From a physical perspective, one of the main benefits of a yoga practice is to cultivate and maintain spinal flexibility and strength. There’s a saying ‘You’re only as young as your spine is flexible’. Having a stiff, tense and weak back not only makes us feel old, but it has a negative knock-on effect on the mobility throughout the entire rest of your body. This is why I often focus in my private sessions on helping clients to improve their spinal health and to realign the spine if their posture is poor.
The spine has five ranges of motion – flexion (forward-bends), extension (back-bends), lateral flexion (side-bends), rotation (twists) and axial extension (lengthening/traction). A nice way to sequence a yoga session is to see if you can incorporate all five of these movement patterns into the practice. If you’re short on time, or it’s first thing in the morning and you just need to gently bring some energy into your body, try the following five yoga exercises. Hold each pose for 5-8 breaths (each side if there are two sides) and you’ll be good to go!
Remember if you have any back injuries or current back pain these poses may or may not be appropriate and you might want to check with your healthcare provider beforehand.
Supine twist (rotation)
Come to lying on your back. Pick your hips up and shift them slightly to the left so they are slightly skewed. Bring your knees into your chest and take them over to rest to the right side.
Put a rolled up towel between the thighs if the thighs and knees don’t touch each other.. Rest your right hand on your left outer thigh and allow the left arm and shoulder to stretch out to the left, releasing the left shoulder blade down towards the floor. Take 5 deep breaths before switching sides.
Bridge roll ups (extension)
Come to lie on your back. Bend the knees, heels under knees and placing feet hip-width apart with the toes pointing forwards. Bring the arms alongside the hips, palms facing down.
On an inhale start to peel the hips, lower, middle and upper back away from the floor. On an exhale lower the arms, upper, mid, lower spine and hips towards the floor. Try to articulate the spine one vertebrae at at time, synchronising the movements with the breath.
Repeat 5-8 times before releasing stretching the legs out and taking a few moments to pause and feel the effects.
Cat-cow (flexion and extension)
Coming onto hands and knees, place your knees hip-width apart under your hips and your hands shoulder-width apart.
On an inhale drop the belly slightly towards the floor and arch the chest forwards (creating a little backbend in your upper back). This is cow pose.
On an exhale press down through the hands and round the back towards the ceiling, lifting the belly and front ribs up into the back body, tucking the chin to the chest and looking towards the belly button. This is cat pose (imagine an angry cat!). Repeat this back and forth motion for 5-10 rounds, synchronising the movement to the breath.
Downdog against a chair (flexion and axial extension)
Hold onto to a ledge, table or back of chair. Hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing downwards or even inwards if possible so that you can draw the shoulders away from the ears.
Walk your feet back, bend your knees and align your heels under your hips as you stick your bottom backwards. Work on maximising the length in your spine. Gently lower the chest down so that eventually the spine is parallel to the floor (or just above) and the ears and upper arms line up with each other. Feel for a long line of energy from the tailbone all the way through to the crown of the head. Relax and soften the upper trapezius muscles right around the ears. Hold for 5 breaths. Make sure your breath remains fluid and easy without strain or tension. Repeat twice.
This would be a good pose to repeat throughout the day!
Mountain Stretch and Standing side bend (axial extension and lateral flexion)
Standing in mountain pose, feet hip-width apart and parallel. Hands resting by your sides. On an inhale reach your arms up overhead, interlace the fingers and flip the palms. Hold for a couple of deep breaths. On the inhale think about stretching up through the spine, pressing outwards and up through the palms. As you exhale think about drawing the lower belly back towards the spine and softening the inner shoulders slightly down away from the ears.
Then place one hand on your hip, inhale to reach your other arm up towards the ceiling, lengthening the side of your waist. Exhale as you begin to lean over to the side stretching into the sides of your body. Inhale to come back up and switch arms, exhale to lean over to the other side. Repeat 3-5 times each side, returning to mountain pose with your arms by your sides to finish.