Lower-back pain is a common complaint, with many potential causes. While there is no substitute for consulting a qualified and experienced therapist, self-education is a valuable tool as a starting point when pain is involved.
Lower-back pain and sensations that mimic sciatica can be the results of extremely tight gluteal muscles and hamstrings. The psoas, a tricky muscle to access, can also become very tight and contribute to pain and misalignment in the lower back. Barring any contraindications (these should be discussed with a health-care provider), stretching these muscle groups can greatly reduce the pain. Of course, just as medication should never be taken in excessive dosages in order to augment or accelerate healing, and should be taken with full understanding of possible interactions with concurrent treatments, a balanced approach to stretching and eccentric strength should be respected.
With regard to asanas that target the “glutes,” psoas, and hamstrings, there are a few that remain undisputed choices.
Forward bends, when approached with correct spinal alignment, will target the hamstrings. There is a tremendous variety of forward bends, from one-legged to full (two legs extended), with variations available for the “passive” leg. The physical purpose of these asanas can be achieved either in a seated or supine position. When seated, it is very important to observe your back; visualizing all forward movement originating from a “hinge” in the hips is helpful. The forward movement should not occur in the back/spinal column. The spine should be in neutral alignment – the type that you would maintain while standing up straight – and should remain in that position throughout the forward bend. Another way to visualize this is to think of a wooden chest – the lid, when opened or shut, does not bend in and of itself. It remains straight and flat, the only forward or backward movement occurring at the hinge.
Another important consideration when doing forward bends is primarily mental. It is vital to understand that yoga is a pursuit that differs from almost all others that we undertake, most especially in North America. Our mindset here is extremely competitive, and we tend to focus largely on physical markers of achievement. Our most popular sports – arguably hockey, baseball, and football – rely on physical displays of speed, power, strength, and agility. Those demonstrating these skills to a more obvious degree at a pre-appointed time (for example, during a playoff match), win. Yoga, very much on the other hand, is a discipline the success of which cannot generally be measured externally. I believe that achievement in yoga is dependent upon the work that cannot be seen; for example, the interplay of deep spinal and abdominal muscles, upheld at the same time that complex respiratory demands are made, performed with concentration on any of a variety of bandhas, and held in quiet mental focus for the purpose of performing as “simple” an asana as staff pose (dandasana), cannot be seen. That being said, to complete all of these functions truly “successfully” is a feat of coordination, and can be surprisingly strenuous. How many of us, though, after having watched a rugby match or a mixed-martial-arts bout, would think of sitting upright as anything noteworthy? It’s an unfortunate reality that most of us come to yoga classes needing badly to rewire in order to appreciate that success and hard-work are occasionally not “flashy” or even visible affairs. With this in mind, it is not in the least important how far forward you bend, or if your forehead reaches so far down your legs that you can scratch your nose with your big toe, or if you can wrap your ankles twice around your ears. What does make a difference is how conscious you are of your spine, of hinging from your hips, and of imaginary lines running along the bottom of the thighs, from each “sit-bone” to each ankle. As you develop greater flexibility in your hamstrings, you will gradually begin to bring this line closer to the floor, barring any issues in your knees. As that improves, you will coordinate pressing your legs into the floor and hinging forward to greater degrees. I guarantee that your spinal extensors, abdominal muscles, and hamstrings care not in the least how much more your classmate looks like an accordion than you do, but they will seize up in a panic about perceived hyperextension if you push too far, competitively. Your best bet is to recognize that success in yoga is measured by what cannot be seen, and that going the “score-board” route can actually limit or reverse progress.
You can also access the hamstrings when on your back, drawing your legs upward toward the ceiling. You may need to begin with bent legs, holding the back of the knees or the calves. Ultimately, you may be able to grasp the toes and straighten the legs completely, but here, again, core alignment is the most important consideration and has nothing to do with how far you can reach. Ensuring that your lower back and shoulders remain on the floor is key.
The psoas can be accessed through a number of related poses. A high lunge can lead in a natural flow to low-lunge (anjaneyasana), pigeon pose, and king pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana). Here, it’s important to take note of the position of the hips in relation to the legs, and to ensure that the hips are not falling to one side or the other. Using mirrors to gauge alignment, or requesting correction from an instructor, is very helpful when doing these poses.
Interestingly, two of the above poses are also very good for the glutes. Pigeon and king pigeon will access the gluteal muscles on the bent leg. When you are careful to orient your hips directly over the center-point between your legs, and not allow them to slide to one side, you should immediately feel a very targeted stretch. Maintaining a neutral spine, or a slight back-bend, and imagining pressing the hip-bones forward will intensify the sensation. A related movement (insofar as the gluteal muscles are concerned) can be done while supine. If you rest on your back and bend both legs, you can then place the soles of your feet roughly hip-distance apart on the floor. Bring one ankle on top of the opposite knee – you’ll notice that you’ve created a “figure four” with your legs. You can thread one arm through the space you’ve created between your legs, and wrap your other arm around the outside of the supporting leg. Clasp your hands and draw the supporting leg toward your chest, bringing the resting leg with it. Be careful not to draw your lower back off of the floor. You will notice a pull in your glutes; this stretch also targets the piriformis.
As always, there are many ways to combine these poses and include them as part of broader vinyasas. They can also be done individually, as long as you have done sufficient warm-up and are not stretching “cold” tissue.