These expert-approved yoga poses could help ease stiffness, tension and everyday stress after a hard day at your desk

Back pain causing you discomfort? Turns out you aren’t alone. According to the NHS, it’s a pretty common health complaint. The good news? There are things you can try that may help relieve some of the tension. A good starting point is yoga. 

Scroll on to find out more about yoga for upper back pain and the poses that may help.

What causes upper back pain?

There are many causes of upper back pain, although it can sometimes be tricky to tell what's behind it. According to the NHS, there are a few reasons that may cause back pain in general, whether it’s the strain of a pulled muscle, a slipped disc or a trapped nerve. When it comes to upper back pain in particular, those who work at a desk may experience that familiar ache around the shoulder blades at the end of a long day – often a signifier of poor posture. Very rarely, back pain can be a sign of a more serious issue such as a broken bone or infection, so it’s important to make an appointment with your GP if you’re unsure.

When can yoga help upper back pain?

When aches and pains in your upper back strike, you may be tempted to chill in bed until it gets better. But turns out, this could be one of the worst things you can do. Instead, you should stay as active as possible and try more gentle, slow paced activities such as yoga.

"Practising yoga provides a space for you to calm, restore and re-energise both your mind and your body," says yoga expert Emily Cohen, who can be found on Instagram @emilycohenhealth. "It’s amazing for building a strong core which will improve your posture and strengthen your muscles, ultimately providing better spinal support and minimising upper back pain."

And yoga expert Emma Grant agrees. "Mentally, yoga can help us 'tune-in' to the sensations in our back and notice when things are starting to feel tight, weak, over or underused." She adds that often "tightness is hard to feel since we become accustomed to it. Moving and breathing in new ways help us challenge and explore our range of motion." 

Yoga can form a valuable part of a varied weekly fitness regime if you’re looking to stay active. Unless you’re a wheelchair user, sitting down too much can be a risk to your health, with a sedentary lifestyle linked to a range of health problems, from back pain to heart and circulatory diseases like heart attack and stroke. If you feel like you’re constantly short of hitting the NHS’s suggested 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week, spread over four to five days (for adults aged 19 to 64 years of age), adding a yoga practice into your weekly routine can be just the thing.

However, if your upper back pain is chronic, you haven’t exercised previously or you have a health condition, speak to your GP before starting a new exercise regime so that you can discuss and plan a routine that best works for you.

What should you avoid in yoga when you have upper back pain?

It comes as no surprise that the positions that work well for one, might not work so well for others. The key here? Listening to your body.

"Feeling pain is a sign you’ve gone too far or aggravated something," says Emma. "Generally sharp, hot or stabbing sensations in a specific area is a sign to stop and find a way to adjust the position. If you feel a dull ache that’s usually normal – it’s just a sign that the muscles are being used."

Emily’s top tip?

"Always perform your poses with slightly soft knees and elbows. You should aim to 'flow with fluidity' to avoid over-extension and minimise the risk of pain. In the beginning, I’d always suggest attending a one-to-one session with a teacher to ensure your alignment and form is correct," she adds.

If you do attend a yoga class or one-to-one session, make sure you discuss any injuries or pain that you’re managing with the instructor before you start any exercises.

And it’s best to stop if your pain gets worse and see a GP for advice.

How often should you practise yoga for upper back pain?

Some kind of daily movement is ideal as resting for long periods could make back pain worse.

"I’d suggest building your practice slowly and consistently, working on the whole body," says Emma. "Avoid repeating the same poses daily as this can cause repetitive stress injuries. And pay attention to the feedback your body is giving you – it will often decide for you when it’s had enough."

"If you’re a newbie you can consider a few 10-minute sessions to begin with," adds Emily. 

What yoga poses are good for upper back pain? 

Here, Emma shares her favourite poses and upper back stretches that may prove helpful in releasing tension and alleviating stiffness, discomfort, aches and pains. While these won’t be for everyone, if you are keen to try these and are new to yoga, talk to your GP before starting as they can help you identify any possible risks and help monitor your progress. 

The same applies if you decide to start any new gym classes. Be sure to seek out classes and teachers who can cater to your specific needs and are able to better assist you on your fitness journey.

The eagle pose

"This pose stretches the upper back and shoulders and is one you can easily do while sitting," says Emma. "Think about breathing into the back of your lungs by imagining inflating a backpack as you breathe in."

1. In a comfortable seated position, reach your arms forward in front of you, cross your right arm on top of your left, crossing at the elbows.

2. Raise both hands up and your forearms towards you.

3. Squeeze your forearms together and lift them so that your elbows are at the same height as your shoulders. 

4. Hold for five to eight breaths.Repeat on the other side.

The cow face pose

"This pose is amazing for warming up the spine, and helping to stretch and open the shoulders. It’s also a good way to practice synchronising movement with breath."

1. Take your right arm behind your head and hug your elbow towards you. 

2. Take your left arm behind you and press into your back as you reach your fingertips together.

3. Press your head lightly back against your arms. If your hands don’t touch, use a belt as pictured. 

4. Hold for around five breaths and switch sides.

The extended puppy pose

"Consider this a low-impact stretch and strengthener for the whole spine, shoulders and arms."

1. Begin on all fours, keeping your hips in line with your knees.

2. Walk your hands further forward until your arms straighten on a diagonal. 

3. Lower your chest and head towards the mat, keeping your ears in line with your upper arms , then reach your hips back.

4. Think about pulling your naval lightly in towards your spine to prevent the lower back from dipping or collapsing – imagine trying to gently squeeze your armpits towards each other, to help stabilise the shoulders.

5. Hold for around five breaths.

The puppy dog with a twist

"This pose will deeply stretch and open the front of the chest and shoulders."

1. From extended puppy dog pose, walk your hands towards you a few inches and thread your right arm under your left, bringing the right side of your head to the mat.

2. Hold for up to five breaths.

3. Repeat on the other side by threading your left arm under your right. 

The locust pose

"This is a low-impact pose that strengthens the whole of the back and opens up the front."

1. Lie face down and interlace your fingers behind your back.

2. Lift your head, chest and legs up off the floor as you inhale. 

3. Keep your gaze towards the top of the mat so that your neck doesn’t have to strain and reach your hands towards your feet as you lift them away from your body. 

4. Hold for around five breaths and take a nice deep sigh as you lower back down.  

Want an extra helping hand? Here are five more simple exercises to help reduce back pain.

Suffering in silence shouldn’t be an option. If upper back pain is persisting alongside other symptoms, it’s important to seek medical assistance from your GP. They’ve got your back – literally.