A Lower Back Yoga Sequence From A Former NFL Linebacker

When Keith Mitchell, the former NFL linebacker turned yogi stopped by Yoga Shanti in Manhattan recently, he showed us a few moves (featured below) to help create space in the lower back.

He teaches yoga postures with emphasis on the lumbar spine to current and retired NFL players for pain relief and injury prevention, as part of his mission to help heal the NFL. His mindfulness-based programs with veterans and children have also led him straight to the White House — he'll be leading a meditation workshop at the Capitol today, and also teaching yoga during the President's annual Easter egg roll.

Here's what Keith had to say about the sequence:

"I really like to get into some of these poses to circulate the blood flow and move it along. When you’re sitting at work or in long meetings, your back gets locked up and compressed. These openings will help create space in the lower back, hamstrings and glutes, even if these muscles are highly developed.

We'll also work on some knee stability with balancing postures, opening the IT band (a thick band of fascia on the outside of the knee, extending from the outer pelvis, over the hip and knee).

It’s all connected to the lower back — the glutes, hamstrings, hips, etc. These poses just feel really good, especially for me — I had a lot of trauma to my lower back with herniations and pulled hamstrings."

Warm up your lumbar and thoracic spine with a few rounds of Cat/Cow postures before you begin.


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Beginning on all fours in a tabletop position with the toes tucked, inhale to extend the right arm long in front of you and left foot behind you, keeping the back foot flexed and active. Think about reaching the hand and foot away from one another in opposing directions.

Lengthen the neck by reaching through the crown of your head. Contract the abdominal muscles to stabilize the pose and find release throughout the back side of the body.

Breathe deeply here for 3-5 breaths.

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On an exhale, reach for the top of the left foot or ankle with your right hand. Continue stacking the left shoulder over the left wrist and right hip point over the right knee.

Like Bow Pose (Dhanurasana), the back side of the body is now contracting while the front of the body (facing the floor) is active, yet released. The back of the lifted shoulder and the triceps help to extend through the elbow to create a bow-shape with the lifted leg.

The lower trapezius muscles that span the back are helping to draw the shoulders back and down, creating opening through the chest.

Challenge your balance here for a few breaths then release to all fours. Repeat the first two shapes on the other side before moving on.

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This intense side stretch turns the pelvis to activate the dormant psoas muscles, bending through the front hip and holding the back hip steady. The hamstrings of the back leg are lengthened as the quadriceps of both legs work to straighten both knees.

Transition from all fours by coming to Downward Dog. Inhale and step the right foot between both hands. Exhale, straightening both legs and bringing the hands or fingertips to the floor or blocks. Think about keeping the spine lengthening on the inhales, exhaling to fold the torso in closer to the thigh.

After 3-5 breaths, then walk your hands all the way over to the left to repeat on the other side.

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This powerful standing pose activates and stretches both sides of the body, moving toward finding symmetry and balance.

From Pyramid Pose, walk the hands toward center and out in front of you, growing long out of both sides of the waist. On an inhale, grab hold of the big toes with the two peace-fingers of both hands and take a half lift, reaching through the crown of your head.

Keep the quadriceps engaged to help straighten your knees as you exhale. Press into the inner edges of your feet to shift your weight forward.

Hold this shape for 3-5 long breaths before transitioning to the next pose.

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On an exhale, hinge at the waist and bring your hands back to center, spreading through the palms. Make sure your elbows are bent at 90 degrees.

Feel your trapezius muscles create space between your ears and shoulders, freeing the neck, yet still maintaining support. Allow the crown of your head to rest on the floor.

Continue pressing into your palms and keep your wrists stacked under your elbows to provide stability. Think about pressing into the outer edges of your feet to help ground you.

Inhale to create space, exhale to go deeper. Stay here for 5 breaths.

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Lizard Pose is often a challenging shape. Being a big hip opener, it takes time and practice for the body to open up to. It's helpful to use blocks to rest under your forearms if they're not ready yet to rest on the floor.

From your Wide-Legged Forward Bend, walk your hands over to one side and stack your wrists under your shoulders. Keeping the back heel lifted, lower your forearms to the floor or to blocks on an exhale.

Think about keeping the navel drawn in as you send your breath all the way down into your hip joints. You can even rock the body back and forth slightly, to help facilitate this opening. Breathe deeply for 3 breaths.

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Next, leave the outside arm on your block and draw the palm of the inside arm to the top of the bent thigh. Think about lifting up and out of the shoulders to keep both elbows bent at 90 degrees. Start to turn your gaze over your bent leg for a deep twist.

Breathe deeply for a few breaths, then bring both palms back to the inside of the front foot.

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This version of a runner's stretch lengthens the hamstrings while contracting the quadriceps. Using your bodyweight to walk your hands from side-to-side keeps the back long and released.

From a low lunge position with both hands on the inside of the front foot, begin walking your hands out to the side so you can start to turn the back thigh up toward the ceiling, flexing the toes upward. Walk the hands side-to-side as you transition your weight from one leg to the other, bending one knee then the other. Move back and forth a few times, using slow, mindful breath.

Return to Lizard Pose on the other side from here to balance the other side of the body.

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Forward folds are typically symmetrical shapes, allowing us to take note of any imbalances happening inside the body. The glutes and tensor fascia work to turn the hips slightly inward. Folding forward with a long, extending spine versus a rounded upper back, prevents the lumbar spine from compressing.

Make your way to Mountain Pose (Tadasana), and begin to fold your torso forward. Grab hold of the two big toes with the two peace fingers of each hand and take a half lift on an inhale, lengthening through your spine.

Exhale and fold forward, bending slightly through the knees if your hamstrings are tight. Inhale to come back to a half lift and exhale to fold for 3-4 rounds of breath with these movements.

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This pose begins to challenge our balance while finding strength and stability in the standing leg, while stretching the hamstring of the lifted leg. Maintaining a tall torso prevents any compression in the low back, engaging the abdominal muscles as well.

From your forward fold in Big Toe Pose, bring your left hand to your hip and keep your two peace fingers of your right hand on the big toe of your right foot. This may take some practice, but on an inhale, see if you can bend through the left leg and start lifting your right leg out in front of you, to come to a standing position with the right leg extended.

Try to keep the left hip stacked over the left knee and ankle, bending slightly through the left leg to help you with your balance. Try to keep the hips square as you continue lifting through the chest.

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Warrior III emphasizes the squaring of the hips to the floor while balancing on one foot, unlike Warrior I and II. The psoas muscle (deep in the hip) works with upper thigh of the standing leg to create a right angle shape. The glutes work to maintain the square alignment.

From Standing Big Toe Pose, release hold of the toe and begin hinging your torso forward at the waist and with control, start to extend the floating foot long behind you to enter Warrior III.

Draw the shoulders away from the ears by sending the arms long by your sides. Think about reaching through the crown of your head and keeping your gaze soft at the floor a foot or two in front of you. Lengthen through the spine and neck, and flex through the back foot to help you find stability here. Draw your navel in to engage your core.

Breathe deeply for 3 inhales and exhales and float the foot down to meet the other, returning to a forward fold for Big Toe Pose. Repeat these three shapes on the other side.

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Eagle Pose challenges our balance on one leg with the added element of coordinating the wrapping of our arms and legs, creating an isometric contraction of the deltoids with the psoas flexing the hips.

Return to Mountain Pose and wrap your left leg over your right and left arm under the right arm. Try to interlace the hands or bring your palms together as you draw the shoulders down the back and away from the ears.

Begin to sit low, like you would in Chair Pose (Utkatasana) as you continue opening through the chest and squeeze your inner thighs together. Keep lengthening through the spine as you breathe.

Hold here for for 5 deep inhales and exhales.

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From your Eagle Wrap, uncross the arms and legs and extend whichever leg was on top behind you as you reach with the corresponding hand to the foot or ankle.

Reach the other hand or fingertips to the floor for a nice, deep quad stretch and isometric contraction of the lumbar spine. Lengthen through the thoracic spine as you continue reaching through the crown of your head.

Hold for 3 breaths, then return to Tadasana. Repeat Eagle Pose and Sugarcane on the other side.

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This deep, restorative forward fold creates synergy between the upper and lower body by binding both feet with the hands. The hips flex and turn outward as the knees move away from each other.

Come to a seated position, removing any fleshy parts from underneath the sitting bones. Bring the soles of your feet together and send your knees wide, forming a slight diamond shape with your legs. Sit up tall and grab the tops of your feet with your hands.

Take a big inhale, then exhale, hinging at the waist to begin folding forward. Use the inhales to create length in the spine and exhales to deepen the pose. Begin to tuck your chin into your chest to surrender completely into the shape.

Hold here for as long as you like, for 10 breaths up to a full minute.

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The pose is a combination of both hip opener and twist, helping to lengthen the tensor fascia outside of the hip and facilitate the lymphatic system.

Come to lay on your back with your feet stretched long in front of you. Inhale to lift one leg, grabbing hold of your big toe or foot. Alternatively, you can loop a strap around your foot if your hamstrings are tight. Exhale and begin to draw the leg over to the opposing side, with the other arm outstretched long beside you or in a cactus shape.

Your foot may or may not touch the floor, just explore your edge here without using force. Hold for 5-10 long breaths and switch sides.

Finish with a few minutes in Savasana or seated meditation.

Gallery Credit: Beth Kessler for mindbodygreen


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