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Addressing any kind of pain or sensation in a yoga practice begins with the breath, says Tory Schaefer, national director of Yoga Operations at Life Time. Breath, he explains, is the foundation of all yoga practices.

“Yoga is more about breathing than it is about the actual shapes our bodies are making,” he says. Breathing makes us more present with how our bodies are feeling, and just breathing slowly and consciously can reduce the ache of the forward bend. But he cautions yogis not to “tough it out.”

“If you’re doing a forward bend and you’re feeling pain in your lower back, stop! That’s the No. 1 rule in yoga: If it hurts, stop.”

To make forward bends easier, work on improving flexibility in the hips and quadriceps.

Schaefer recommends stretching the front of your hips with kneeling lunges before going into a forward bend if you’re experiencing back pain; see if you notice less pain when these muscles are warmed up. Likewise, try starting with a simple quad stretch, drawing your knees toward your chest one at a time from a standing position.

The key is to cease doing anything that hurts, which means abandoning the idea of what he calls “yoga perfect.”

“It’s not about what you look like,” he explains. “It’s about closing your eyes, breathing, and listening to your body, and then taking the shape to where it needs to go from there. That’s when you start to wake up the energy.”

This originally appeared as “Are forward bends in yoga class making my lower-back pain worse?” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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