Yoga for Beginners

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Yoga may help your aching back — but it requires a personalized approach.

“Joy…and pain…are like sunshine…and rain.” Those lyrics from an 80s song are an apt description of the ups and downs of life. But for the millions of people who experience back pain, the pain part takes center stage at times, sidelining them from some of life’s joy and sunshine. For low back pain that’s chronic (lasting three months or more) and nonspecific (not due to an injury, illness, or other known cause), yoga can help, according to a recent review of studies. Immobility and stress are two factors that can exacerbate back pain, and yoga can address both those issues, explains Judi Bar, Cleveland Clinic’s yoga program manager. But that doesn’t mean you should immediately sign up for Hot Power Yoga. When you’re dealing with chronic pain, it’s essential to take it slowly and listen carefully to your body, says Bar. “Not all yoga is created equal, and a motion that’s beneficial for one person may not be beneficial for another.”

When starting out, choose stretches that mimic everyday movements and support the natural movement of your spine. Throughout the following gentle chair sequence, stay mindful of your body’s signals and keep your breathing steady.

  • Sit tall in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the ground.
  • With your back straight and your hands on your thighs for support, lean slightly forward (toward the front of the chair) and then backward (toward the back of the chair), inhaling and exhaling as you move. Let your body tell you how far to go. Return to center, sitting straight up.
  • Gently lean to one side and then the other side, inhaling and exhaling as you move. Again, let your body tell you how far to go. Return to center, sitting straight up.
  • Keeping your buttocks on the chair, gently twist your body toward the right as far as you feel comfortable without forcing. Return to center. Repeat on the left, returning to center.
  • Sitting at the front of your chair, position your legs hip-width apart. With a long, flat back, reach forward and down toward the floor, keeping your neck aligned with your back (don’t let it hang down). Take a few breaths, then slowly return to your starting position.
  • Reach both hands toward the back of the chair to open your chest, inhaling as you gently stretch back and open, and exhaling as your return to the starting position.

“Notice how you feel immediately after this sequence, and the next day. Let that guide you on your next steps,” advises Bar. If you take a class, look for a class designed for those with low back pain, or a gentle class with an experienced teacher who can offer you modifications.