Poses for back-pain relief & better flexibility
There’s a tool at your local hardware store that can be the perfect yoga prop to support a strong and healthy back— especially if you suffer from pain or other issues.
DECADES AGO, KEVIN GARDINER, one of my Iyengar teachers, brought out short wooden dowels as props for Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand). That immediately sparked my interest in this tool and how it might be used in other ways in class. I bought a dozen five-foot wooden broom handles—and later bought shorter and longer versions—to experiment with.
Dowels, small-diameter rods of any length— made of wood, metal, or plastic—have become some of my favorite props because they’re so versatile. They provide alignment feedback, gentle leverage, and traction (stretching your spine) to relieve pressure and help you lengthen muscles and release joints. And they can be a point of resistance, a tool for core work, an aid to balance, and more. Dowels can support sound posture and be used creatively to allow you to experience poses in novel ways.
If you experience back pain, a dowel is particularly useful because it can help you discover safer movement patterns to protect your back. These new patterns can prevent compression of your spine during core work, forward bends, and side bends (lateral flexions)—allowing you to lengthen and strengthen your muscles without causing additional strain.
You can think of a dowel as an external representation of your midline to help you find strong axial extension, which is a full lengthening of your spine. For example, if you place the dowel in front of you and close to your body in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and pull down on it, your chest will lift and your spine will lengthen. For those with back pain due to disc problems, this action lessens pressure on intervertebral discs and nerve roots. A dowel can also offer stable support on the floor at one end while allowing safe movement and traction at the other end in poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). And it can offer ease in poses such as Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), since not as much range of motion is required when you use a dowel.
I now teach with a six-foot dowel with a 1.25-inch diameter, but you can use a shorter dowel—such as a five-foot paint-roller pole or broom handle—for most poses. A six-foot dowel is best for Revolved Side Angle Pose or Utkatasana (Chair Pose).
To experience the soothing, stabilizing benefits of yoga with a dowel, make a trip to the hardware store, then try this sequence. (If you are experiencing back pain, make sure to check in with your doctor before trying anything new.)