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How Yoga Can Help Back Pain: 3 Poses to Try!
I’ve recently had a private client who has a diagnosed spinal condition, making it necessary for me to significantly modify my yoga instruction for him. Even so, the amount of additional length in his spine that came from but one of our sessions—and from that reduction of his dull, persistent backache, he confirmed—was truly striking to me.
Yoga for Back Pain Relief
The experience brought to mind how many individuals in Western culture experience persistent back pain. For those people, the pain can make anything and everything—from putting away groceries to working at a stationary desk—painful and arduous.
Yoga offers a unique focus on lengthening the spine and releasing tension from it, breathing and physical posturing paired to help those efforts. Researchers, patients, doctors, and others involved in this health issue are beginning to acknowledge that advantage, and put yoga into practice for improved spinal health.
Why Yoga Focuses on Lengthening the Spine
Yoga focuses on lengthening the spine for several reasons. First, lengthening the spine opens up the abdominal cavity to allow for maximum space for breath. Deeper breathing brings increased physical performance as it energizes.
Conversely, it can offer a calming effect and a more attuned awareness of physical sensations, depending upon breath rate and inhalation/exhale ratio. Those are all things that can help those who suffer from back pain meet the demands of everyday life despite their discomfort, yet remain cool and collected enough to not push their bodies too hard.
That latter part is important for avoiding injury and coming to eventual healing, because stress and strain on the spine can have serious effects. Those include prolapsed disks and worn cartilage between vertebrae (facet joint syndrome).
Yoga also focuses on lengthening the spine because fully elongated spines—that still maintain their natural curves—allow us to reach safer, stronger alignment (with some functional exceptions, such as in safely rolling from folding forward to standing by stacking each vertebrae on top of each other). In that state we can more easily integrate our bodies’ parts, to move in ways that help us to function and feel our best.
How Yoga Helps
That integration is beneficial for those who cope with back pain because inefficient, counter-anatomical movement patterns are often the culprits of the pain. For instance, one’s occupation could require heavy lifting. The individual approaches doing so in ways that put unnecessary strain on the lower back muscles, because s(he) is using those and other muscles in ways that go against our body’s design.
As if crying out for help—alerting the person to this unhealthy pattern—the lower back muscles go into frequent spasms. They’re persistent for the person, but especially recurrent and painful when heavy lifting for work. Time off isn’t much relief, the spasms shooting again even when just twisting to get out of bed or bending down to pick something up off the floor.
Yoga could help this person gain an awareness of more natural alignment and movement patterns, and then learn the ways to put those into practice—on and off the mat. Over time, the new patterns give relief to those strained lower back muscles. Giving a “thank you!” the muscles would eventually stop spasming, and the person can say “good riddance!” to the lower back pain.
Yoga Poses for Back Pain
Certain poses are particularly helpful for back pain relief, for various reasons.
Child’s Pose (Balasana) offers a great stretch for all parts of the back. The pose also allows for a moment to destress, contributing to yoga’s overall effect of muscular tension relief through lowering general stress. That can relieve cramped areas calling out for space and breath.
Cat/Cow Pose (Marjaiasana/Bitilanasana) flow similarly helps to stretch and lengthen, and thus destress all the muscles in the back’s intricate muscular structure.
Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) might not seem to offer much for the back, but it can offer it relief through stretching out the hips. Tight hips are frequently the culprit of, or at least contribute to, back pain. Here’s an article from Everyday Health that outlines some of yoga’s poses that are effective for reducing back pain.
Research on Yoga for Back Pain
The medical community is even taking notice of how healing yoga can be for back pain, from multiple conditions and overuse/injury factors. Fred Bausche of Spine Health: Trusted Information for Back Pain, in the peer-reviewed article “How Yoga Helps the Back” describes how yoga also helps to strengthen the back and nearby muscles, leading to improved posture and alignment. The result is that “back pain can be greatly reduced or avoided.”
In his article “What Yoga Can and Cannot Do For You” Dr. Jeremy Barone, of Barone Spinal Performance and Care, offers the important idea that yoga isn’t necessarily a cure for spinal troubles—or any other condition—but it can provide significant healing and related benefits. Dr. Barone states that “yoga should be considered a complementary therapy, not a replacement” for typical medical treatment.
On the other hand, he affirms Bausche’s testament to how yoga’s stretching and relaxing effects can help relieve spinal and other types of pain. The medical community is slowly but surely joining the yoga community in its long-held knowledge that yoga can bring at least some measure of relief for persistent back pain. That being said, let’s remember all these points of view and pieces of knowledge when friends and family discuss their back troubles, and maybe even seek our views on treatment options.
Let’s spread our knowledge of this advantage of yoga, amongst many others—in our practice communities and beyond. At the very least, we can give a bit of extra attention to how our spines are feeling and aligning with the rest of our bodies as we hold that Triangle Pose or favorite arm balance. To healthy spines, in healthy bodies! Namaste!
Kathryn Boland is a RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!