine. Strongly press the soles of your feet together, especially the heels, and pull back with the backs of your hands against the fronts of your knees; lift your sternum toward the ceiling, lengthening your spine and rolling your inner thighs down toward the floor while lifting in and up through your low back. Keep the back of your hands pressing into the front of the knees for support, while you soften your shoulders and continue to lift in and up through the small of your low back. Remain in the pose for eight to ten deep breaths.
Modified Happy Baby Pose When done correctly, this pose instantly relieves much of the pressure and tension from your low back, while gently stretching your hips (it’s basically an upward-facing child’s pose).
Lying on your back, place your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent. Slowly begin to bring your knees toward your chest and take a hand to each knee, gently drawing your knees apart toward the sides of your hips. Lengthen your tailbone forward and down until you can feel the arch of your low back lightly lift away from the floor. Release your shoulders back down to the floor. A gentle rock from side to side, or using your hands to guide your knees in a few big circles, should feel good for your low back. Or feel free to simply hold still for several rounds of breath.
Reclined Hamstring Stretch For most men with chronic low-back tension, opening the hamstrings is essential. The safest way to stretch your hamstrings is by lying flat on your back, using a strap, and paying close attention to the shape of your low back. You never want to completely flatten or press your low back down into the mat.
Begin again with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Draw your right knee toward your right ribs. Notice how your right sitting bone is lifting away from the floor, and then reach your right knee away from your chest, lowering your right buttock back to the floor and reestablishing the natural arch of your low back. Then place the strap over the bottom of your right foot, across the pads of the toes, and hold on to the ends with your hands (as if you’re holding reins). Slowly begin to straighten your right leg, creating as big an angle in the hip crease as necessary.
If you feel no strain in your low back, extend your left leg out on the floor. Make sure your left foot is flexed, toes pointing straight up, and press the back of your left leg down into the floor. Notice what happened to the arch of your low back. The tendency is often to press the low back down into the floor and lift the right sitting bone up, giving slack to the hamstring muscles you’re trying to lengthen. Instead, drop your outer right hip down toward the floor, and lengthen your tailbone forward and down—bringing the arch back to your low back. Remain here for eight to ten relaxed breaths, then repeat on the second side.
Supported Bridge Pose This is an incredible restorative pose that tends to generate a sigh of relief from my students when they really release their weight onto the support of the block.
Lying on your back, bend both knees and place your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart, with each heel under each knee under each knee, and rest your arms by your sides. Press down firmly through both feet as you slowly lift up through your hips, sliding a block at its lowest height or its medium height widthwise underneath your sacrum (that's the hard bony triangle of fused vertebrae at the bottom of your spine just above the flesh of your butt). Turn your palms up, and lightly wrap your shoulders underneath you. Making sure your pelvis is fully supported, release all of your weight into the block, and breathe. Feel free to stay there for two to five minutes, and then press firmly down into both feet to lift the hips back up and remove the block. Slowly release your hips to the floor, lowering the vertebrae one at a time.
Windshield Wipers Windshield wipers are my go-to for releasing the low back and neutralizing the spine. Once you’ve released back down to the floor from supported bridge, keep your knees up and bring your feet farther apart (wider than your hips). Take a deep inhale, and then on your exhale (without moving your feet), slowly lower both knees to one side. Inhale and gently lift both knees back up; exhale and lower both knees to the opposite side. Slowly go back and forth (do not rush—the slower the better). Feel free to rest with your knees first to one side and then to the other, for several breaths.
When you’re ready, return to center, bring a knee to each hand, and revisit modified happy baby. Then hug your knees a little closer to your chest before releasing completely onto your back with your arms and legs extended, and rest for a few moments in savasana. If lying flat is uncomfortable for your back, place a rolled up blanket under the backs of your knees for support.