Worldwide, 1 in 10 people worldwide suffer from low back pain. Many people seek relief through the practice of yoga, but the vast majority of yoga classes MURDER on the lower back. Here's why:
The disc middle is made up of a liquid gel called the 'nucleus,' and the nucleus is surrounded by rings of collagen.
As you repeatedly bend and collapse into spinal flexion (forward bends), as you so often do in yoga class, you create hydraulic pressure in the nucleus.
Every bending cycle causes the collagen fibers to loosen.
The ground substance that holds the collagen fibers together delaminates.
Spinal flexion produces hydraulic stress of the nucleus, posteriorly, on the fibers that are slowly delaminating.
Repeated flexion will slowly pump the nucleus through the delaminating fibers, to create a posterior bulge in the disc.
Leading back pain researcher, Dr. Stu McGill, says that “life isn’t fair” and one’s ability to withstand repeated cycles of flexion depends greatly on the discs you inherited from your parents. Some people can get away with this behavior for longer, and under much higher loads, than others. As a yoga teacher, I got away with it for years, feeling no ill effects. Then, when I felt it, it was too late.
YOU DO NOT FEEL THIS DELAMINATION PROCESS HAPPENING. YOU ONLY FEEL IT WHEN IT’S TOO LATE.
When the disc material bulges through the collagen and impinges a nerve root, that’s when you feel it. And by then the damage has been done.
If you are ALREADY experiencing pain, this process has probably already begun (from too much sitting, driving, slouching, etc.) and most yoga classes will only make a 'bad back' situation much, much WORSE.
I taught yoga professionally for over a decade, and my career left me with back pain so bad that I could hardly walk. My back is sensitive to forward-bending, but I also don’t do well with spinal extension ... those deep, sexy back bends. Which means that during the 10 years of my yoga teaching career, I was slowly but surely wreaking havoc on my back health.
Figuring out which yoga postures would help me rather than hurt me wasn’t easy —most yoga poses are seriously contraindicated for back pain — but after years of research I developed a challenging yet conservative approach to yoga that eliminates most of the problematic issues that link yoga with chronic back pain.
I believe my approach to back-friendly yoga is unique. Instead of focusing on arbitrary “flexibility,” my focus is on strengh, stability, and appropriate mobility (meaning that some areas of the body are great candidates for yoga-style mobility work--ball and socket joints like the shoulders and hips, for example--NOT the spinal joints, which need to be ‘locked down’ in those of us with back pain).
The Zen concepts of Beginner’s Mind, forgetting everything you’ve been taught and think you know about yoga, and Mastery of Simplicity, which really just boils down to patience, are concepts I encourage my students to embrace when starting my course. I think it’s also vital to remember that when you're suffering from back pain and starting a new movement practice: it’s not just about starting something new, it’s about HALTING any current yoga or exercise practice that obviously isn't serving you. Otherwise, your pain will probably not get any better.
Yoga can, if practiced wisely, offer you a path out of debilitating lower back pain, but unfortunately most yoga teachers aren’t educated about the science of back pain, ergo most group yoga classes and most established forms of yoga will do nothing but make a bad-back situation much, much worse. This course will help you shred fat and build muscle, while arming you with all the tools you need to become your own best teacher.
Here's all you need to get started: 1 yoga mat, 1 kettlebell (OPTIONAL, 8kg to 16kg, depending on your size), and 1 back that’s ready to get stronger and become pain-free!
UPDATE 6/1/17: In addition to the Beginner's Sequence for low back pain, I have begun adding more "advanced" postures for practitioners who have been able to use the Beginner's program to "wind down" their pain, and are ready to integrate more intense strength work into their practice.
*the woman in the course image is Zuzka Light, who first introduced me to Russian Kettlebells. In the image she is performing a Turkish Get-Up, one of the key postures included in the Beginner's Sequence.
01. WARM UP // Neutral Pose, Standing Deep Breathing, Back Bend – Neutral pose is a great way to initiate your yoga practice, with mastery of simplicity. Spend at least several rounds of breath in Neutral Pose before starting your standing deep-breathing exercise.
The breathing exercise provides a good opportunity to mobilize your neck and upper body while applying the abdominal-bracing principles you learned in Neutral Pose to maintain a locked-in neutral spine position.
If you aren’t very mobile in your neck and shoulders, that’s fine. Maybe you can’t lift your elbows up very high on the inhale, maybe you can’t touch your elbows all the way together or drop your head very far back on the exhale…, just explore your own pain-free range of motion here. People love to scrunch up their shoulders in this exercise, wearing their shoulders like earrings, so try to keep your shoulders down away from your ears the whole time! Perform 10 rounds of breath before finishing your warm up with the standing back bend.
Remember to be conservative with your back bend…a little bit goes a long way! Crunching into a back bend as deeply as you can go won’t do your facet joints any favors, and can cause more trouble than it’s worth.
Note: I have included an essay with this lecture, about yoga and heat stress, that is primarily directed at you hot yoga enthusiasts who may be reluctant to abandon your existing hot yoga practice. (Spoilers: I'm a fan of heat stress, just not in the context of a group yoga class.)
02. HIP HINGE PROGRESSIONS // The Hip Hinge is a fundamental movement pattern that unfortunately becomes flawed and dysfunctional for many of us suffering from low back pain. These three Hip Hinge progressions constitute great patterning work that can help us move in a safe, spine-sparing way. Perform 3 (or more) slow repetitions of each progression before finishing, if you’re ready, with just one repetition of the more advanced Deep Squat.
Things to remember:
The first two hip hinge progressions constitute a Deadlift movement pattern, while the final two constitute a Squat pattern.
Think of this first hip hinge progression next time you’re getting in and out of a chair. Use it! Collapsing into chairs and cars like a hunchy monkey isn’t doing you any favors.
The second hip hinge progression will challenge your spine's ability to handle shear loading, so for those of you with shear-intolerant backs—a good indication of this is that you experience pain when hip hinging in this second progression, despite having a perfectly braced and neutral spine—you may need to skip this step for now. You might be shear-intolerant, and you can always return to this progression later on, as you get stronger.
(For more information on shear intolerance and back pain, I have included an article with this lecture that delves much more deeply into the issue.)
When performing the third hip hinge progression, the most important thing to remember is to keep your spine straight. If your lower back starts to collapse, if your tailbone starts to tuck under—what trainers like to call the squat “butt wink”—this means you’ve gone too far. I’m not capable of performing a very deep squat with my feet flat on the floor, and that’s okay, some of us aren’t naturally deep squatters. If you’re like me and you can’t squat very far down without your tailbone tucking and/or experiencing pain, be extra careful when advancing to the Deep Squat. Just do ONE deep squat, one is enough! Many of us cannot squat deeply AND maintain a braced neutral spine unless we lift up our heels and come onto our toes. This is perfectly natural, a function of anatomy, and not—I repeat, NOT—a “problem” that you need to correct by doing 20+ minutes of squat drills and ‘stretches’ every day (which is precisely the kind of spine-destroying nonsense I see propagated by trainers and yoga gurus alike). NOTE: Knee pain is nothing to mess with, if you experience knee pain in the deep squat progression, please avoid for now.
03. STANDING BALANCING POSE // This posture is designed to emphasize the benefits of asymmetrical loading, and is the first of many exercises in this course to utilize Russian kettlebells. (I recommend starting out with an 8kg to 16kg bell, depending on your size and how acute your back pain is--smaller people, more serious back pain, start low and err on the side of caution!)
Your core muscles are interconnected and designed to work together in reaction to asymmetrical loads, and should not be trained in isolation. The spine is a flexible column, not a hinge joint, so it doesn't make any sense to train the spinal muscles like you'd train a hinge joint. That's why exercises like sit-ups, crunches, and other flexion exercises are so counterproductive. It makes more sense to train the core to work in concert with the extremities. The core is designed to inhibit spinal motion and transfer power, so asymmetrical loading provides optimal core training.
This standing balancing sequence is especially important if you have knee issues that interfere with your ability to do some of the floor postures, like the Bird Dog. Doing this pose with a kettlebell is essentially a Standing Bird Dog. I like to hold each rep for a few rounds of breathing, or about 20 seconds on each side. Be patient, this one is really challenging!
04. EAGLE POSE // Now that you’re getting used to balancing on one leg, this posture will add another layer of difficulty to the proceedings. The challenge here is not only to balance on one leg, but also to maintain a good hip-hinge AND braced neutral spine position throughout! Hold the position for 20-30 seconds on each side, and remember to keep your breath calm and slow and through your nose.
05. HIP AIRPLANE // I consider this to be the most ADVANCED balancing pose, even more than the standing balancing pose with kettlebells, because of the marriage between balance and stability you have to master in order to execute it safely. Nailing the ‘easier’ balancing poses, and being able to execute good pain-free planks (see later in this sequence) are, I believe, prerequisites for attempting the Hip Airplane. This can be irritative to shear-intolerant backs, so if you find it provocative to your back pain, put it aside for now. You can always come back to it later!
06. TRIANGLE VARIATIONS // Triangle 1 & 2 – Yoga classics. Focus on maintaining your good abdominal bracing and proper alignment throughout. The first variation offers a gentle hamstring stretch, and I have included an essay with this lecture that explains why I believe most styles of yoga drastically overdo the hamstring stretching, and why that's harmful.
07. LUNGES and BELLY DOWN CORPSE POSE // Lunges provide a great marriage of stabilization and mobilization, and these are great for stretching the psoas muscles. Don’t forget to maintain an abdominal brace throughout, and be prepared to struggle with the breathing at first! These lunges get really hard really fast, and maintaining calm, slow breathing throughout, and coordinating the movement with the breath, can be the most challenging aspect of these lunges.
According to Dr. Stu McGill, in his book “Back Mechanic,” (which everybody should read right now this second), low back pain can produce “antalgia,” which means a loss of the natural hollow in the lower spine, a “flattening” of the low back. Belly Down Corpse Pose can help to restore that natural lordotic curve. Focus on really relaxing all your muscles when you’re in this position.
While in Belly Down Corpse Pose, take the opportunity to run a quick diagnostic. Having completed the standing sequence, you are now a more stable, mobile, better, stronger, faster human being, and also a much (much) better lover. If you’re accustomed to the type of yoga that beats the tar out of your body with excessive ‘stretching’ and spinal flexion, this will be a novel feeling.
08. CAT-CAMEL POSE // Another yoga classic. Enjoy a little gentle spinal flexion here, but don’t get used to it!
09. BIRD DOG // (BIG 3) This is one of The Big 3 exercises, designed by Dr. Stu McGill to help stabilize the spinal joints. Start with a single leg lift, as demonstrated. If that goes well and doesn’t provoke pain, try lifting your opposite arm at the same time. If you can lift your leg and opposing arm while remaining stable and pain free, eventually you can graduate to ‘making squares.’ Remember, these are only 10 second posture holds. Don’t get greedy. Holding these for more than 10 seconds per repetition gets you into ‘diminishing returns’ territory pretty quickly.
10. PLANKS // (BIG 3) As a beginner, never do more than a 10 second plank, with 5-10 second breaks in between reps. You’re better off doing a 1-minute plank in 6 distinct 10-second ‘sets,’ as opposed to gritting and grunting your way through one long 60-second posture hold. This is great for joint stability in the spine and building muscular endurance. Hit it often, hit it regularly, even on ‘rest’ days. When you’re ready to ‘flow’ through the planks, as demonstrated in the video, make sure you’re never TWISTING your spine. I harp on this several times in the video, but it’s worth mentioning here as well: don’t let your shoulders get lazy. It’s easy to develop shoulder issues in planks (and especially side planks) if you start to lose your form. In planks, pull those elbows down towards your hipbones, and in side planks, do the same thing…that ‘base elbow’ should be strongly pulling down toward the bottom hipbone. This engages the lats and protects the shoulders.
11. McGILL CURL-UPS // (BIG 3) This is a killer core workout that looks—deceptively!—like you’re barely doing anything. This posture has been studied in the lab, even tested on U.S. troops, and found to be remarkably effective and far safer than traditional sit-ups / curl-ups / crunches. Don’t forget to breathe calmly and deeply into your belly, and to activate those obliques for a good, high-quality abdominal brace. The McGill Curl Up should be done with a core so tight that if someone was standing over you, holding a medicine ball above their head, waiting to slam it down right on your bellybutton, you’d be ready for it. I’m not kidding! Hold each rep for 10 seconds. The neurological pulsing drill I demonstrate at the end is good for athletes, runners, weight lifters, but consider it an advanced progression. Feel free to skip it as a very beginner. It will come in handy when you decide you’re ready to start practicing Turkish Get Ups, though.
12. BRIDGE POSE // The bridge is a pretty straightforward yoga classic, but there was a time when my body ‘forgot’ how to perform a proper bridge. My back was in such bad shape and my glutes were so ‘turned off’ that my hamstrings wound up overpowering the movement. A chiropractor I was working with told me, “You’re the only person I’ve ever seen try to do a bridge without engaging your glutes.” With overcompensating hamstrings, and lacking any abdominal bracing, the whole thing was a painful disaster. It took a while for my body to re-learn the bridge. So the focus here is on getting into a good, braced start position, maintaining the natural curve in the lower back throughout the movement, and really using the gluteals to move those hips into extension. Make sure you can lift your toes up in the air at the ‘top’ of your bridge, that way you’re sure the hamstrings aren’t trying to pick up any slack for lazy glutes. The one-leg version is, of course, an advanced variation and should only be attempted if the movement can be executed pain-free.
13. BUTTERFLY POSE with Active Thoracic Extension // This is the LowBackYogi variation on another yoga classic. Included in the video is a great mobility drill. The whole thing provides wonderful prep work for the Turkish Get Up to follow. UPDATE: Included the Passive Thoracic Extension pose for those of you with shoulder issues who can't perform the active extensions, and for those of you looking for an even more intense way to open into thoracic extension. This also provides a tremendous triceps stretch. Great for desk jockeys / long commuters who tend to get all slouched between the shoulder blades!
14. UNLOADED TURKISH GET-UPS // In Part 1 we cover the unloaded Turkish Get-Up, where we work on just getting the pattern locked into your body, minus a kettlebell. Once you've mastered the unloaded Get Up, then you can move on to the balancing drill, as explained in the video. After that, it’s time to graduate to a full-on Turkish Get Up, loaded with weight.
15. LOADED TURKISH GET UPS // Time for part 2! You can substitute a regular barbell if you don’t have access to a kettlebell, but you’ll be missing out, so try to get your hands on an actual kettlebell. Please start with a manageable weight. I have read from multiple sources that the recommended starting kettlebell weight for men is 16KG. That’s around 35 pounds!!! That was way too heavy a starting weight for me, personally. I’m not a big guy, first of all. Second of all, I absolutely wrecked my back from years of bashing my head against the brick wall of a traditional yoga practice. I am a delicate, intricate yogic lotus blossom, so I started doing my Get Ups with 8KG bells. Did I get them from the women’s section at the sporting goods store, you ask? Maybe I did and maybe I didn't. Mind your bidniss. Start low (especially if you’re unaccustomed to working with kettlebells), yogis, then work up to a higher weight.
Be smart about this. Go step by step. Never push into pain. If you hit a roadblock, just keep doing your yoga, keep practicing, as you get stronger and more mobile you can always come back to the Get-Up later.
Part 2 finishes with an optional stretching and latissimus activation drill that I find quite helpful, but for reals u guys: do it with a spotter at first. I’m going to be very cross with you if you drop a kettlebell onto your skull.
NOTE: There are several variations on how to perform a Turkish Get-Up. The various organizations that certify kettlebell instructors have certain pre-set standards vis-á-visto how they want their trainees to execute the movement. The problem with this, in my opinion, is the same problem I have with preset yoga sequencing. Every body is different. Pavel Tsatsouline, who introduced kettlebells to the West, seems to have changed the way he teaches the Get-Up over the years, and I’m not convinced the changes have been for the better. Every way of teaching the Get-Up that I have seen, except for one very early example of Pavel’s teaching—in which he said that how you get all the way up to your feet is entirely “your business”—has hurt my body. I don’t think standardization works well when we’re talking about Get-Ups. In this video, I show you a way of performing the Get-Up that I developed in order to maximize my body’s ability to maintain a braced neutral spine throughout. I’m not saying this way is the best or only proper way to do it, I’m sure plenty of kettlebell purists would disagree with me, but I would suggest that this particular method of performing the Ge- Up will offer low back pain sufferers a higher probability of executing the movement with maximum pain-free stability. I hope this method works for you!
16. HALF FIXED FIRM POSE // This is a version of a posture I taught for many years in group yoga classes. The traditional version of this pose encourages students to go all the way down to their elbows, and if that’s okay then to proceed further still, until the student is all the way down with the backs of their shoulders touching the floor! Unfortunately, this is an inappropriate level of stretch for most people and a highly unstable position for the spine. Once you go down onto your shoulders, you’ve placed your spine in an unstable extended position, and then when reversing out of this posture it’s very difficult—impossible, for some people—to come out without dumping the lower back into flexion. This replicates a common, serious mechanism of injury: going directly from spinal extension into spinal flexion. I like the Fixed Firm posture only insofar as it provides for a nice mobilizing stretch in the knees, ankles and quads. When I was teaching group classes, I noticed that the majority of my yoga students started their yoga practice seriously lacking mobility in their knees and ankles, and a steady yoga practice was usually able to restore good functional, pain-free range of motion. If you have to start on all fours like a cat, that’s fine. Getting to the point where you can sit seiza-style on your heels is the first goal. Proceeding to the fixed firm position, knees wide, sitting all the way down between the heels, is a more intense stretch and will target different muscle fibers in the ankle, and can provide a pleasant groin stretch for some practitioners. Hang in this posture for a minute or two, and never push into pain.
When you finish this posture, I encourage you to finish your practice with at least two to five minutes of silence, either sitting seiza-style, or in belly-down corpse pose.
Congratulations, you finished your practice!
Justin Sluyter graduated from Bikram’s Yoga College of India in the spring of 2006, shortly after earning a B.A. in Humanities from the University of Arizona (2005). He began teaching yoga in the summer of 2006, and subsequently studied other forms of yoga with many teachers in the Chicago area. He taught Bikram, yin, and vinyasa yoga in group settings from 2006 – 2016. Frustrated with the calcified methodologies prevailing in the increasingly fractured and corporatized yoga world, in 2016 he shifted his focus from teaching group yoga classes to creating this individualized program for back pain sufferers. He is also a certified clinical Thai bodywork practitioner, having studied clinical Thai bodywork under master teacher Chuck Duff at the Thai Bodywork School of Thai Massage in Evanston, IL. He sincerely hopes that his years of inquiry into yoga, bodywork, and the science of low back pain will help you on your journey to a healthier, happier, more pain-free life.