Most of us have experienced lower back pain in our lives. It’s no fun! What should you do when your lower back hurts? And what if it happens during your Yoga practice?
Many of us turn to Yoga because we feel our body could work better and our mind could do with some calm. Yoga is known to be able to help with lower back pain but it can also trigger it if we’re not careful.
But why does our lower back hurt in the first place? The lower back includes the lumbar spine and the sacrum – that last bit of your spine and its connections to the pelvis. There are many joints, ligaments, and muscle tendons in this area, which means many things can go wrong. Your lower back is working all the time, keeping you upright, supporting the weight of the torso, stabilizing the hips and pelvis, and absorbing the impacts of your walking or running. Injuries to the lower back, such as sprains, trapped nerves, and slipped discs are common but even more common is so-called ‘nonspecific lower back pain’. It is a pain you feel in the area but without any obvious cause and not resulting from an illness or injury. Eight out of 10 people experience lower back pain, often described as a dull ache, pins, tingling, radiating, burning, or even like shards of broken glass. It can be caused by a minor sprain to the muscles in the area, misaligned vertebrae joints, muscle spasm, ligaments being too tight or not tight enough etc. There are many possible causes and it’s also why it’s so difficult to pinpoint what exactly is going on in your lower back.
Unless you have a back injury, nonspecific lower back pain is something we have to learn how to handle ourselves. Of course, dealing with back pain is no fun for anyone but when you’re an athlete, it can hamper your training, disturb your sleep and even motivation. So looking after your back is crucial, even when it doesn’t hurt. And there’s a lot we can do to make our backs happier!
Check your posture
We spend a lot of time standing, walking or sitting and a bad posture can cause awful pain. It’s important to maintain our natural spinal curve – your pelvis shouldn’t be tilting too much forward or back – because that way it offers the best support. Play around with it – try both extremes and then settle somewhere in the middle. While doing that, check that you’re not hunching or pulling your shoulders up. Lower back pain often doesn’t have a direct cause in the lower back, it can be that your slumped shoulders have a knock-on effect on the whole spine. If your posture is hurting your back, Yoga alone cannot perform miracles but practicing Yoga can make you more aware of your posture. Check out this little sequence to improve your posture.
Even if your posture is good, staying in one position – sitting at a desk for example – for too long can make your back hurt because it creates sustained pressure. It doesn’t matter if you work out before and after work, your back needs some care in between too! Even if your only break is a bathroom break, you can stretch a little while you’re in there, go to a bathroom on a different floor to make your walk longer, or stretch in your chair. Your back will appreciate forward folds with deep breathing, upward stretches, hands intertwined behind your head and then back for gentle backbends, and twists from the waist. Figure four sitting on your chair can also offer some welcome relief – keep one leg as you would when sitting, foot flat on the floor, then cross the other leg over so that the ankle is on top of the lower knee and let the knee of the lifted leg fall open to the side. Keep your back straight and you should feel a nice stretch in your lower back and over the hip. Sit like that for a few minutes, then switch legs.
Mind your back
Yoga helps to strengthen and stretch your whole body, which can entirely eliminate your lower back pain over time, but you can undo all that good work if you’re not careful. Your posture and moving about are key, and so is how you do everyday things. For example lifting heavy objects – you’ve probably seen the diagrams on how to lift with the strength of your legs, not your back.
Another thing that has a big impact on our back health is how we sleep. Your lower back will love some support, for example when you’re on your side, place a pillow between your knees so your spine is straight, when you’re on your back, place a pillow under your knees, and if you sleep on your front, put a cushion under your hips.
Yoga for an achy back
If you have non-specific lower back pain, Yoga can help but you need to know your limits, and not push yourself where it hurts. Many of us trigger lower back pain by pushing ourselves too much, wanting to achieve the perfect pose and not listening to our body. There are several key areas to focus on:
- Use your abs – when transitioning between poses, and then again when you arrive in the final pose, engage your abs because they support your back from the front and can make a world of difference. It doesn’t mean crunching to the point where it affects your posture, rather it’s about contracting your abs to provide support for your spine. Try bending forward and coming up again with your belly relaxed, then with your abs firmed up and you’ll feel the difference.
- Make backbends work for you – most of us may be avoiding backbends because they don’t feel good when our back hurts. However, avoiding them means having a dis-balanced practice and that may lead to other problems. Your spine naturally bends forward, back and to the sides, and it also twists. Using all these ways of motion is crucial for a healthy back. However, you need to approach backbends with extra care. For example cobra – many bendy people just peel off the mat when doing cobra as if there were no bones in their back. But that’s not for everyone. Your cobra should start with anchoring your toes to the ground, then your pubic bone, firming your abs, and only then pull your upper body first forward and, lastly, up. While lifting your chest up, stop at the slightest sign of your back twinging. You don’t have to lift your chest more than a couple of inches above the floor – and that may be far more effective for you than torturing your back. It also means you’re lifting your body with your back muscles rather than just putting all your weight into your hands. …And it’s the same with other backbends – always use your abs to protect the back, don’t go further than your body allows in that moment, and make full use of modifications and props. Just because you could do a more advanced pose last week, it doesn’t mean you can do it today. Work with what you have in each particular moment and your back will reward you.
- Make sure to include all spine movements in your practice – forward folds feel particularly good and help relieve lower back tightness – try standing and seated forward folds, wide-legged forward fold, child’s pose, downward-facing dog. Forward folds with hip stretching are also great – think pigeon or reclined pigeon. Side bends offer some extra release – for example standing or sitting wide-legged and bending towards one leg at a time, triangle pose or side angle, and remember to breathe into your back when you reach the final pose. Include backbends such as cobra, locust, and bridge pose. Only perform deeper backbends when your back feels like it can handle it and back off if not. Finally, twists are a must to stretch the back and release some tight spots – seated or reclined twists are safer and feel amazing but if your back allows a standing pose, the revolved triangle is excellent for your lower back. If you can’t quite reach the floor with your lower arm, use a Yoga block to gain some height and align well in the pose.
- Give your lower back more space – many Yoga poses are traditionally performed with the feet together but it’s not necessarily a good thing for your lower back. Move your legs hip-width apart and see how it feels. Whether it’s downward dog, forward folds or cobra, having your legs slightly apart creates a less constricted lower back and can transform your practice.
- Strengthen your back and core – strengthening the back is a must because stronger back muscles hold you better. We often only seek relief but making Yoga work for your back means both stretching and strengthening the problem area. The best poses to strengthen the back, whilst not straining it, are plank, side plank, gentle cobra, locust variations, opposite arm and leg lifts when you’re on all fours or lying on your front, warrior III, reverse tabletop and bridge pose.
- Let your back neutralize between poses – in Yoga, we usually alternate spine movements so forward bends follow backbends or vice versa. However, transitions between the two can feel too fast for comfort. It’s ok to pause in a neutral spine position and let your body adjust. For example after the bridge pose, your instinct may be to draw your knees to your chest to release the lower back. Doing it too quickly can hurt you so first let your back relax, keep your feet on the floor and let your knees fall together, and only after a few breaths draw the knees into your chest. Another example is moving from cobra or a similar backbend to the child’s pose. Stop half-way through this transition, neutralize your back on all fours and only then sink back into the child’s pose. Be patient with your body.
Where and when you practice makes a difference
In the morning, our bodies are stiffer than later in the day. It means your morning Yoga practice may be more challenging and you’ll feel less flexible but it sets your body up for the day ahead.
If you practice later in the day or after a workout, you will be able to go deeper in the poses. It may feel good but be careful not to strain your lower back.
In general, if you’re cold or practice in a cold environment, your body is less flexible. On the other hand, being warm improves your flexibility because increased blood circulation stimulates joint lubrication. External heat may be useful but makes you less aware of your body’s natural limits which can be tricky when it comes to the lower back – it can feel good during the practice but seize up later. Creating your own heat is advantageous because as you warm up, your body is gradually increasing the range of motion so you have better body awareness. It’s one of the reasons we do warm-up sequences such as the sun salutations.
Acute back pain
All the above applies to chronic lower back pain or pain triggered by certain movements. If you actually injured your back, trapped a nerve or suffered another acute episode, it’s a different story. You’ll have to be patient and not force anything. If you have an injury, the tissues around it are swollen and by forcing the back to move, you could make it worse. If walking poses a challenge, Yoga is off the table. In similar situations, all you need to give your back is time, perhaps gentle massage of the surrounding area that’s tense, and only return to Yoga when you can walk freely.
Make Yoga your ally
Many of us, new to Yoga, may initially overstretch ourselves and it can cause minor back pain. However, countless athletes use Yoga to prevent back pain and to complement their training – which is how it should be! Being active, strengthening your core and stretching is what your back needs. Make Yoga work for your back, not the other way around!