Raise your hand if you’ve ever suffered from back pain. I imagine most of us have experienced discomfort in the back at some point in their lives. The WHO estimates that 80% of the world population has experienced back pain. Often, this pain has no known cause (your doctor might call this, “non-specific” back pain). If it lasts for three or more months, it’s known as chronic pain.
If you’ve been to a doctor about non-specific back pain, he/she may have suggested that you strengthen your core or try yoga. That sounds great, but how do you strengthen your core, and which type of yoga would be the most effective?
Whether you’re looking to alleviate back pain or keep it away, I’ve got some yoga poses that can help!
How yoga can help to ease back pain
Yoga can help ease back pain, as well as address the stress that may be contributing to it. Certain poses can also help to strengthen the core, the back, and surrounding muscles that support a healthy spine.
When we practice yoga, we are learning to tune into sensations in the body. For example, in a pose like downward facing dog, you might notice that your wrists hurt and you are clenching your jaw. As we practice paying attention to our body’s feedback, we can learn where we hold tension, and then invite ease or make adjustments to the poses. This is especially helpful when we’re moving through our day. You may begin to notice that after you’ve been sitting at your desk for a while, your shoulders begin to round forward. That would be a perfect time to stand up and roll your shoulders back a few times.
Yoga can also help you discover imbalances in your body. Let’s look at a pose like pigeon or figure 4, which are hip stretches. Perhaps every time you do a pigeon pose, you notice that your left side seems extremely tight. Most people have a dominant side of their bodies, one that holds more tension than the other. So if you notice this in your body you might stay in pigeon pose for a few extra breaths on the tighter side. Off of the yoga mat, perhaps you notice that you always carry your purse on your right shoulder. Once in a while, you might swap it to the left side to create more symmetry.
An important part of yoga is mindful breathing. In a yoga class, your teacher may prompt you to notice your breathing. As we do this, our breath will naturally begin to lengthen, which, in turn, can slow down our thoughts and lower the stress response in our bodies. Studies have shown that stress can cause and/or worsen back pain. Doing yoga won’t make your life stress-free, but it can help you cope with stress in a productive way, and it may help reduce discomfort in your back.
Some yoga poses can help, others may not be beneficial
Ahimsa is the yogic philosophy of non-harming. When we practice yoga, we are not looking to inflict pain or make discomfort worse. Therefore, it’s important to consider the style of yoga, as well as the duration, intensity, and consistency of your practice when dealing with back pain.
A knowledgeable, experienced yoga teacher will be able to offer suggestions on how you can modify poses and use props. It’s also wise to be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new yoga or exercise program.
Strengthen your core while you drive
Crunches are helpful, and plank pose is great for developing core strength. But, did you know that you can strengthen your core while you’re sitting down? If you’re pressed for time, try this exercise to build strength in your mid-section. The next time you’re in the car or sitting at your computer, lift up through the top of your head and let your tailbone descend. Then, gently draw your belly button toward your spine. That’s it!
The more often you engage the core muscles, the easier it will become to use them. This is one way to practice mindfulness off of the yoga mat!
Keep in mind that the spine should continue to lengthen (don’t let it round or hunch through the back) while you create the action of tightening a belt. Also, this engagement should not cause strain or gripping. It’s a gentle drawing in around the waist.
Loosen the grip
There are two simple yoga poses I like to use to help stretch my back muscles while improving mobility and easing discomfort.
First, lie down on the floor or on a yoga mat, and draw the knees toward the chest. Now, gently rock side-to-side. If you want to explore another option, begin to make circles with the knees in one direction. The circles can vary in size. Notice what feels productive. After about 4 or 5 rounds, pause, and switch directions.
While you’re reclined, you can try the second pose that I find releases tension in my back…a spinal twist.
Here are the steps to get into the pose:
- Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor about hip distance apart.
- Drop both knees to the right side. If this is too intense, try placing a blanket or towel between your knees and thighs.
- Allow the shoulder blades to land on the mat.
- Explore reaching the left arm out from the body in a T or goal post shape.
- Take 5 slow, deep breaths. With each exhale, allow the body to soften and the shoulders to release toward the floor.
- Return to the starting position, and try it on the other side.
These two poses could be done daily. You might try them before you get out of bed in the morning and again at the end of your day. Try to do them every day for a week, and notice if there’s any change in the comfort level of your back.
Myofascial Release Techniques
I am a big believer in myofascial release techniques (read more about MFR here) because they work for me and lots of my yoga students. Often, when people have non-specific back pain, it can be helpful to look above and below the actual location of the pain. I like to use MFR tools, like recovery rounds and foam rollers, to explore the gluteal muscles, as well as the erector spinae muscles. When used consistently and with proper guidance, myofascial release techniques can be a game-changer for reducing tension in the body.
Ready to feel better?
Back pain is no fun, and if it keeps us from doing things we enjoy, it’s even worse. By releasing tension, encouraging breath awareness, and strengthening the core muscles, yoga can help us find ease and comfort in the back muscles.
If you’re searching for a knowledgeable, experienced yoga teacher who can offer suggestions on how you can modify poses, use props, and dissipate back pain, reach out to me! We can schedule time to talk about how a private yoga session might be helpful. A one-on-one session allows you to talk with me as you’re moving through poses. You can ask questions, and let me know what feels comfortable and what causes pain, both during and after the practice. For more information on private yoga sessions, visit my website.