If it's true that "pain is weakness leaving the body," a lot of us must be pretty darn strong by now. For many, some degree of discomfort is an unfortunate fact of life. According to data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, nearly 40 million adults (17.6 percent) suffer from severe pain. Whether you're struggling with chronic back problems, healing after an accident or injury, or are just sore from sitting at a desk all day, physical discomfort can cause your quality of life to take a nosedive.
"The downward dog is a quintessential yoga pose that is excellent for stretching the calves and hamstrings," says certified yoga instructor Jill Franklin, founder of Aerial Physique. Starting from the table pose, push up with your hands and straighten your legs as your hips raise up toward the ceiling, while pressing your heels down and letting your head hang.
2. For Headaches and a Tight Lower Back: Child’s Pose
"This calming pose relieves headaches and stress, while also giving you a great lower-back stretch," says Franklin. To get into child's pose, sit back on your heels while reaching forward with your arms and resting your forehead on the mat. Keep your knees wide with your big toes touching, or you can keep your knees together if you have very tight or sore hips.
3. For a Sore Chest: Crescent Lunge
"The crescent lunge position stretches your hip flexors, which can get very tight if you spend a lot of time sitting," says Franklin. "Additionally, as you interlace your fingers behind you and slightly lift your chest in this position, it helps combat those slouching shoulders." Lunge one leg forward with your knee bent at a 90-degree angle directly above your ankle. Keep your back leg straight, extend the spine and tuck the pelvis under. Clasp your hands behind you.
4. For Lower Back Pain and Tension: Bridge Pose with Yoga Block
"The bridge pose helps to relieve lower-back tension, especially when you place a yoga block underneath your tailbone area," says Franklin. "Take a nice, deep inhalation as you feel your back lengthen with each breath." To get into bridge pose, lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, with your arms lying next to you. Lift your hips and spine into the air while pressing your feet into the floor. The block can be placed beneath the hips for extra support, or you can substitute a thick pillow, rolled-up towel or stacked books.
5. For Shoulder, Upper-Back and Spinal Tension: Extended Puppy Pose
"The extended puppy pose is a combination of downward dog and child’s pose," says Franklin. "It’s wonderful for those who have tension in their shoulders and upper back, and it’s an overall great stretch for the spine." Starting in table pose with your toes tucked under, step your hands forward with palms facing down until your chest touches the mat. Press down into your hands and toes as you hold the pose and breathe deeply.
6. For Hamstring, Neck and Shoulder Tension: Wide-Legged Forward Fold with Shoulder Stretch
"The simple yet effective wide-legged forward fold pose, together with a shoulder stretch, is great for releasing tension in your hamstrings, neck and shoulders," says Franklin. Starting in mountain pose, put your hands on your hips with feet in a wide stance and heels aligned. Extend your spine and then fold forward, letting your head hang down. Rest your hands on the floor in front of you, or use yoga blocks for support. If possible, fold down deeper until the top of your head rests on the floor. Extend your arms behind you with hands clasped.
7. For Sore Hips: Rock the Baby
"This one really opens up the hips, and is an easy pose that anyone can do," says Annie Appleby, yoga instructor and creator of the YogaForce A-Line Mat.
Starting in easy pose, lift your right foot with your left hand, and tuck your right foot into the crook of your left elbow. Your right shin should be parallel to the floor. With shoulders relaxed and spine straight, cradle your right leg with both arms and rock side to side as if rocking a baby. Repeat with the left leg.
8. For Sore or Stiff Neck: Reverse Table Pose
"After releasing your neck by letting it drop backward, while keeping your pelvis lifted, take eight to 12 deep breaths," says Appleby. Start by sitting with legs bent in front of you and feet flat. Walk your hands behind your hips at shoulder width, pressing your palms down into the floor with fingers pointing toward your feet. Straighten your arms and raise your hips up off the floor until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Let your head hang back until the crown is pointing down to the floor, keeping your gaze behind you.
9. For Sore Feet: Foot Opener Pose
"Your feet are trapped in shoes all day. For minor foot pain, I like this pose best," says Appleby. "It's shockingly ergonomic and very effective." Starting in easy pose, separate your toes with each of your fingers and massage any tight, tense muscles with your thumb. Appleby recommends also pulling on each of your toes after the massage to help relax your whole body, while also aiding in circulation.
10. For Neck Pain: Ear-to-Shoulder Pose
"To get rid of a pain in the neck, place your four fingers on the top of your right ear, then gently pull your right ear down to your right shoulder until it feels good. Be gentle and don't tug on your neck. Take eight to 12 deep, long breaths and then release. Your head should float up. Then, do the other side. Keep your eyes closed for this one," recommends Appleby. For a deeper stretch, try resting your right hand on the left side of your head as it drops toward your right shoulder.
11. Sciatica (Shooting Pain Down Back of Leg): Long Leg Sit-Up
"Lie down with your head on the ground, knees bent and hands at your sides, with your body in alignment," says Appleby. "Interlace your hands and place them behind your head. With your elbows wide and a grapefruit-sized space between chin and chest, lift and lower one leg while crunching up with the head and neck. Repeat for eight counts on each side for three sets. For a greater challenge, try doing the repetition with straight legs."
12. For Lower-Back Pain: Plank Pose
"A common misconception is that back pain indicates a weak back, but that's not always true," says Dani Singer, an in-home personal trainer specializing in pain management. "In most cases, it signals weak abdominals, which results in the back having to take up the slack, hence the pain. The plank is a great way to strengthen the core to perform its primary function, which is stabilizing the spine. A stable spine is a healthy spine, and a healthy spine is usually pain free. When doing the plank pose, you can rest on either your hands or forearms. Concentrate on contracting the abs and avoid arching the lower back, which can actually aggravate pain."
13. For Lower-Back Pain: Pigeon Pose
"From a biomechanical standpoint, this is one of the most effective means of stretching the glutes and piriformis," says Singer. "Although individuals with back pain may not feel the pain directly in their glutes, these tightening muscles are often a strong contributor to the lower back problem." Starting in downward dog, bring your right leg forward next to your right wrist. With your right shin perpendicular to your torso, slide your right leg over so that your right foot is in front of your left knee. For a deeper stretch, inch your right heel forward if possible. Meanwhile, keep your back leg straight behind you with your thigh and toes pressing down on the mat. Lower your torso as far as possible toward the mat, while keeping your spine extended and your weight distributed evenly over both hips. Rest your forearms on the mat, if possible.
14. For Shoulder Pain: Camel Pose
Often, shoulders are hurting because of long days seated behind a computer, looking down at your phone, stuck behind the wheel in traffic jams or just sitting on the couch watching TV. In these instances, the shoulders tend to round forward, the chin juts out and the chest collapses, resulting in a tight chest that causes bad posture and achy shoulders.
Yoga instructor Irena Miller recommends the camel pose to relieve shoulder pain. "This pose is the perfect complement to everyday living," she says. "Camel pose brings the head of the shoulders back, strengthens the upper back and opens a tight chest. This pose will boost your energy, improve your posture and leave you feeling invigorated and ready for your day." Sitting on your heels with your knees at hip width, arch your back and hold a foot in each hand while letting your head drop. If that is too challenging, rest your palms on your lower back instead of holding your heels.
15. For Sore Wrists and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Strong Man Arms
Yoga instructor Sharon Bolman, who teaches the practice at the University of Advancing Technology, recommends this pose to alleviate wrist pain. "Take a comfortable seat and sit up nice and tall. Lift the arms to shoulder height. Make 'strong man' arms, curling the fists towards the biceps. Keeping the wrists curled in tight, slowly open the arms, starting with the elbows, then the wrists and finally releasing the fingers. This action opens the carpal tunnel."
16. Sore Lower Back: Chair Twist
One of Bolman's favorite poses to ease back pain is this easy adaptation of Ardha Matsyendrasana, which you can do at your desk anytime. "Sitting up tall, start with a deep breath. On the exhale, rotate the whole torso toward the left. Place the right hand on the left thigh or chair seat, take the left arm to the back of the chair (or if on the floor, to the floor). Take five breaths, becoming aware of the stretch through the rib cage on the inhales, and moving into the space your body makes on the exhale. Switch sides."
17. For Shin Splints and Sore Calves: Half Splits
"Shin splints happen when the muscles are fighting with the fascia (connective tissue) that surrounds them," Bolman says. "This is the best stretch for tight calves, which will release the fascia."
Starting from your knees, extend your right leg out in front you, lowering the back knee and flattening out the toes. Flex your right toes toward your face, lengthening through the spine and hinging the hips forward over the right knee. Keeping your hips even, lower your seat as much as you can. Switch sides.
Ready to pose away your pain? Here's what you need to know before trying your first yoga class.