Of all types of back pain, lower back pain often gets the most press. After all, as the most mobile area of the spine, the lower back absorbs much of the shock and activity of the body. It’s also the most common type of back pain. That said, our tendency to hunch forward all day over phones and laptops is increasing the incidence of pain between the shoulder blades. Thankfully, yoga for upper back pain is remarkably effective at stretching and strengthening the muscles of the upper back while simultaneously relieving strain and pain. Here’s how to do yoga for upper back pain with ten easy poses.
Does yoga help with upper back pain?
The thoracic spine consists of the vertebrae that connect the cervical spine to the lumbar spine. It has 12 vertebrae that reach from the bottom of the cervical spine in the neck to about five inches below the shoulder blades. This area holds a tremendous amount of tension and is often ignored in discussions about middle back pain, but pain and stiffness in this area can limit mobility and lead to other problems in the body in the long-term.
The upper back muscles are also intricately connected to muscles across the tops of the shoulders and up the back and sides of the neck. Any injury or pain in these areas can result in overcompensation or adjustments in other areas of the upper back, resulting in pain and, in some cases, further injury.
Additionally, comfort and strength in the upper back does not just rely on the spine and muscles of the upper back. In a hunched forward position, the muscles in the front of the chest (e.g, the pectoralis muscles, the deltoids across the front of the shoulder, and the biceps) become short and tight, resulting in the back muscles being unable to release and relax. Over time, upper back muscles become weak and prone to injury.
Yoga for upper back pain works to bring balance to these muscles, gradually lengthening the muscles in the front of the body to release, relax, and strengthen the muscles of the shoulders and upper back. As part of a holistic pain management plan, yoga for upper back pain can be a healthy way to ease pain in the upper back.
10 yoga for upper back pain poses
As always, when beginning any treatment for acute or chronic pain, talk to your doctor. They may be able to direct you or offer suggestions for the best yoga for upper back pain poses. Certified yoga teachers can also offer modifications for your particular pain conditions and let you know when it might be best to avoid or go gently in a posture.
That said, here are ten yoga poses for upper back pain.
1. Puppy pose
Puppy pose is one of those poses for upper back tension that feels better the more you do it.
Come to all fours (pad your knees if you feel discomfort). Begin to walk your hands forward, keeping your hips directly above your knees and lowering your chest towards the ground. At first, pain between the shoulder blades may limit your ability to reach your chest towards the ground. Place a pillow or two underneath your chest and use a block to support your forehead.
Close your eyes and take five deep breaths (or stay for as long as you like, breathing deeply). Slowly press into your hands and walk them back to come up.
2. Thread the needle
Starting again on your hands and knees, inhale your right hand to your heart and then reach it to the sky. On an exhale begin to bring your arm underneath your body behind your left hand, threading the “needle” created by your left knee and left hand. If you can, allow your right cheek to rest on the ground.
However, if that stretch is too deep, come to the back of your right forearm and allow your head to relax however it feels comfortable. If your cheek is resting on the ground, you can stretch your left arm forward on the ground, or lift it up and wrap it around your lower back for a deeper stretch. Take five deep breaths, then press into your right hand to come all the way up. Repeat on the other side. This pose increases flexibility and mobility in the upper back.
Again start on your knees with toes tucked under. Wrists are directly beneath your shoulders and knees directly beneath your hips. Inhale, releasing your navel towards the ground, creating an arch in the lower back as you reach your heart between your arms and finally gaze towards the sky (if that feels good for your neck). This is cow pose; shoulder blades will come together on the back.
Exhale, tucking the tailbone under, rounding the lower back, middle back, and upper back, pressing the mat away with your hands and allowing your head and neck to relax. This is cat pose, with the shoulder blades sliding away from each other on the back. Repeat at least five times each, slowly following your own natural breath and allowing the tailbone to move first in each posture.
Cat/Cow is another posture that increases flexibility and mobility in the back and front of the body, balancing the length and strength of muscles.
Sphinx offers a supported way to build strength in your upper back without requiring arm strength. Come to lie on the belly before pushing your torso up with your forearms. Take a moment to make sure your elbows are directly beneath your shoulders by clasping opposite elbows with hands, then release your hands forward, palms facing down, flat on the mat.
Press into the tops of your feet and lengthen your tailbone down towards your heels. Think about lengthening up through the crown of your head, lifting the dome of the upper palate, and stretching out along the length of your legs as your upper back gently presses your chest forward through your arms. Use the strength of your forearms to gently push the floor (or the mat if you are using one) to feel your chest reaching forward even more. Breathe in this yoga for middle back pain pose for five to ten breaths, then gently lower down and rest.
If you would like to hold longer for a more yin yoga experience, use a block to support your forehead and stay here for three minutes.
5. Locust pose
Locust pose offers excellent upper back strengthening and opening across the collarbones.
Lie on your belly with arms at your sides, palms face down. Lengthen your tailbone towards your heels, pressing the pubic bone into the floor. Inhale and use the strength of your upper back to lift the torso and arms off the floor. Keep the back of your neck long by gazing down and slightly forward. You can inhale to rise and exhale to slowly lengthen and lower down, or you can hold for five breaths and then lower.
Try to relax the glutes and keep the lower back safe by continuing to lengthen your tailbone. It does not matter how high off the floor your torso rises, just that you are lifting from the strength of your upper and middle back (the whole of the thoracic spine).
6. Rag doll
Rag doll is one of the simplest yoga poses for upper back tension. Come to standing with feet about hip’s width distance apart and slowly fold forward. You can bend your knees a lot for this pose. The focus is not on your tight hamstrings but on releasing your upper back. So bend your knees deeply, and feel free to rest your hands on blocks if you need to (especially if you feel any pain in the lower back). If your hands are free, grab opposite elbows and focus on relaxing all the way down to feel your shoulder blades separate and slide away from each other.
This stretch should feel good and be relaxing, so bend your knees as deeply as you need to. You can also place a pillow on your upper thighs to rest your torso on, or separate your feet into a wider stance. Stay for at least ten deep breaths, then slowly roll up the spine to stand.
7. Eagle arms
Remain standing, then inhale your arms out wide, shoulder height. On an exhale, bend your left elbow and bring the arm out in from of you, then cross your right arm underneath your left, twining your forearms around each other. Inhale and lift your elbows slightly, then exhale and press your hands away from your face. Repeat five times, then unwind on a deep breath in. Repeat on the other side (left arm underneath).
If your upper back is very tight, you can simply place your hands on the tops of your shoulders, bow your chin, and focus on breathing space into your upper back.
Eagle arms is a great pose to release built-up tension in your upper back. Go slowly. Sometimes you might find your back is even tighter than you thought!
8. Child’s pose with a side stretch
Come back down to all fours. If your lower back feels good and relaxed, you