Yoga and Back Pain: Find Healing

namaste mudra behind back
Photo by Mercedes Güiraldes

Here’s a quick survey: Which of these activities do you engage in regularly?

– Drive a car
– Spend hours at a computer
– Watch television
– Sit on the job
– Stand on the job
– Pick toddlers up from the floor
– Carry groceries

Chances are you checked off a couple! These modern living activities can wreak havoc on our backs. We tend to do them mindlessly, paying little attention to alignment and predisposing ourselves to back pain and dysfunction. Too often, the road to recovery entails prescription meds or even surgery, and while doctors, in most cases, should provide a range of treatment options, yoga is seldom among them.

The therapeutic benefits of yoga as treatment for back pain have long been documented. In 2011, the Archives of Internal Medicine published findings of the largest U.S. trial of yoga to date showing yoga was linked to better back-related function and diminished symptoms from chronic low back pain. That was shortly followed by a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that showed yoga classes were more effective than routine care at improving back function.

Yoga not only strengthens the core and improves posture, it teaches us to move with awareness and respect the limitations of our bodies. Yoga can break us of bad habits and reinforce intelligent alignment.

A forward bend, for instance, is one of the most basic movements we do as human beings. Yet how often do we bend down to pick something off the floor and do it truly mindful of alignment? Too often we round our back as we bend which puts pressure on the vulnerable discs of the lumbar spine. Years of moving this way, or sitting slumped over a computer, can result in bulging discs and a lot of pain.

Uttanasana teaches us to fire up our core, feet and legs and let them do the work, rather than our backs, when we bend and come up again. Hinging at the hips, we tip the pelvis forward and lead with a lifted chest as we bend forward, keeping the low back straight. The moment you feel your lumbar spine begin to round, bend your knees. The focus should be on the hamstrings, not the low back. By the time you finish the exhalation, the crown of head should point down to the floor, the neck extended. This is a sweet moment to relish: the weight of the head and the integrity of the musculature actions encourage the spine to lengthen, providing a wonderful, therapeutic release.

Back pain is most commonly attributed to weak back and core muscles and poor posture. Yoga is a great way to improve back strength and help prevent back problems from developing, but anyone who has existing back problems due to injury or bulging discs, should follow doctor’s advice. Forward bends should be avoided in these cases.

Yoga offers myriad poses that strengthen the key muscles required for core body power, including the low back and abs.

Prone postures, the so-called belly down asanas, are prime examples. These backbends energize and tone and are ideal for beginners since the ground helps support some of the body’s weight. Cobra and upward facing dog are both powerful back strengthening poses that help to align the spine. Modify the poses as necessary, and with time and patience, you will build strength and endurance.

Here is a quick sequence that will build back and core strength and even provide some therapeutic relief for weak and tight back muscles.

-Begin with Cat/Cow (10 breaths). Focus on firing up the core. This is a great way to warm up the spine. Move into Child’s Pose.

Surya Namaskar – Taking your time moving with the breath, do several rounds of Sun Salutations. Give yourself permission to go on to your knees on Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog.

Plank pose – Fire up your legs and core in this strengthening pose. Hold for a few breaths, then flow into Downward Facing Dog.

Locust – Hold for 3 breaths, rest with head to one side. Repeat, then rest head to other side.

Bridge – Fire up the inner legs; tuck the pelvis and direct your tailbone towards your knees. Lift your sternum; make sure there is no compression to the lumbar. Hold 5-10 breaths; rest; repeat.

-Rest on back with knees to chest (5 breaths); take Savasana.

Your doctor can provide helpful information on what is causing your back pain and suggest options for healing. But while you are exploring healing options, it might be worth your while to seek out a yoga therapist or teacher who specializes in back care. Yoga may just help your body heal and balance itself naturally.

Has yoga helped you alleviate back pain?

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