How To Keep Your Low Back Safe In Forward Folds
Keeping a healthy low back is key to living pain free, retaining overall strength and aging gracefully. You begin by finding optimal alignment—that free and open posture you were born with—then doing what you can to maintain and strengthen that blueprint over the course of your life.
Finding Optimal Alignment
In yoga you most easily find this alignment when standing (or lying) in Tadasana, or Mountain pose. Keeping that shape no matter what you’re doing is something I call the Tadasana Principle (I wrote about that here). It’s a rule you can apply in all yoga poses, and even off the mat, to have a healthy spine.
The Tadasana Principle is fairly straightforward when standing, but throw it into a forward fold, like Paschimottanasana or Uttanasana, and things get complicated. Let’s look at them and learn how to keep your low back safe in yoga.
The Low Back Dilemma
The most at risk part of the spine in a forward bend is the low back. When you stand or lie on the ground, the low back curves forward into the body, and that’s what you want to keep. But when you fold over, the spine curves back, or rounds. It’s a real dilemma!
To understand healthy alignment you need to look at the relationship between the sacrum (the triangular plate of bone at the back of the pelvis) and the lumbar spine.
Standing Poses: The Sacrum Must Be Higher
What To Look For
In a standing forward bend your sacrum needs to be higher than your low back.
Imagine a horizontal line running across the high point of your forward bend. That high point should be near your sacrum, NOT at your lumbar spine.
Why It Matters
Tip your pelvis far enough forward (pubic bone back between your legs, siting bones higher) and your spine gets to lengthen, letting gravity decompress and ease your low back.
On the other hand, if your pelvis is stuck—say, because you have tight hamstrings—and won’t tilt, your low back will be in a rounded position, curving up towards the sky. This alignment puts the spongy discs of your lumbar region at greater risk for injury; they could slip back, or get compressed and pinch nerves.
Look in the mirror and check. If you see your low back higher than your sacrum you’re in potential danger. Bend your knees and drive your sitting bones higher with the work in your legs. Separate your feet farther apart. Tip your pelvis forward. Do whatever you have to do to get your low back into safe alignment.
Seated Poses: Two Phases
Phase One: Sit Up Straight
Phase one of any seated forward bend is to protect your low back by sitting up straight. First, you want the lumbar spine to move in and up, just like in Tadasana. Initially, create this optimal alignment before ever folding forward.
Pro Tip: Make it easier for yourself by lifting your hips up onto a folded blanket or two, or the rolled up end of your sticky mat. Elevating your bum eases the intensity in your legs and grants some freedom to your low back. If that doesn’t work, bend your knees!
Once the Tadasana Principle is in place, tip your pelvis to lean into the posture, so again, your low back moves forward, rather than curving back. It might help to visualize leading with your chest.
Phase Two: Folding Forward
If you reach for your feet and your low back moves backwards, you’re again at risk for injury. As in the standing forward folds, look at the relationship between your pelvis and your low back. This time, draw a vertical line at your bum. Your low back needs to be in front of that line, forward towards your feet, not back behind it.
As you go deeper, your back will no longer be flat like it is in Mountain pose. From the outside it will look like your lumbar region is rounded, but on the inside, you’re doing tremendous work to tip your pelvis and lengthen your low back forward into healthy alignment.
Yoga Practice Not Yoga Perfect
It’s so easy to get caught up in just reaching the feet with your hands in a forward bend. But that’s your mind trying to achieve some self-imposed goal. It’s better, both physically and mentally, to practice yoga with safe alignment, and take progress step by step.
- Use a yoga belt so you get the satisfaction of connecting to your feet without straining your low back.
- Separate your feet wider, it decreases the pull in the hamstrings and allows the pelvis to tilt.
- Sit up as straight as you can and practice being present and attentive with wherever you are.
- Elevate your hips on several firm blankets so your low back has more freedom.
- Bend your knees but keep your legs active as you work on aligning your low back; you can straighten them over time as your body transforms.