Let's talk about contraindications. If you're a hard-core yogi (or, you know, an actual medical professional), you're probably familiar with the term, which refers to things you definitely shouldn't do if you're suffering from certain issues because it will make those issues worse. It's like how if you have brittle bones, drinking milk might be a good idea, but if you're lactose intolerant, it would be contraindicated. These are the most common vinyasa yoga poses contraindicated for people with back pain, and a couple of modifications to make sure your practice does more good than harm. Ahimsa, b*tches!
And just FYI, yoga instructors aren't doctors. I may be 200HR trained, but I didn't go to medical school — any serious issues or concerns should be taken to your doctor before you start tackling your fitness goals.
Camel pose is such an intense heart opener that it can feel like you've been knocked over by a wave of emotions and you're drowning in your own simpy thoughts, which can be great if you're going to yoga to work through some deep-seated issues and flow out your frustrations. On the other hand, it's a deep heart opener because it also functions as a massive backbend that can seriously do a number on your neck, shoulders, knees, and sacrum. Simply placing your hands on your metaphorical back pockets, looking up, and pinning your shoulders back is still camel pose, so don't feel pressured to try and grab your heels and turn your body into a capital D if you don't want to. Honestly, if it pinches anywhere, just meditating on your knees might be the move, but if you do decide to take a camel variation, always squeeze your glutes to protect your back.
If you have lower back pain, bow pose can be a real b*tch. It's tempting to overarch your back for a deeper stretch instead of using your glutes and thigh muscles to kick your legs back into your hands, but all that will do is aggravate existing back and neck issues. Taking a round of baby cobra or bound locust pose will stretch out your shoulders and upper back while still strengthening the backline of your legs with a much smaller sacrum stretch, but as you would in camel, keep engaging your glutes to protect your sensitive lower back.
Upward-facing dog seems unavoidable in most vinyasa classes because it's so commonly used as a transitional pose before downward-facing dog, but it's still a dope stretch for your back. It's decidedly less fun if you're prone to back pain, especially if you're not engaging your glutes and thighs in the pose. Keeping your updog active by lifting your pelvis and thighs off of your mat can help protect your back and sending your gaze forward can help prevent you from overarching, but skipping updog altogether in favor of holding high plank will build up your biceps, firm your core, and be better for your back.
Fish pose is mostly used as a restorative pose with a block positioned between your shoulder blades and neck, but getting into this intense heart opener is contraindicated for people with serious lower-back or neck injury. It might seem counterintuitive that a huge upper-back stretch can aggravate a lower-back injury, but Yoga Journal confirms that while it's nice if you have a mild backache or menstrual pain, it's still a deep backbend with little support on your pelvis (which, in women, is a super heavy part of our body). Take a nice savasana (with something under your knee-joints to neutralize any spine curvature) or child's pose instead.
Celebrity yoga instructor Kristin McGee cautions against revolved crescent lunge (or "lunge twist") if you have issues with bulging disks in your lower back. Any twist, whether it's revolved crescent lunge, prayer twist, or just a simple low-lunge twist, can put pressure on your spinal disks, but in a difficult balancing pose like revolved crescent lunge, the weight transferrence paired with a tendency to muscle yourself into the twist instead of using your obliques can result in a serious injury AKA exactly what we go to yoga to avoid.
Most beginner classes won't cue full wheel because it's deceptively difficult, but this bridge level-up can put a lot of pressure on your spine and back. Weirdly enough, Kristin says half-bridge or half-wheel can be fine if you use your strong thighs and glutes to lift your pelvis instead of just overarching your back (are we seeing a pattern yet?) because your spine should be mostly neutral, but even a small back issue can be exacerbated by full wheel. These poses are also contraindicated for anyone with neck issues, and yogis should make sure they've properly warmed up their spine before even attempting this deep of a frontline stretch (although to be fair, most yoga instructors will sequence their classes with this in mind, so you don't have to worry about it).
Boat pose is way more chill than full wheel, camel, or floor bow, but navasana can encourage practitioners to tilt their lumbar spine in a way that can exacerbate back pain. It's also fairly common to see yogis slouch instead of shining their heart forward, which just isn't great if you're trying to practice good posture. Luckily, it's super easy to modify boat pose and tuck your pelvis by just keeping your toes on the ground. Lifting your arms and legs makes boat pose a more effective exercise for your core, but just chilling in a modification with less balancing will still give you some of the benefits without risking a flare-up.
Another common core strengthener, shoulder stand is often used as a counter stretch for many of the poses on this list, especially fish pose, because it stretches the backline of your upper body (as opposed to opening your heart). It may seem counterintuitive that shoulder stand is also contraindicated for people with lower back issues, but in addition to compressing your neck and putting a lot of pressure on your spine, its easy for those of us with tight shoulders or weakened cores to shift in ways that compress the lower back. The Intertia also points out that shoulder stand can strain the cervical spine, which also exacerbates your lower back. Try taking a supported legs-up-the-wall (with the help of your teacher!) if your back injury is milder for a restorative alternative.
High-key, extended hand-to-big-toe pose probably won't show up in any beginner's classes (except maybe as a peak pose), but Yoga Journal has this stretchy balancing posture (and its reclined sister) listed as a Level 1 pose, so it always helps to be prepared. Even experienced yogis (like me before I researched this article) might not realize that extended hand-to-big-toe isn't great for lower back injuries, but it does compress your side body and encourage your pelvis to tilt backward, which overworks your lower back. This is especially true if you have tight hamstrings, which limit pelvis mobility, but even encouraging a neutral spine in this pose is contraindicated for lower back problems. Yoga Journal explains that flattening your lumbar curve can cause a flattening of your lumbar spine over time, which is also a Big No for your lower back.
Dancer's pose, even in a modified variation, is one of the most intense standing back stretches you'll see in a beginner's yoga class. Using a strap can help ease tension if you have tight shoulders, but it usually encourages a deeper lower backbend, so proceed with caution. The best thing you can do to protect your lower back in this pose is, as always, lift your leg by squeezing your glute instead of pulling harder on your foot. Keep your shoulders square, avoid tilting forward more than you kick back, and above all else, don't keep pushing if you feel a pinch or pain in your back. Yoga should feel good in your body, mind, and soul, but you're the only one who knows that "good" feels like to you. Honor your instincts, and everything will be fine.