Chronic back pain is an all too common ailment, affecting nearly 23% of adults worldwide.1 Various factors can contribute to this discomfort and re-occurring injury, from sedentary lifestyles to poor posture to heavy lifting. While several conventional treatments exist for targeting the cause of back pain, the holistic practice of yoga has emerged as a powerful and natural solution for both the physical and psychological components of back pain. Many have seen results by practicing just a few minutes every day, making yoga an easy and accessible option for relieving pain and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
This article will explore the benefits of yoga for back pain and which specific types of practices and poses you can start today to relieve your back pain.
What Is Yoga?
Originating from ancient Hindu and Indian philosophy, yoga is a comprehensive mind-body practice that combines physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation. The roots of yoga can be traced back over 5,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization in ancient India.2
The earliest evidence of yoga practices can be found in ancient texts known as the Vedas. These texts contain hymns, rituals, and philosophical discussions that formed the foundation of Indian spiritual traditions. Around the 5th century BCE, the sage Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras, a seminal text that defined the principles and philosophy of yoga.
The Yoga Sutras outline the eight limbs of yoga, known as Ashtanga Yoga, which includes ethical guidelines, physical postures, breath control, concentration, meditation, and self-realization. Now, yoga has become a physical and mental practice that focuses on cultivating harmony, balance, flexibility, and strength.
From traditional Hatha Yoga, dynamic Vinyasa Flow, meditative Yin Yoga, and intense Ashtanga Yoga, a wide range of yoga practices are available to suit individual ability levels, preferences, and goals.2
Why Is Yoga Physically Good for You?
- Improves flexibility: Regular yoga practice gradually improves flexibility by stretching and lengthening the muscles and connective tissues. This increased flexibility enhances the range of motion in the joints, making daily movements easier and less painful.3
- Strengthens the core and back muscles: Yoga is a whole-body workout that engages various muscle groups; however, it targets the core and back muscles in almost every pose as you transition between movements throughout your practice.4,5
- Promotes proper posture: Regular practice improves body awareness and teaches you to maintain a balanced posture on and off the mat. This can reduce strain on the spine and prevent postural imbalances, which also helps to alleviate lower back pain.6
- Enhances balance: With increased core strength and posture, many standing yoga poses help strengthen the ankles and lower leg muscles, improving static and dynamic balance.3,7
Which Types of Yoga are Best for Relieving Back Pain?
When choosing the best types of yoga for back pain relief, it's important to look for practices that prioritize gentle stretching, strengthening, and proper alignment while offering individual modifications. Here are a few styles of yoga that are particularly beneficial for relieving back pain:
- Hatha Yoga: Hatha Yoga is a gentle and slow-paced practice focusing on holding poses and properly aligning the body. It incorporates stretching, strengthening, and relaxation techniques, making it suitable for individuals with back pain.
- Iyengar Yoga: Known for its emphasis on alignment and props such as blocks, straps, and blankets, Iyengar Yoga is highly effective in addressing back pain. The precise alignment cues and supported postures in this style help to release tension and promote proper spinal alignment.
- Vinyasa Yoga: A vinyasa class can benefit back pain by focusing on mindful movement and proper alignment and offering modifications for individual needs. It combines breath-synchronized movements with gentle stretches, promoting flexibility, strength, and relaxation.
- Restorative Yoga: Restorative Yoga is a deeply relaxing practice that utilizes props to support the body in passive poses. By allowing the body to relax and release tension fully, this practice can relieve back pain and promote overall relaxation and rejuvenation.
It is important to start slow and ease into a new workout routine if you have never tried yoga before or have not participated in an exercise program in a long time. Many yoga studios offer introductory yoga classes and one-on-one sessions to help you practice yoga safely and effectively for your specific condition. You will also want to ensure you are practicing on a non-slip surface or yoga mat for optimal safety.
Best Yoga Poses To Reduce Back Pain
If you are practicing yoga for your back pain, it's important to focus on poses that stretch and strengthen the back muscles while also strengthening the deep core muscles that help brace your lumbar spine. Here are a few recommended poses to try:
- Child's pose (Balasana): Starting on your hands and knees in a quadruped position, sit your hips back towards your heels as you extend your arms away from the crown of your head. This is a great stretch for your lower back muscles and shoulders.
- Cat-cow pose (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana): Starting on your hands and knees in a quadruped position, take a deep breath as you lower your belly to the ground and look up to the ceiling (arching your back). Then, exhale slowly as your push the ground away and press your back up to the ceiling while looking down at the ground. This is a great dynamic movement to increase the mobility of your spine and engage your core muscles.
- Downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): Lay flat on your stomach and push up into a plank position. Then, use your hands to push your hips up and back toward the ceiling. Your heels should reach the floor as you feel this stretch in your hamstrings, lower back, calves, upper back, and shoulders. Hamstring tightness can be a culprit of low back pain, so finding a stretch for this muscle group is important!
- Cobra pose (Bhujangasana): While lying face down on the ground, use your hands underneath your shoulders to gently press your upper body off the floor, allowing your lower back to arch and belly to sink into the floor. This is great if you struggle with back pain and find bending forward to worsen your symptoms. Make sure to ease into this pose and not push through sharp pain.
- Sphinx pose (Salamba Bhujangasana): Lie down on your stomach with your legs extended behind you. Place your forearms on the mat, parallel and shoulder-width apart. Press your forearms into the mat and lift your chest and head off the ground. Keep your shoulders relaxed, and draw your shoulder blades back and down. This is also a great extension-based stretch for the lower back and a stretch to open up your chest. This can be an easier and more gentle stretch if Cobra pose feels painful or difficult.
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana): Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Place your arms alongside your body, palms facing down. Press your feet and arms into the mat, and lift your hips off the ground using your glutes and core muscles to support your lower back. This pose will help to strengthen the hip and core muscles while also helping to stretch the front of your hips. Hold for a few deep breaths or perform repetitions of 10-15 slowly.
- Thread the Needle Pose: Begin on all fours in a tabletop position. Slide your right arm underneath your body, keeping it extended, and lower your right shoulder and cheek to the mat. Keep your left hand grounded, or reach it forward for a deeper stretch. Perform this spinal twist pose to relieve tension in your upper back and neck while benefitting shoulder and spine mobility.
- Extended Triangle Pose: Start by standing with your feet about 1 foot wider than your hips. Turn your right foot out 90 degrees so it faces the front of the room and your left foot slightly inwards (feet should be perpendicular). Extend your arms to the sides and reach your right hand towards your ankle as you hinge from your hips. Your left arm reaches up toward the ceiling. You will feel a stretch in your hips, hamstrings, and inner thigh muscles while engaging your core and leg muscles to maintain your balance. Repeat on the other side with your left leg out in front of you.
- Supine Twist: Lie on your back with your legs extended. Bend your right knee and bring it towards your chest. Gently guide your right knee across your body towards the left side, allowing your hips and spine to rotate. Extend your right arm to the side, in line with your shoulder, and turn your head to the right. You can use your left hand to press the right knee down for a deeper stretch gently. This is a great stretch for your lower back and hip muscles, adding more mobility throughout your entire spine, hips, and shoulders.
- Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani): Start lying on your back and bring your hips as close to the wall as possible, extending your legs up the wall perpendicular to your torso. Extend your arms out to the sides, palms facing up. Let the support of the wall and gravity gently release tension from your legs, back, and lower body. Stay in this pose for several minutes, focusing on slow, deep breathing.
Remember, it is essential to listen to your body and work within your limitations when practicing yoga, especially if you have back pain. A qualified yoga instructor or healthcare professional can provide individualized guidance and ensure you perform each pose safely.
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Topics discussed in this article:
- Casiano VE, Sarwan G, Dydyk AM, et al. Back Pain. (Updated 2023 Feb 20). In: StatPearls (Internet). Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538173/
- Timothy Burgin. (November, 2007). History of Yoga. Yoga Basics. Retrieved from: https://www.yogabasics.com/learn/history-of-yoga/
- Md Iftekher, S. N., Bakhtiar, M., & Rahaman, K. S. (2017). Effects of yoga on flexibility and balance: a quasi-experimental study. Asian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 3(2), 276–281. https://doi.org/10.3329/ajmbr.v3i2.33580
- Meng Ni, Kiersten Mooney, Kysha Harriell, Anoop Balachandran, Joseph Signorile (2014). Core muscle function during specific yoga poses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine; 22(2): 235-243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2014.01.007
- Debra Beazley, Shilpa Patel, Brent Davis, Steven Vinson, Lori Bolgla. (2017). Trunk and hip muscle activation during yoga poses: Implications for physical therapy practice. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice; 29: 130-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2017.09.009
- Prado, E. T., Raso, V., Scharlach, R. C., & Kasse, C. A. (2014). Hatha yoga on body balance. International journal of yoga, 7(2), 133–137. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-6131.133893
- Ozlem Ulger and Naciye Vardar Yagli. (2011). Effects of yoga on balance and gait properties in women with musculoskeletal problems: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice; 17(1): 13-15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.06.006
- Dean Pohlman. Yoga To Immediately Relieve Neck And Shoulders Pain. Retrieved on June 23, 2023 at https://manflowyoga.com/blog/yoga-to-immediately-relieve-neck-and-shoulders-pain/