Updated: Nov 22, 2021
How can yoga help back pain? And when can it make back problems even worse? Yoga teacher Adrian Maul explains.
In my years of practicing and teaching yoga, I have encountered many people of all ages suffering from mild to chronic back pain. Back problems are now so common that corporates are reporting this as the second most common ailment for missed workdays. Much of the problem is down to modern lifestyles but with a regular yoga practice, we can reverse the damage.
So what are the causes of back pain? Here are some of the ones common to everyone although sports injuries or freak accidents can also factor.
1. Poor posture:
Not keeping the spine straight when walking or sitting is a major cause of back pain. In today’s fast-paced modern world where most of us multitask and spend in excess of two to three hours hunched over our computers, laptops or tablets, is it any wonder that we don’t pay any attention to our posture? How often do we lounge at the back of the chair or sofa instead of sitting with back straight on the edge of the seat or use a cushion at the back to keep the spine erect?
2. Not engaging your core muscles:
The spine has to work harder when the abdominal muscles, including the oblique muscles at the sides of the waist, are in ‘relax mode’ all the time. We forget the muscles in the abdomen are meant to keep the back up!
3. Excess weight:
Good spinal health also means getting rid of excess weight. The human body is not designed to carry excess weight and an increasing abdominal girth leads to excessive weight and strain on the spine and can cause back pain.
4. Sedentary living:
Movement of the body is essential to good spine health and leading increasingly sedentary lives does not help. Our body movements today are lessened due to gadgets and other technological marvels, which help us to complete manual tasks with minimum effort.
5. Heavy lifting:
Lifting heavy objects incorrectly or folding forward without bending the knees adds stress to the spine.
HELPS OR HARMS?
How yoga can help – and when does it make things worse? Yoga helps greatly with spinal health as the different poses stretch and twist the spine thereby releasing stresses from the cushioning between the vertebrae of the spine.
According to the Founder of Art of Living Organization Worldwide Sri Sri Ravishankar, “Asanas [postures] maintain the health of joints and can prevent the debilitating back and joint problems that are so common with age.”
When practicing yoga though, one has to maintain awareness on the posture and on keeping the abdominal muscles engaged. All this brings greater awareness of one’s own body thereby improving posture.
The warning though is that practicing yoga without due care can sometimes bring to the surface a weakness already present in the spine and make the condition worse. This happens because perhaps a person’s awareness is lacking, especially when the postures are done quickly or incorrectly and if the body is pushed beyond its capability. The mindset of ‘no pain, no gain’ has no place in yoga. It’s the same for comparing yourself to others and attempting to do the posture as well as the instructor or another student. This leads to over-stretching, pushing the body beyond its limits and to injury. Back pain can also be caused by doing a lot of forward or backward bends without sufficient counter postures. Similarly, difficult and incorrect twists can also add tension and strain the spine.
When we get into a posture slowly with awareness, then we are better able to tell when it’s painful, at which point we should immediately ease off or come out of it. Approach a pose gently and work into the discomfort very slowly and gradually. Doing repetitions of the posture can help get into it more comfortably. To help take away additional strain on the spine, engage the hip extensors and the gluteal muscles as well as the abdominal muscles. Breathing steadily throughout also helps ease any discomfort. Practicing yoga with awareness and not over-extending while doing the postures helps to avoid any injury. Always keep in mind the limitations of your body’s flexibility and approach the posture gently using the breath, this helps the muscles relax as you ease into the posture.
According to Patanjali, the man known as the father of modern yoga as he was one of the first people to give the practice a written form and structure, the key to a correct yoga posture is stability without struggle, that is, the posture should feel stable and enjoyable. Engaging the abdominal muscles by keeping the navel slightly contracted throughout the yoga session and also at times contracting the anal muscles and tightening the hips, that is, the gluteal muscles, helps to protect the spine. Keeping the knees slightly bent or soft even when bending forward, goes a long way in protecting wear and tear of the spine as we age.
POSTURES FOR BACK PAIN
To alleviate back pain, start with simple postures like cat and cow stretch, half-spinal twists and wind-relieving pose (pawanmuktasana). Also, if you’re doing any poses lying down on your back, keep your knees bent. Lastly, fewer forward bends should be attempted until the back strengthens sufficiently. Here are details of some of the asanas for back pain:
1. Cat and Cow stretch (Marjaryasana)
Come onto hands and knees. Arms perpendicular to the floor, shoulder width apart, Knees are hip-width apart. Inhale, raise chin, tilt your head back, and hollow spine. Tighten hips. Hold for five counts. Counter pose: As you exhale, take chin to chest and round your spine, pushing your upper back to the ceiling. Hold this pose for five counts before you return to the initial table-like stage. Continue five or six rounds before you come out of this yoga posture. Benefits: Brings flexibility to the spine; massages the digestive organs and improves digestion, tones the abdomen.
2. Supine spine twist (Natarajasana with knees bent and feet together)
Lie on back with arms horizontally stretched out in line with the shoulders. Bend your knees, feet together. Bring knees to chest. Drop knees to right and look over left shoulder. Then drop both knees to left and look over right shoulder. Coming out, bring both knees to chest before stretching out and relaxing.
Benefits: Strengthens the spine; brings deep relaxation to the body and mind.
3. Bridge pose - modified (Sethu bandasana)
Lie on back. Fold knees and keep feet hip distance apart on the floor. Keep arms beside body, palms facing down. Inhaling, slowly lift lower back, middle back and upper back off the floor; raise hips/pelvis to the level of the shoulders only. Feel bottom firm up in this pose. Keep breathing easily. Hold the posture for a minute or two and exhale and gently release the pose.
Benefits: Strengthens the back muscles; relieves the tired back instantaneously, stretches the chest, neck and spine.
4. Cobra pose (Bhujangasana)
Lie on stomach with legs together. Fold arms, hands resting on each other, forehead on hands. Breath in, slowly lift your head and chest. Breathing out, gently bring chest and head back to the floor.
Benefits: Opens up the shoulders and neck; strengthens the back and shoulders; improves flexibility of upper and middle back; expands the chest, and improves blood circulation.
5. Half Locust pose (Ardha Shalabhasana)
Lie on stomach with legs together. Breathing in, raise and extend the right leg up contracting the hips and using the gluteal muscles, not the hamstrings. Hold and keep breathing. Breathing out, bring the right leg down. Repeat all steps with the left leg. Take two to three deep breaths. For full locust, raise both legs together.
Benefits: Increases flexibility and strength of the entire back.