How yoga can help to relieve back pain

Back pain can have many causes including bad posture, muscle or ligament strain, arthritis and skeletal irregularities.  The pain often develops without a cause that is able to be identified, even by a doctor using tests and imaging.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Many people these days work at jobs where they are either sitting for long periods in a car or at a desk, or performing heavy lifting, spending much of their day in confined spaces, or just with performing a repetitive movement with less than optimal posture.  This leads to muscles (particularly the psoas, which plays a big role in supporting and moving the lower back) becoming shorter and weaker.  

At home it is tempting to sit in a favourite armchair for long periods without proper support for the back, or to spend hours on a home computer, hunched forward and rounding the back.  As well as damage to your lower back, the rounded posture stretches muscles in your upper back and neck, leading to the head sitting forward of the neck, causing imbalance and further problems and pain.

Exercise may even be the cause.  Sports that build up your muscles may make them tight and pull other muscles (often ones that affect your back) out of alignment.  Sports that use one side of your body differently to the other (think golf, tennis, bowls) may cause the muscles to develop unevenly leading to stress.

How Can Yoga Help in Relief of Back Pain?

There are many yoga postures that can assist to gently strengthen the muscles in your back, as well as building up the abdominal muscles to support your back.  It is important to get a balance in the muscular network of the spine, to help your body maintain a proper upright posture.  When this is achieved, back pain can be greatly reduced or avoided.

In a yoga class we incorporate stretching and relaxing the muscles, to reduce tension in stress-carrying muscles.  Yoga is a very ancient form of exercise, having been used and developed over thousands of years.  Yoga poses may be held for anything from 10 seconds to a minute or more, incorporating stretching and relaxation.  Within the pose certain muscles will flex, others will stretch, promoting relaxation and flexibility in your muscles and joints.  In yoga we aim for "effortless effort" - you should always feel reasonably comfortable in each pose, otherwise you are overdoing it!

When you are suffering from lower back pain, stretching can be very important.  Equally important is strengthening the supporting muscles and creating balance in the two sides of your body.  Your back relies on the support of many muscles throughout your body and, in turn, your back supports your body, upper limbs and head.  So if your back muscles are painful, you may find you become limited in many activities.

Stretching muscles and joints also increases blood flow to the area being stretched.  This allows nutrients to flow in and toxins to flow out, leading to healthier and stronger tissues to continue to support you as you grow older.  Arthritis is caused by lack of cushioning between joints.  Keeping blood flowing into those areas keeps the cushioning healthy, supple and protective.

Paying attention to the breath is a very important component of a yoga practice.  There is often a tendency to hold the breath while holding a position.  The intention in yoga is to remind you to keep breathing with a deep, free and rhythmic breath.  It is preferable to breathe through the nose for both the inhale and exhale, as long as this is possible.  Keeping the breath smooth and strong emphasises a relaxed body and strong circulation.

Yoga poses are intended to train your body to become healthy and supple; achieving this requires consistent practice.  Each time you do yoga, you might pick up another adjustment that will improve your understanding of a posture, you may find you have a better sense of balance, your body may move into proper alignment more easily, or you may find your body becoming equally strengthened on both sides.

Proper alignment and good posture will help maintain the natural curve of your spine.  Keeping that curvature is an important part of maintaining spine health and reducing pain.

As you practice yoga, body awareness will also increase.  Understanding the limitations of your own body is very important, as you will gain the most advantage from a pose by doing it at a level that is suitable for you.  Getting a gentle stretch in the right position for you will give you much more benefit than trying to prove you can stretch further than someone else in the room.  Awareness allows you to use your body as your own meter, telling you what to avoid and what to put a little more effort into.

Every yoga class includes some form of relaxation at the end.  Sometimes it is simply lying flat on the floor and allowing your muscles to relax, other times it is a full guided relaxation.  I prefer to use the second option, guiding you to a deeper feeling of relaxation in your whole body.

I’ll make a bold claim: if you really give it a chance, for almost anybody, particularly those with back pain, a regular gentle yoga practice with an experienced teacher or yoga therapist will make your life better.  

N.B. It is important that you discuss your back problem with the yoga teacher before any yoga class and ensure that they can provide suitable adjustments where necessary.  The rule to follow is not to do any pose that causes you pain.  A gentle stretch is great, pain is not!  Learn "pose of the child" and if anything causes you pain, go to this pose - it's a universally recognised message to your teacher that you just need to rest.

Balasana - pose of the child

(arms may be placed alongside the body with palms facing up, and knees may be together or apart.  This is one of many yoga poses that can be adjusted for your comfort and ease).





Research into Yoga for the Relief of Back Pain

To finish, there has been a lot of research into the effects of yoga for many specific ailments.  Remember to always look for research and reports from reputable sources.  Please see the links below; there are many other studies available, I recommend you search on PubMed.

Harvard Health Publications:

Yoga can help ease low back pain


Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain: a randomized trial

A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain:

NPR article

Journal extract: