5 Yoga Exercises To Realign The Spine

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.

A Practice to Strengthen your Upper Back and Shoulders

This week’s Yoga for Strength and Conditioning Sequence is focused on the upper back and shoulders. There are just a few quick pointers I want to make before we dive in with the sequence itself.


  1. Strengthening the upper back is key to improving posture.

When it comes to improving our posture, appropriate strength training plays a vital role. I get a lot of clients who come to me with the classic desk-bound posture – for example, rounded upper back, hunched and rolled forward shoulders and a forward head position. If that’s then combined with time in the gym hammering out push-ups and bench presses you have a recipe for imbalance – a tightened, shortened front body and a weakened, over lengthened back body. This can play a huge role in that knotty feeling between the shoulder-blades that is so common and is also a huge contributor to symptoms such as headaches.

I teach my students to find a more upright posture often by using a wall as a guide and by helping them to open up the front of their shoulders by stretching out their pecs and chest. But equally important is to balance out this process of opening and lengthening the front body with strength and conditioning of the upper back and of the muscles that keep the shoulder blades onto the back.

In the following sequence I’ve tried to choose poses that serve to both lengthen and open the chest whilst simultaneously engaging and toning the muscles of the back body.


  1. We need to incorporate shoulder-pulling movements into our upper body strength training regime.

I honestly believe that yoga provides for the most part a very balanced, comprehensive training system for the body and mind. However, if we look at the modern asana practice you’ll notice that most of the poses involve ‘pushing’ motions – think plank, crow, downdog – but very little in the way of ‘pulling’ movements where you’re pulling against some sort of resistance such as your body weight.

I have included in the sequence below a few forward bend variations that require you to pull up on your feet to help address this imbalance but this is probably not load bearing enough to balance us out.  Therefore I do recommend people to introduce other pulling movements into their exercise routines to cultivate more balanced and integrated shoulder strength. Think exercises such as rows using a resistance band or variations of pull-up exercises.


  1. When you do chaturanga, do not let the front of your shoulder dip lower than your elbow.

When I used to teach Vinyasa 101 workshops, I would often spend well over half of the workshop teaching the importance of proper shoulder alignment when practicing chaturanga. It’s important to note that when done well, chaturanga is a great upper body strengthener – similar to a push-up. However, done with poor awareness chaturanga is responsible for a lot of yoga-related injuries including bicep tendonitis and rotator cuff injuries – I speak from experience.

Chaturanga is undoubtedly best learned in front of the experienced eye of a yoga teacher who can check that your shoulders remain in good alignment as you lower your body down (many people will find their shoulders start to round forwards putting unnecessary stress and strain on the front of the shoulder). However a few tips I can offer here:

  • Bring your knees to the ground when learning this movement – it takes much more load off the upper body so that you can concentrate on maintaining good form.
  • Don’t’ lower too low – your shoulder should be at the same height as your elbow or slightly higher.
  • Keep your chest broad and your collabones wids as you lower down, don’t let the shoulders round forwards.
  • A great practice exercise to help build strength is what I lovingly call (joke) chaturanga push-ups. Essentially you come into a modified plank position with knees on the ground and place a block on the high or medium height under your chest. You work on dipping down just to the point that your chest taps the block before pressing back up. Repeat 5-8 times before taking a break in childs pose and then repeating another set.
  • At no point should you feel strain, discomfort, soreness or achiness in the front of the shoulder either during or after your practice – if you do it’s a sign that your shoulders are rounding forwards and/or you are lowering too low in your chaturangas.


For a printable version of the sequence please click here.

The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management – Part 1

Yoga’s unique perspective on dealing with stress

One of the things I really love about yoga is that it recognises we human beings are complex! When we look at something like stress and how to manage or reduce it, we need to understand that stress affects us in a number of ways and so usually a multi-faceted approach works best. Sadly there is no silver bullet or magic pill.

It’s estimated that 90% of all doctor-visits have stress as a contributory factor. Look at any chronic health condition and you can be sure stress plays a role – even in the unlikely event that stress didn’t play a role in the onset of the illness, you can be sure stress will be a symptom of whatever health complaint someone has. After all being sick, being injured, being in pain are all stressful issues to deal with!

So we know stress affects our bodies physically but we also need to address the toll stress takes on our mental health, our emotional outlook, our lifestyle habits, behaviours and routines. When stress gets really bad it can rock us to the very core making us question our priorities, whats important and the very meaning of our lives.


The Koshas

In yoga we understand that people are multi-layered. At the most tangible gross level we have the physical body, made of bones, muscles and connective tissue. Going a little deeper we have an understanding of the various systems of the body such as the nervous system or circulatory system and also how well energy or ‘prana’ flows through these. Deeper and subtler still we have the emotional, mental and spiritual layers encompassing all our dreams, hopes, thought patterns and moods. Finally at the most subtle level we have the soul – that indefinable ‘something’ that makes someone uniquely them. It’s helpful to think of these layers like those Russian dolls – each layer goes progressively more inward towards the core, with the soul lying right at the center. These layers are call koshas.

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/lachancestephan/kosha/

When it comes to learning how to reduce or manage our stress better, for the best results yoga asks us to take an integrated approach and address whats happening at all these different layers or koshas. Dealing with just one level is incomplete. For example, I may have a client who is only interested in working at the physical level and part of my role is to show them how their poor breathing patterns are contributing to their feelings of stress, or how their thought patterns or lifestyle choices are an exacerbating factor.

So let’s take a look at the 5 major areas we need to address when we’re learning to manage our own stress levels. I’ll deal with the first 2 in this blog post – stay tuned for the final 3 in The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management – Part 2.


  1. Addressing the Physical – Come home to the body

Stress takes its toll on the body there’s no doubt about it. When our ‘fight-and-flight’ button is switched on we experience a cascade of physiological reactions that help us meet the perceived threat. The body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which in turn lead to increases in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.

It’s important to recognise that stress is a normal healthy reaction to a perceived threat. In a normal healthy body there is the ability to effortlessly shift between stress response and relaxation response, often many times throughout the course of the day. The problem these days is that our bodies are getting stuck in stress response mode and over time chronic stress can lead to problems with digestion, immunity and nervous system functioning. Stress can also manifest in the muscles and connective tissues as chronic tension, gripping, muscle spasm and pain.


What should I practice?

One key way therefore to manage stress is to address and reduce its negative affect on the physical body.  Exercise, yoga asana (posture) practice and body scan meditations all provide excellent ways for us to get us out of our heads and into our bodies. These practices can help us become aware of and understand where we typically hold our stress in our bodies. For some, it might be a tightening in the chest, or a gripping in the gut, for others it might be a clenched jaw and sore, painful shoulders. Everyone’s physical holding patterns are unique.


How exactly does yoga asana help to reduce stress?

  • Yoga postures help to reduce chronic tension, muscle spasms and pain by simultaneously lengthening and strengthening the muscles and connective tissue. This promotes better posture and joint bio-mechanics and improves circulation and blood flow to the area.
  • Evidence suggests that our posture has a profound impact on our mental and emotional health. One great teacher Darren Rhodes puts it like this “Shape shift in order to state shift” – by actively changing the way we hold our bodies in space we can improve our mood and the way we feel.
  • Yoga asana provides the perfect gateway to the quieter, stiller practices of meditation by helping to burn off restless energy and fidgetiness so that we can relax and focus. Asana practice also gives the mind something to chew on so its less likely to ruminate over other potential stresses.
  • The asanas can teach us skills around resilience, equanimity and non-reactivity. We learn to stay with and breathe through difficult/challenging physical situations without automatically switching to fight or flight mode. We then take these skills off the mat and into the world.

“Asanas are a microcosm of life. They are miniature worlds filled with all the forms of the world at large. Our ability to thrive amidst those forms can be improved through the artful awareness developed in yoga practice.” – Sharon and David Gannon


  1. Befriend the breath

There’s a reason yogis bang on and on about the breath! The breath mirrors the mind and the mind mirrors the breath. Pause for a moment and contemplate the profound implications of that statement.

What it means is that by changing the way we breathe we can go a long way to changing the way we feel on a physical and mental level.

When we’re feeling stressed, unconsciously our breathing will tend to become shorter, shallower and we’ll feel it mainly just around the collarbones, throat and/or upper chest. This type of breathing in turn will lead to making you feel more anxious, stressed and panicky – it can be a vicious cycle. So when you feel your blood pressure rising, or the anxious thoughts are whirling, take some time out to manage your breathing.

“The fundamental nature of the breath is that it is in a constant state of oscillation. Just as the tides ebb and flow, we breathe in and out in an ongoing rhythm that ceases only when we take our last breath. The oscillation of the breath is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. Life is a swinging pendulum, some changes bringing with them difficulties and pain and other changes bringing with them ease and joy. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting the breath. When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening we are saying that we do not want to be moved. Breathing freely is a courageous act.” – Donna Farhi


What should I practice?

One of the simplest and yet most powerful techniques I teach my students is to learn how to breathe in a way that fully utilises the diaphragm muscle.  The diaphragm is the muscle that attaches to the bottom circumference of the ribcage and separates the abdominal organs from the chest cavity.

When we breathe using the diaphragm, on the inhale you’ll notice your abdomen and lower ribs gently swelling outwards and on the exhale you’ll feel the belly soften slightly back towards the spine. When we breathe in this way it stimulates the vagus nerve which in term triggers the relaxation response.

When we practice diaphragmatic breathing we’re also aiming to breathe smoothly and steadily without jerkiness or hiccups and breathe in a way that is relatively quiet and without tension in the throat.


To make this even more powerful as a stress management technique, concentrate on gradually extending your exhalation, eventually building up to making the exhale twice as long as the inhale.

Yoga has a whole host of amazingly soothing breath techniques to calm stress-levels. Another one to try out and one of my all time favourites is nadi-shodhana or alternate nostril breathing. Here’s a link to it being taught online.


How exactly does breathwork help to reduce stress?

If you’re anything like me, there may be some initial resistance to doing breathwork. For a long time I found it a bit dry and boring and certainly not as entertaining as my physical yoga practice. This is where understanding the benefits of breathwork in tangible terms can really help. So if you’re sitting on the fence about whether to start including breathwork in your daily repertoire of self-help strategies here are 10 physical and mental benefits to inspire you:

  • Breathwork enhances respiratory function.
  • Breathwork improves blood and lymphatic circulation which becomes impaired with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
  • Breathwork improves digestion and elimination helpful in disorders such as IBS and bloating.
  • Breathing using the diaphragm puts the body into a relaxation response helping to combat fatigue, chronic stress and anxiety.
  • Regular breathing practices maintain and develop suppleness/elasticity of the ribs, costal cartilage, and the muscles that support/mobilize the spine.
  • Breath is an incredible tool for helping us to make peace with change and to recognise the impermanence in all things. As we watch the breath ebb and flow we are reminded that nothing is permanent including difficult moments, fears and periods of anxiety.
  • Breathing techniques develop our ability to focus and concentrate. We learn to control where our attention and therefore our thoughts go to.
  • The breath immediately brings us back into the present – we can only ever breathe for the now, this moment which in turn helps to settle the mind.
  • Breathing teaches us to be less reactive – when we observe the breath we discover a gap between our observation of our immediate experience and whether we choose to respond to something. We notice and develop this through the natural pause that occurs between the end of one breath and the uptake of the next.
  • Focusing on, and adopting specific breathing techniques can change our energy levels to promote more balance e.g. slower breathing tends to relax the nervous system, faster breathing tends to energise/stimulate us. The former serves well as a preparation for meditation.