When your back is aching, the last thing you want to do is exercise. But there’s one type of workout that can do wonders: Yoga for back pain. It has enormous benefits when it comes to strengthening back muscles and stretching out knots and tension that causes pain. There are ways to practice and modify poses to ensure that those with injuries or impediments can still experience yoga that supports a healthy spine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this year that 40 million U.S workers — that’s 26% of working Americans — experience lower back pain. Those in industries that demand greater strain on the back (standing for long periods, carrying or moving loads) and workers ages 45 to 64 report pain at much greater frequency.
That means that it’s highly likely that your fellow yoga classmates have experienced, or will experience, a back complaint. The good news is that yoga can prevent back pain and help ease existing back pain. Plus, it can give you the mental and physical tools to cope if and when back complaints or any other injuries arise.
Back pain is different for every person who experiences it, so just because Jane has the wrong pillow or Denise has weak abdominal muscles does not mean these are the sources of your own back pain. The first thing to do if your back pain has been ongoing, or if it prevents you from carrying out daily tasks like walking, carrying, work or leisure, is to see your GP. This ensures that they can give you the all clear to start a gym routine and a yoga practice with any warnings about what to avoid or focus on for optimal strength and health.
Typically, yoga classes in gyms comprise of yoga flow (or vinyasa), Yin or hatha classes. Hatha and vinyasa classes are more physically active and challenging, typically moving from one pose to the next, sometimes holding balances and strong standing positions for extended periods or moving through vigorous sequences of poses. The flow and hatha classes require the body to twist, extending and flexing the spine and stretching the hips, hamstrings and abdominals. All of these actions are fantastic for the health and mobility of your spine. Your teacher will guide you to practice yoga for back pain with awareness of how to breathe and engage the muscles that ensure you move safely. In Yin yoga, poses are held for much longer —anywhere from one to six minutes — with the intention of gaining greater stretch and release of muscular tension.
The key to improving most back pain is to strengthen where you most need it (typically the abdominals, glutes and thighs) while stretching and releasing excessive tension where it causes aches (usually the hips, shoulders and hamstrings). Fortunately, yoga is ideally designed to do all of these things.
Be sure to tell your teacher that you’ve been experiencing back pain and if you know why, then let them know this also. Ask if there are any poses or actions that you should avoid and what your alternative options are so that you’re not in the middle of class feeling like you don’t know what to do. Your teacher wants you to be safe and feel fully welcome and part of the class, so they will be keen to provide advice. If you can show up early and speak to them 5 minutes before class starts, this gives adequate time for them to run through what you need to know.
These yoga poses to help relieve back pain will do wonders to ease aches:
Balance on your hands and knees while alternately tilting the head and pelvis up so that the back dips. Then tuck the pelvis, drawing your chin towards your chest and round your back towards the roof and into an arch. This moves the back through flexion and extension.
This is a safe, gentle way to stretch the spine into flexion too. Simply rest the torso over the kneeling legs with the head resting on a pillow or the mat. This is a forward folding position that is designed to create comfort and a sense of rest.
A gentle, supported back extension, cobra stretches the abdominals and creates stretch through the upper and mid-back and also through the shoulders. A stronger back is more resilient to aches and pain since the muscles function optimally. Lying on your belly with your legs hip distance apart, place your elbows back by your waist and hands flat by your ribs, slowly lift the chest and head on an inhale while pressing the pelvis into the mat for support.
Twists are great for improving your range of movement and alleviating tension in the mid and lower back, but be careful to move slowly and always stop if you feel any sharp or strong pains. Lying on your back, raise your feet off the mat until your knees are over your hips so that you have a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees. With arms stretched out to your sides, take the knees to one side and release to the ground if you can (otherwise hover them as far as they’ll go) as you try to draw the opposite shoulder to the mat. Hold and breathe, letting gravity assist to deepen the stretch into the back without force. Then change sides.
A strong pelvic floor, abdominals and glutes will do wonders for supporting a healthy back, preventing and alleviating pain. Holding plank position, whether on your knees or toes, and the high-to-low push-up of chaturanga will build abdominal and leg strength over continued practice. Make sure to work at your own pace. If you can’t maintain head-hip-heels in a straight line yet, do plank on your knees. As important as building strength is, it is just as important to be patient as you build strength and skills.
A version of this story was published August 2019.
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