Some practical hints for a healthy back

  • Learn the art of relaxation. Give yourself a conscious, deliberate 20 minutes minimum deliberate relaxation every day. Pain is “wired in” with fear – it’s a survival technique. Remaining anxious increases pain. Learning to be a calm observer of your pain will help to decrease it. Stress inhibits the body’s natural healing abilities and tightens muscles unevenly, resulting in physical imbalances. Learning skills of deep rest and meditation are best learned through regular, daily practice, not just when pain occurs because then it’s harder to concentrate. Preparation through regular practice daily can make meditation more effective than taking painkillers when pain does occur. A Yoga Nidra CD is perfect for this, but any relaxation technique that works for you will be beneficial.
  • Stretch after exercise rather than before. However, before attempting a strenuous task, it’s very helpful for your back to rehearse it in extreme slow motion. Training a movement is much more effective than training a muscle. This can help with everything from playing golf to shoveling compost. Working on machines tends to Cat balance, first stageretard motor learning so avoid those at the gym and instead work on whole-body, real-life activities slowly at first and with sensitivity. The Cat Balance (sometimes called “The Bird-Dog”) can also be very helpful in coordinating your back before you challenge it in any way, and lying on a “Spinal Noodle” (lying the spine along a thin roll of blanket or a foam noodle) is good for making sure there’s no compression to make things more challenging.
  • Strengthen your legs to improve your capacity to lift and cultivate strong, flexible hips. Avoid rounding your shoulders when lifting – everyone always says “bend your knees!” but this won’t help if you’re still rounding your shoulders!
  • Look for early warning signs that your back may be overtaxed – we all get them slightly differently. For myself, I start to get a bit clumsy. For others it might be a warmth or numbness or tightness somewhere – perhaps an ache in a seemingly unrelated place. With practised awareness you’ll find it’s always there just before your back hurts. Taking time out at this point to do a restorative pose can make all the difference and save you from feeling pain later.
  • 20 minutes is the time limit when it comes to ligaments being stretched in one position resulting in loss of disc equilibrium and stability. So take a moment at least every 20 minutes to change your position or move differently, whether you’re working in the garden or the office. If you tend to get involved in what you’re doing and forget the time, set your watch or mobile phone or computer alarm to go off every 20 minutes. Ideally the alarm device is on the other side of the room/yard so you have no choice but to change your position to go over to it! And then you may as well lift your arms up, take a long breath and lengthen your spine…
  • Keep good hip and shoulder flexibility to decrease the demands of activities on the back (this is important in everything from sitting to much more active pursuits). The regular floor warm-ups we do at the beginning of each Yoga class will help a lot if done regularly.

Portrait of an Articulated Skeleton on a Bentwood Chair from the Powerhouse Museum Collection

  • Stay well hydrated and as toxin-free as possible to keep your muscles healthy, to stay coordinated and aware, to keep cells firing effectively, to prevent inflammation, and to prevent making your kidneys cranky which can make your back feel worse. Remember that beverages such as tea or coffee require you to increase your water intake significantly. If we re-named water “Miracle Health Cure Medicine” and charged a fortune for it everyone would want to drink buckets of it, and yet that’s exactly what it already is, and if you are lucky enough to have a rainwater tank, it’s even free!
  • Eat well. Aim for a diet that makes your body more alkaline: lots of green leafies, fruit and veg, legumes, and Charlotte with greens from the gardenwhole unprocessed foods. Lemon juice in warm water first thing in the morning is a good start. Colas and similar carbonated beverages, including the “sugar-free” ones, make the body so acidic that they may as well be called “Pain Juice”.
  • Give your body some quiet, focused attention every day. Would you put water or oil in your car once and then never again, and still expect it to run well? Would you eat only once a week and find it unreasonable of your body to expect more? If you want you body to run well for up to 16 hours a day for the rest of your life, the least you can do is give it a yoga practice for 20 minutes a day. You can vary it: do stability and strength work every other day. On the other days, do some relaxation and gentle muscle lengthening. The restorative poses are really important and can be done anytime.
  • BarefootLove your feet. Free your feet and go barefoot as often as possible. When you have to wear shoes, choose your health and well-being over heels & squished toes. Be aware of where your feet are when you stand, and stand with them parallel, not pointing outwards. Get some spaces happening between your toes. Feel all “4 corners” of your feet well-grounded.
  • Don’t underestimate the role of emotions and thoughts in our experience of pain. Feelings of anger, resentment, stress, or even just feeling overwhelmed or unsupported can trigger back pain and keep it lingering. In my experience working with people experiencing back pain, an independent streak (spouses and loved ones may like to call it “stubbornness”) is a common denominator. Try asking for help when you need it and practise not being responsible for everyone and everything…and yes I’m going to admit I have trouble with this myself and that’s why I know that when I get back pain even though I’ve paid attention to all the other hints above, it’s because this last one has tripped me up yet again.

And more specifically:

  • If you have a disc injury, avoid flexion (bending forward) first thing in the morning when the disc are super-hydrated and more unstable. This is where the most severe injuries or recurrences of old injuries often start, and people say with dismay “But I only picked up a pencil/paperclip/sock off the floor!”.  Stand up straight to brush your teeth, and have great hip flexibility so you can bring your shoelaces up to you rather than have to bend down to them! Preferably, have a hot drink, go for a gentle walk and do some Cat Balancing before you do any stronger yoga practices like Sun Salutations that involve spinal flexion.
  • For sacroiliac issues, avoid prolonged uneven postures (such as sitting in a chair with crossed legs).
  • For neck/shoulder issues, develop awareness of your posture during the day. Keep a feeling of length and space between the base of your neck and the base of your skull. Notice if you habitually let your chin float up and forward, and try bringing the chin parallel to the floor as often as you can remember.

Have you found things that work for you? If so, please share by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Join the Healthy Happy Back tribe here  or come and visit me at for more information and free Yoga resources for relief from back pain, with a welcome pack that includes :

  • 10 Tips for a Resilient Pain Free Back E-Booklet
  • 3 Restorative Yoga Poses for Back Pain Relief
  • a Breath Mindfulness audio recording, an audio guide to standing with grace & ease in good posture
  • short videos of 2 releasing poses that are essential for a healthier, happier back 

Check out my  Healthy Happy Back E-Course for manageable step-by step techniques that you can choose from and slowly incorporate into your daily life. It’s completely suitable for beginners and anyone willing to slow down and take a gentle, easeful approach to rediscovering a healthier, happier back.

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  1. Thank you for this article. Could you explain what you mean by avoiding “rounding” the shoulders? Do you mean hunching the shoulders, or something else?

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for asking, this might be an Australian expression, but it means that the shoulders come forward. Hunching to me suggests that the shoulders move up which can also be the case. Ideally when lifting the chest needs to be open and the shoulders remain back, not rounded forward, or lifted toward the ears. I hope that helps.
      Thanks for commenting!

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