Most of us have been there – one wrong move and you feel a sharp pain that stops you in the tracks. Or the other version where your back is so stiff and achy that you can’t even put your shoes on. Back problems are not picky, they arrive regardless of your age or fitness level. Luckily, yoga can help you prevent back pain by strengthening your back, and relieving back pain by stretching your back in all the right ways.
Why does your back hurt?
Your spine connects the head, shoulders, arms and ribcage with the pelvis and the rest of the body. It has to be extremely mobile yet sturdy. And it rarely stays still, being affected by all the tiny movements you do.
Back pain usually happens when the basic elements of your backbones, tendons, ligaments or muscles get out of balance. More often than not, it’s a combination – a misalignment between vertebrae puts a strain on the surrounding ligaments and muscles that are trying to compensate. Or it can be a tight muscle pulling on other muscles, or even the sacrum or pelvis and causing a painful disbalance.
As your spine has to stabilize your every move, absorb impacts and support your weight, there are many opportunities for things to go wrong. When your back hurts – and you don’t have an injury – it’s usually called non-specific back pain.
When you have lasting back pain, things can gradually get worse as it affects your posture, how you move and even your sleep. Of course, the problem can also be bad posture causing back pain in the first place. But wherever your back pain starts, yoga can usually help in one way or another.
How can yoga prevent back pain?
Yoga helps to prevent back pain in three ways:
- Yoga strengthens your core and back muscles – because you work with your body weight throughout each yoga session, your back and core muscles engage a lot. Whether it’s balancing, moving a part of your body or holding a pose, your muscles are getting stronger and able to hold your back better. Of course, there are poses that are extra strengthening – see below.
- Yoga stretches tight muscles and releases tension – sometimes, our backs are strong and hold us well but there’s too much tension. Tight shoulders, neck muscles, pecs, and even psoas or spine erectors can cause back troubles. Yoga doesn’t just stretch them, it massages them from the inside by deep breathing in each pose. As a result, it releases tension, restores balance and makes you move better.
- Yoga makes you more aware of your posture – this is not a very obvious effect but it works really well. Because every yoga practice makes you move forward and backwards, sideways and twists, over time, you finetune your posture awareness. You also realize that perhaps you tend to hold one shoulder higher up or that you sit sideways. Becoming aware and correcting these minor posture kinks can make a huge difference.
Three yoga poses to prevent back pain
Many yoga poses help to strengthen the core and back muscles but these three are a good start – they are suitable for everyone!
Pay attention to: pubic bone and tops of the feet pressing down, elbows by the ribs, back muscles lifting you up – not hands pushing
Breathe in and lift, breathe out and release – repeat five times, then stay for 10 breaths.
Why it helps: the cobra pose strengthens your whole back – lower, middle and upper – while also reversing the usual slouching posture we tend to collapse into when sitting
Pay attention to: knees parallel, shoulder blades as close as possible, pelvis lifted as high as you can
Stay for 10 breaths, longer if it’s too easy for you.
Why it helps: the bridge pose releases neck and shoulder tension while also strengthening your middle and lower back muscles and glutes
Balancing table top pose
Pay attention to: pelvis being level, lifted leg and arm in one line with the back, supporting arm and leg at a right angle to the mat
Stay for 10 breaths on each side, longer if it’s too easy for you.
Why it helps: this pose strengthens your back and core muscles, including the deep stabilizers that help you move safely in any position
How can yoga relieve back pain?
When you’re already suffering from back pain, yoga can also help but you have to be mindful of your limitations. Yoga should help but it’s not something to suffer through.
Depending on where your back hurts, it might feel good to stretch that area. Yoga offers many poses for that but remember – a dull ache or generic mild pain are ok but a sharp stabbing pain isn’t. If you experience the latter in any pose, come out of it.
Another useful type of movement yoga offers are twists – twisting the upper body against the lower body. That often helps to realign some vertebrae and you may even feel a good crack in your spine. At the same time, twists stretch some hard-to-access muscles around your spine, under your shoulder blades and those around your hips.
Lastly, yoga can help you release tension that you don’t even realize you’re holding. For example, stiff shoulders and hunched back often cause back pain, yet we tend to tense up in that position without knowing it. Yoga makes you relax those muscles, engage different ones and achieve a more balanced back.
Three yoga poses to relieve back pain
These three poses offer relief from different types of back pain. You can modify them to suit your needs or try similar ones. Just remember to breathe deeply in each of them to release any residual tension.
Forward bend with clasped hands
Pay attention to: legs hip-width apart or more (when your back hurts, put them wider apart), knees bent, head hanging freely
Breathe in standing up, breathe out and bend from the hips – stay for 10 breaths.
Why it helps: this poses offers a gentle release to your lower back while also opening up and releasing the shoulders
Pay attention to: knees wider apart (so you have room for your torso), forehead resting on the mat, arms outstretched but relaxed
Stay in this pose for 20 breaths – as you relax into it, you may be able to get your bottom closer to your heels.
Why it helps: the child’s pose stretches are releases the lower back, while your deep breathing massages the middle and upper back from the inside, and your neck muscles can relax
Pay attention to: both shoulders on the mat, the bent leg being at a right angle to the body
Breathe in and lift one knee, breathe out and twist it over your body, then stay for 10 breaths on each side.
Why it helps: this twist stretches hard to access muscles in the back and around the hips, while also helping your vertebrae to realign as you move in and out of it
Yoga adjustments for a happy back
Yoga isn’t gymnastics so the final shape doesn’t matter as much as how you get there. Whether you’re prone to back pain or not, there are a few rules for a back-safe yoga practice.
- Core first – in any yoga movement, you should always engage your core. It gives you stability and support which means you move with more control.
- Legs wider apart and bent – this isn’t a sexy rule but it can make a huge difference for your back. In any forward bending poses, whether standing or seated, moving your legs wider apart gives your back more room. At the same time, if you bend your legs a little, it allows you to have the correct back alignment, rather than overstretching just to reach your toes.
- Backbends are not a competition – we’re all different and you may have to accept you have limits in how far backwards you can comfortably bend. It doesn’t matter how far you get, what matters is that you use your back and core muscles rather than just throwing your body backwards. Mindful movement is important for your back!
How you hold yourself has a big impact on your back health. Perhaps you know you tend to slouch or draw your shoulders up when you’re stressed. Or, perhaps, you don’t even know you’re doing it until something starts hurting.
Whether you’re standing, walking or sitting it’s important to maintain your natural spinal curve – your pelvis shouldn’t be tilting too much forward or back, your shoulders slightly pulled back and down, head upright and chin tilted ever so slightly down. If you get your posture right most of the time, you can eliminate a lot of back pain!
On the other hand, if your posture is hurting your back, yoga alone cannot perform miracles. However, it can make you more aware of your posture and help you improve it.
Practice with us!
Regular yoga practice is one of the best things you can do for your back – long-term yoga practitioners and scientists alike agree. Try our short practice for back pain but better yet, make yoga a part of your schedule at least twice a week. Your back will thank you and you’ll reap many more benefits too!