5 Ways to Relieve Lower Back Pain in Upward Facing Dog

Does your lower back hurt when you do upward facing dog?

I feel you. I get it too, especially early in the morning when my body is stuck together. This is fairly normal.


But what about when it’s afternoon and our lower backs are sore when we do upward facing dog? Or worse, this has been happening for weeks or months?


We have to the very sensible thing of omitting the updogs. Boring, I know. Because are we even doing yoga anymore if we leave out updog from the sun salutations?


Well hell yes we are! If we’re going to use yoga speak, we’d call this “ahimsa”, meaning “non-violence”, ie, not harming the self or others. In English we might just call it “common sense”.


We have to stop the silliness and find an alternative.


The Technical bit:

When your spine extends as in UpDog, the small facet joints press together (which is entirely normal) but if they are pressed together too tightly, they can start to get a bit pissed off and inflamed, resulting in pain. In UpDog your spine is going into extension, and most of this occurs in the lumbar region (lower back), rather than being distributed throughout your whole spine, as it often is in other more elaborate back bends such as Wheel.


Another factor that comes into play is the flexibility of your hips, particularly their ability to extend. So if your hips don't extend (think of your thigh moving backwards) enough, most of the movement again ends up in your lumbar spine and can create that pinchy feeling. Once in a while this may not be an issue, but sometimes it can result in very annoying pain.


There are two main reasons why your lower back is reacting to upward dog:


1. It might be that you don’t have the flexibility to do upward dog as prescribed by YogaLand. It may just be that the way your spine is shaped is not conducive to deep extension. In which case, it’s definitely wise to work within your limitations instead of trying to conform to external standards.

2. It may be an issue of FREQUENCY – simply doing too many in a practice and too many practices in a week can cause the joints in your lumbar spine to get irritated. It may be helpful to reduce the number of updogs you do – like alternate between updog and cobra during a class and see if that makes a difference.


One very useful (but heinous) way to help it, is by TAKING A BREAK from the painful action. Heaven forbid we should stop doing something we love. Rest assured that it's only temporary and once your back has calmed down, you can probably start to reintroduce the UpDog. (More on how below). Die hard yogis may not want to take the following options, considering them a failing or a sign of ineptitude, like "yeah but for ages I was just fine so I SHOULD be able to do it". Should my arse. The only "should" is the one about listening to your body and acting on the signals it's giving you. Leave your ego at home, it ain't helping you right now.


Yes, it's frustrating having to stop doing the thing you enjoy (remember though, that you can still do plenty of other cool yoga moves) but so is having back pain, so ultimately you have to choose between a sore back and a sore ego.


Here are 5 things you can do to help relieve the pain of the Upward Dog:


1. Do COBRA instead. Basically, keep your abdomen on the floor and just lift your head and chest away from the floor. This has all sorts of benefits, especially if you take your hands off the floor:


· You get to strengthen your back muscles.

· Rest your arms – so you’ll have plenty of juice in the tank for the cool stuff like handstands and arm balances.

· Rest your hands and wrists – see above, plus avoid repetitive strain or knackering your joints.

2. Keep your feet flat. This is a common point of confusion for the newbie who (quite logically) keeps their toes tucked post-chaturanga because why the blazes would they faff around rearranging their feet in such a small time frame that is the vinyasa? [A vinyasa is the sequence of movements – plank, chaturanga, upward dog and downward dog - that are performed during sun salutations or chucked into the middle of the class to fill time].


Take the time to untuck your toes and put the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Your lower back will probs feel all the better. This is because with your toes tucked, your knees are slightly bent, which then pulls on your quadricep muscle rectus femoris which then pulls on your pelvis, which then compresses your lower back. Technical, I know.

3. Don’t lift quite so high into your UpDog. Only go as far as is pain-free. Kinda obvious, but I think people often feel they need to keep up with the proverbial Joneses and crank into a mega upward dog ignoring the pain. It's there for a reason, so listen to yourself, not the teacher.

4. Keep your knees on the floor. This is what I do for my first few of my practice. Lifting my knees off the floor before midday crunches too much into my lower back and pisses it off for the rest of the day. There is truth to the rationale that lifting your knees helps to engage many muscles, including your “core” which strengthen the UpDog. However, that’s where the rationale ends because as your knees straighten and your quads engage, you end up tilting your pelvis posteriorly (bum sticks out) thus crunching into the lumbar spine. And "glute activation" does little, if anything to help this in this situation.

5. Pull your navel towards your spine. As tempting as it may be to let it all hang out, it’s good practice for many other movements to pull your belly towards your spine as this will help prevent your spine from hyperextending and hurting. Think of it as if you’re trying to make yourself look thinner – you know, that thing you do nearly all day every day. It also makes you feel a bit lighter and take the strain our of your arms a bit. Bonus!


Reintroducing Updog after a break.

This applies to any injury. You take time away from it to let it recover and you must EASE it back into your repertoire GRADUALLY. I cannot emphasise this enough. The number of times people have rested for a day, a week, a month, or even a year and then they go back to practicing full hog and are dismayed when their pain comes back is astounding.


Start with ONE or TWO and see how they feel. Gradually increase the height and number of UpDogs you do in a practice over time. Don’t expect yourself to do what you were doing pre-pain. You may experience pain flare ups here and there, that’s normal – the road to recovery is not linear. Think of the recovery process as a fun experiment and just enjoy being where you are.


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