Updated: Sep 2
Are you dealing with back pain and finding it hard to move your body?
Back pain is a very common condition and it can affect most adults. Over 90% of back pain is caused by mechanical pain, which means unusual stress and strain are placed on the muscles of the spine.
Usually it is the result of poor posture, repetitive and incorrect motions (like bending, twisting, lifting), chronic tension from stress, overuse or lack of flexibility and sedentary lifestyle.
Whatever is the cause of your back pain, movement is required. Our bodies and spine are made to move. Staying in a single position for a long period of time, like sitting in front of the computer, can only harm the body. Walking is a great low-impact activity that is safe for the spine and for overall health.
Most mechanical back pain will improve no matter what therapy you take. However, there are situations when the pain perseveres for longer than 12 weeks, and at that point, acute becomes chronic pain.
Research conducted by The American College of Physicians (ACP), the second-largest physician group in the U.S, found that the best treatment for acute, subacute and chronic low back pain is not conventional medicine.
The study made the following recommendation:
“ Most patients with acute or subacute low back pain improve over time regardless of treatment and can avoid potentially harmful and costly treatments and tests. First-line therapy should include non-drug therapy, such as superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, or spinal manipulation.
“... For patients with chronic low back pain, clinicians and patients should initially select nonpharmacologic treatment with exercise, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction, tai chi, yoga, motor control exercise, progressive relaxation, electromyography biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, operant therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, or spinal manipulation .”
Can yoga help with back pain?
Before explaining how yoga can help with back pain, I’d like to explain what yoga really is. With the expansion of social media and the beautiful pictures of people doing strenuous, difficult and contortionist poses, many people are led to think that yoga is all about the poses. And while yoga poses, or asanas as they are called in the yoga lexicon, are an important part of the philosophy, yoga is NOT only asanas.
What I mean by this is that you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga. As yoga teacher Krishnamacharya used to say:
Meaning that yoga is for everyone, as long as it is adapted to each individual. The purpose of any yoga practice is to train the body and mind to self observe and become aware of their own nature.
So, the next time you hear or read about yoga, don’t feel intimidated.
With the practice of yoga you develop a greater sense of awareness of your own body, learning your body's limitations and respecting it. Being less judgemental and critical of yourself, not harming you and others.
As long as you find a yoga practice that is gentle with your body and you can move without pain, yoga can be very useful for your recovery, and improve your ability to move and walk.
In another study, the Boston Medical Center was able to confirm the effectiveness of yoga improving back pain.
In this particular study, 320 adults suffering from chronic moderate to severe back pain were involved. The participants were divided into 3 groups: the first group practiced yoga for 1.5 hours weekly for 12 weeks; the second received 15 traditional physiotherapy sessions for 1 hour, and the third group used educational programs. They were monitored for 52 weeks and the results were outstanding: individuals who followed the yoga program demonstrated clinically and statistically greater improvements than patients in the physiotherapy or education groups.
Which Yoga is best for back pain?
There are many different yoga disciplines and it can be hard for a complete beginner to choose from so many options. And with yoga being so trendy, many new styles are constantly popping up.
The best yoga practice for you will be the one that suits your own needs. If you are brand-new to yoga, find a teacher who can work one-to-one with you, understand your issues and help to adapt the practice for you. This is the best way to learn about your limitations while having someone there to assist you and teach you to move your body in a safe way.
As a yoga teacher myself, I recommend that people suffering from back pain choose a yoga practice which is slow-paced and gentle. A carefully adapted set of yoga asanas, along with breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation are essential elements for a full practice focused on the body and mind.
Can yoga damage your back?
Like any physical exercise, yoga postures (asanas) can also lead to injury if not done correctly and mindfully. Many people come to yoga practice for the physical work out and the fixation in doing difficult postures. Overdoing both of these can lead to injury.
To do asanas safely, always be connected to your body and mind. Pay attention to the sensations in your body and if you feel pain at any moment, stop doing that asana immediately. Having this in mind, your practice will be safe.
Other things to consider to prevent you from damaging your back are:
Don’t pull or overstretch tight muscles, don’t go beyond your body’s limits;
Be careful to stretch any inflamed muscles. I.e. stretching the hamstrings when having sciatica can worsen the symptom;
Learn the right alignment of the body so you avoid putting unnecessary pressure and weight on your joints and spine; and
Don’t do poses that are contraindicated for your particular back pain. For example, some back conditions benefit from forward bending while for others it can result in harm.
What stretches can I do to relieve lower back pain?
Not every back pain has the same cause and there is no one remedy to cure it. It’s important to treat each individual in a unique way. Back pain is only a generic term to differentiate pain that can occur along the upper, middle and lower back.
For example, pain that radiates from your lumbar spine to your buttock and down the back of your leg by a nerve impingement has a different approach than the weakness and numbness caused by nerve pressure due to scoliosis.
Below are some yoga poses I suggest if you have back pain. They are all gentle and simple poses so you can start right away. Again, because there are many different causes of back pain and different levels of pain, please bear in mind that if you feel any pain when doing these poses, then they are probably not suitable for your body.
A few things to keep in mind when doing these practices:
Breathe in and out throughout your nose;
Relax your face and jaw;
Conduct slow & deep breathing; and
Make sure the postures feel comfortable and not painful.
If there is any pain, stop immediately!
1. Alternate Knee to Chest
Lay down on your back with your legs straight out.
Bring your right knee towards your chest, holding behind the knee with both hands.
Keep your left leg straight and pressing down onto the floor.
Keep your left knee and toes pointing up towards the ceiling.
Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed.
Hold for 3 deep breaths. Change legs and repeat.
This pose helps to lengthen the psoas muscles.
2. Knees Together Twist
Start lying on your back with knees bent and together, feet on the floor.
Lay arms out on the floor, palms facing up, and level with shoulders.
Exhale, bring both knees down to the left, keeping the right shoulder down on the floor.
Inhale, raise knees back to the centre.
On the next exhale, bring both knees down to the right, keeping the left shoulder down on the floor. Repeat three times, moving with the breath.
This pose helps tone the diagonal stomach muscles, known as internal and external obliques.
3. Cat & Cow
On your hands and knees, align your wrists with your shoulders and your knees right under your hips.
Inhale dropping your belly down as you bring your head and your tailbone up. That’s the cow pose.
As you exhale, bring your chin towards your chest and round your middle back. Tuck your tailbone in. That’s the cat pose.
Move from cat toward cow, synching your breath and the movement. Repeat 5 to 7 times.
These dynamic poses help to lose the whole spine creating more mobility, but they also stretch the front and back of the arms and the shoulders.
4. Mountain Pose
Stand upright with back against the wall
Keep your feet facing forward and hip-width apart
Balance your body weight evenly on the feet, from balls of feet to the heels and from inner to outer foot (or “on the four corners of feet, i.e. ball of the big toe, ball of the little toe, inner heel and outer heel.)
Align thighs and shins over ankles, hips over thighs, shoulders over hips, and ears over shoulders.
Keep your knees slightly bent.
Bring your shoulder blades down into back, while lifting your chest up.
Lengthen your neck with the head and look straight ahead. Extend your arms down by the sides of the body.
Stay in the position for 5 deep breaths.
This pose helps to build our awareness of balance and on how to stand correctly with good posture.
5. Child’s Pose on a Chair
Sitting in a chair, place your feet firmly on the floor,
Separate your legs, aligning your feet with knees.
As you exhale, with your hands on your thighs, palms down, slowly bend forward between your legs.
Slide your hands on your legs as you go down and rest your hands on the floor or on the blocks.
Stay for 5 deep breaths or as long as you find comfortable
To come out of the pose, slowly come up on your inhale.
This pose helps to relieve lower back fatigue or pain and you can practice it on its own as needed.
6. Low Cobra
Lie flat on your stomach, with your legs slightly wider than hip-distance apart.
Place the tops of your feet on the floor.
Relax your shoulders and put your forehead on the mat.
Place your palms face down at armpit level, with fingers facing forward. Keep your elbows bent at the side.
Inhale, push your palms down against the floor and use your back muscles to lift your head and then your chest, slowly, gazing forward.
Keep your shoulders moving down toward the floor. Keep your elbows bent. There should be no strain on your lower back.
Exhale, as you lower your upper back and head down to return to starting position.
This pose helps to remove backache and keep the spine supple and healthy. It’s a mild backbend, it’s safe for most cases of back pain.
7. Wall Dog
Stand facing the wall with your feet hip-width apart.
Bend forward from your hips, placing your hands on the wall and walk hands up the wall until they are slightly higher than shoulder height.
Stand far enough from the wall so that your legs are at a diagonal
Keep your arms, back and legs straight.
Press down through your feet and pull yourself up through your thighs.
Pull your thighs and hips back away from the wall while gently pressing your hands into the wall.
Keep your head in line with your arms.
Hold for 3-5 breaths
This pose extends the spine by lengthening the arms and the back of the legs. It provides a sense of stability, warming the muscles of the shoulders, while improving circulation in the chest and head.
Most back pain goes away after a couple of days or weeks. But if the pain lasts for over 12 weeks, then acute pain will become chronic.
To be on the safe side, drop false expectations that your back pain will be solved quickly. It requires commitment and patience. The most effective way to beat chronic back pain is to keep your body in movement.
Find a professional who is truly interested in working with these problems, who can give you attention and create a specific back care program so you can start feeling improvement in your back and in your life.
I hope you find this post helpful and inspired to move more mindfully. If you have back pain, what were the most important lessons you learned along the way? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments section below.