Recognizing that the health of the spine is integral to the health of the entire body, the yoga pantheon has always been full of good back stretches.
But what about a back stretch that truly does everything? Shoulder rotator cuff, upper, mid, and lower back stretch, and thorough twist—the best back stretch in the world, in other words?
Elsewhere I’ve described a single pose that accomplishes many of these things. But to give the back its full due, try this gradual sequence, unfolding through different stages of the stretch.
You may need a belt or strap for this one.
1. Sit down and set up your right shin so it’s vertical and the right heel is on the floor in front of your left ankle as pictured. Lean slightly onto your left hand.
2. Lean forward and reach your right arm forward on the ground. Take a couple of long, slow breaths while here—this already is part of the back stretch.
3. While still leaning forward, wrap your right arm around the front of your right shin, as pictured. Note that you’re still using your left hand for support. Some of you may recognize this as a simplified version of marichyasana 2. It is.
4. Continue to wrap your arm around the front of the shin and reach your left arm around the back to clasp the hands or a wrist. At this point your right sitting bone remains off the floor to keep you balanced. Or if you don’t have the range of motion that allows you to wrap your arm around the back…
4a. Take your yoga belt or strap and use it to bridge the gap between the hands, as pictured.
5. Now fold forward and down. Stay for five long breaths, whether you are using the strap or not.
6. After five long, slow breaths, keep the same binding action with your hands or your strap, and the same position in your lower body, but lift your chest and turn to your left. Be sure to lift up through your diaphragm, extend and straighten your back, and otherwise sit with an upright posture. Please also note that your right sitting bone, which has been floating off the floor, does in fact now descend and ground itself on the floor.
Stay for another five long, S-L-O-W breaths.
7. Now, to balance out the shoulder and spine, release and turn to your right, and cross your left hand over to your right foot as pictured (or place the strap around your right foot and hold that instead).
8. Last stage of the pose: straighten out your right leg while holding onto the foot (and if you can’t, while holding onto the strap that goes around your foot instead, still straightening your right knee). Turn to your right, extend your right arm and lift strongly through your chest. Stay for five long breaths. After those slow breaths, release and repeat the eight steps on the other side.
Benefits: Relieves back tension quickly and thoroughly. Very thorough and gradual stretch of the lumbar, mid back and upper spine. Good shoulder-joint releaser. Good trapezius, neck and shoulder release. Good hip joint stretch. Especially in combination with the last two steps, it leaves your back feeling extended, and your posture improved. Massages your inner organs by combining the slow, rhythmic action of the breath with the squeezing motion that the forward fold and the twist has on your kidneys and liver. It is one of those poses, or pose sequences, that feels like a whole yoga session in one.
Avoid if: Be sure hips, shoulders or back do not hurt in any of these: pain is not only not desirable, it is counterproductive as it tightens (not releases) your body. If leaning forward and even using a strap doesn’t work (from step three), look for other alternatives poses that for gentler stretches. If you’re significantly overweight, this position may be hard to do, though I’ve known overweight people with great flexibility who had no issues with this pose. Mainly, listen to your body.
The pose should make you think, “Ahh. This feels great!” or “This is like my chiropractor and massage therapist rolled into one!” If instead you’re thinking, “Holy pretzel! How crazy to you have to be to do $#!+ like this?” you’re an excellent candidate for my other poses.
Final thoughts: You do have to be pretty crazy to do $#!+ like this. But come on, this is some people’s idea of fun!
Author: Ricardo das Neves
Editor: Renee Picard
Images: via the author
An even more powerful pose: 😉