A yoga side bend is a great way to mobilize the spine and, yet, side bends are largely underrated. Many yoga practices favour spinal flexion and extension—forward bends and backbends—over side bending. Our spine consists of the most dynamic joints in our bodies. Maintaining back health, and effectively managing back pain, means mindfully moving the spine in every direction. That being said, when dealing with back pain there are definitely ideal ways to side bend the spine. The following yoga poses are some safe options to practice when you have back pain.
SEATED SIDE BEND
This pose is gentle and accessible to just about everyone. You can do it seated on the floor or even in a chair or wheelchair.
- Start seated on the floor with your legs crossed. If you have tight hips and your low back rounds in this position, sit up on a block.
- Inhale and reach both arms up overhead. Feel your hips equally weighted on the floor.
- Exhale and release your right arm down beside you so your hand rests on the floor or a block.
- Reach your left arm over to the right. You want to create a crescent shape with your torso.
- Check in with your hips and make sure they are still equally weighted on the floor. Think of bringing more weight into your left hip.
- Your neck should be comfortable and relaxed. You can look up towards your elbow crease, forwards or down at the floor.
- Breathe in and out through your nose. Try to direct your breath in between your ribs on the left side as you inhale. On your exhales, move a little bit deeper into the side bend.
- To exit the side bend, lift the torso back up to vertical. Sweep the right arm up to meet the left. Release the left hand down to the floor and repeat on the other side.
STANDING SIDE BEND
This is similar to the seated side bend. The main difference is that this side bend is slightly more active and, thus, deeper.
- Start standing upright with your big toes touching and your heels a couple of inches apart. If your low back needs more space, stand with your feet hip-width apart so the inner edges of the feet are parallel.
- Soften the knees slightly and draw the low belly up and in towards the spine. Let your tailbone release down towards your heels. Feel how this creates space in the low back.
- Inhale and reach your arms up overhead. Interlace the fingers, release the index finger and cross the thumbs.
- Exhale and relax your shoulders down away from your ears. If you have tight shoulders, you may need to keep a slight bend in your elbows.
- Inhale and lift up through your torso. Think of stretching your low ribs away from your hips.
- Exhale and tip your body over to the right. Let your hips move to the left to counter this shift in alignment. Remember to keep your left shoulder stacked over top of your right shoulder. You may have to draw your right shoulder forward towards the front of your mat to make this happen.
- Inhale to create space in the left side body with your breath. Exhale to move deeper into the shape. You can even use your right arm to pull up and over on the left arm to deepen the stretch.
- To come out of the side bend, inhale and bring the torso back up to vertical. Maybe take a few breaths to release the arms down by your side before repeating on the other side.
SUPPORTED SIDE BEND
This side bend is a great option if you have an especially sensitive back. As it is a restorative side bend, you can stay for as long as feels comfortable. Sometimes it is these longer holds that are exactly what is needed in order to allow the muscles of the back to release. For this side bend, you will need a bolster, rolled towel or blanket.
- Start sitting sideways on your mat with your legs tucked beside you. Place the bolster longways across your mat.
- Slowly lower yourself down so that your side ribs underneath your armpit are resting on the bolster. Adjust the position of the bolster so that it is comfortable.
- Stretch your arms over your head. The arm that is closest to the floor can be used as a pillow. The upper can rest on the upper ear.
- Legs can stay bent. If you need more support for your neck, place a pillow under your head and extend your bottom arm forward perpendicular to your body.
- Inhale space into the upper side of your body; exhale and try to relax more into the side bend. For maximum benefit, hold this side bend for at least five minutes per side.
- To exit the pose, use your up arm to push back up to seated. Take a moment to let your spine return to neutral before repeating on the other side.
When dealing with back pain it is important to keep the body moving. This prevents residual tension from building up and making your back pain worse. Always be mindful when moving in and out of a side bend and only go as far as feels comfortable. Over time, you should notice an improvement in your spine’s mobility and an overall feeling of space in your back.