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How to bend your spine in yoga to get rid of back pain

(Low) back pain is for a lot of people a reason to start doing yoga. They want to cure their back with yoga. However: wrong alignment can make problems worse. At the same time: a some yogis start without any back problems, but develop them because of doing yoga with incorrect alignment.

The biggest cause of low back pain and low back problems isn’t the back self, but the hamstrings. Hamstrings run from the sit bones to the tibia and fibula: the bones of the lower leg. If these muscles are tight they prevent the pelvis from tilting forward. If somebody with tight hamstrings wants to bend forward, he/she is over rounding his/her back and putting too much strain on the muscles and vertebrae in his/her back what may cause spine or muscle injuries.

Let’s look at how our spine is built first

  • The spine consists of 26 bones: 24 vertebrae and the sacrum and coccyx
  • The cervical spine consists of seven vertebrae: C1-C7
  • The thorax spine consists of 12 vertebrae: T1-T12
  • The lumbar spine consists of 5 vertebrae: L1-L5. The fifth lumbar vertebra is connected to the os sacrum
  • Sacrum (fusion of 5 vertebrae)
  • Coccyx (tailbone) fusion of 3-4 vertebrae

The discs in between the vertebrae are made of connective tissue. We will look at connective tissue in another blog.

3 main ligaments hold the vertebrae in place

  •  Interspinous – connects the spinous processes at the back of the vertebrae (limits flexion)
  •  Anterior Longitudinal – runs along the front of the body of vertebrae (limits extension)
  •  Posterior Longitudinal – runs along the back of the body of the vertebrae (limits flexion)

Our spine is not straight. If you look from the side you will see four curves: The thoracic and sacral curves are primary curves. They are formed in the womb. The cervical and lumber curves are secondary curves. The cervical curve is formed when – as a baby – we start to try to keep our head up straight. The lumber curve gets formed when we start to walk.

Movements of the spine

  • Flexion/extension
  • Rotation (thoracic)
  • Lateral flexion
  • Axial extension

Let take a closer look at a vertebra

  • Large body – invertebral discs sits between them. Bears the weight
  • Arches – creating room for spinal cord – nervous are coming out of the openings in the side
  • Process:
    – transverse process: on the side (lumbar they restrict rotation by the way the top and bottom processes are arranged). The back muscles are attached to these processes
    – Spinous process: – back muscles are attached to these processes

Most common disc injuries

  • Bulging disc: pressure between the vertebrae causes compression of the disc and a relatively equal bulge around the edges
  • Herniated disc: pressure between the vertebrae may be unequal. Part of the disc is pushed out
  • Ruptured disc: A tear in the cartilaginous ring actually tears and fluid inside leaks out.

Back to the (low) back pain

Vertebrae are bones. As we have seen before movement is necessary to keep your bones healthy. Moderately rounding your back on a regular basis is essential for the health of your back. In our society we mostly round our back in a forward bend. Even when we sit on a sofa or chair we are rounding our back forward, because most of us ‘hang’ in a chair. To keep our spine flexible and keep it functioning your spine needs to move in every direction on a regular basis. Not only forwards, but also backwards (back bending) and it needs rotation and lateral stretching (bending sideways).

By doing so you nourish and mobilize the ligaments, muscles, tendons and spinal disks by squeezing fluids into and out of them, gently stimulating the cells within or around them. This also prevents adhesions (spots where tissues stick together) and prevents (low) back pain.

Forward bending myths

There are a lot of myths how to bend forward. For some reason there is a misunderstanding that you shouldn’t round your back. Wrong. By keeping your spine totally straight in a forward bend, you miss out the benefits that forward bends have: developing suppleness, easing tension in your back and neck muscles and getting an inward focus. The trick is to bend your spine forward for the right amount. That is: 2/3 from your lumber spine (actually your hips) and 1/3 from your thoracic spine. In that way you are massaging your disks without putting too much pressure on them.

For twisting it’s the other way around. Because of the way the transversus processes are built there is not a lot of room to twist in our lower back. However: we have a lot of room in our upper back. So when we twist, most movement should happen in our thoracic spine to prevent injuries in our lower back and Sacrum Iliac joint. We will look at that later.


Talking about the spine, let’s take a quick look at our ribs as well. Our thorax is made up by our thoracic vertebrae, our ribs and our sternum. The thorax protects the heart and lungs and other internal organs. Our muscles who play a role in breathing are attached at the thorax. We have 12 pairs of ribs. Seven true ribs who are connected to the sternum and five pair of false ribs who are not directly connected to the sternum. Three are connected together and to rib seven. The other two ribs are called floating ribs, because they are not connected to the sternum.

In your own practice and as a yoga teacher you want to make sure you and your students are not over rounding their upper back to make up for tight hamstrings. For some reason everybody wants to touch their toes in a yoga class or place their chin on their shin. In most cases this only leads to low back pain and injuries.

Go safe.

You’ll find all my anatomy blogs on my Yoga Teacher Training Course page.


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