Yoga for Low Back Pain- Where to Start and How it Can Help You

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Low Back Pain

Do you suffer from back pain? Back pain is seriously the worst. It can keep you from being able to enjoy everyday activities, and it can make simple tasks much more difficult. The problem is that many of us suffer from back pain these days. Just know that if you are dealing with back pain, you are not alone.

Low back pain is actually more common than anywhere else in the back of the body. One study even found that, globally, low back pain affects more people than any other disability. (Hoy, et al.) 

This was not the only study to recognize low back pain as the leading cause of disability over the years. Calculating the increase of lower back pain from 1990 to 2017, one study discovered that the numbers had gone up by more than fifty-two percent! (Wu, et al.)

Another study found that when it comes to working Americans, at least sixty-four percent suffer from back pain, and seventy-two percent of these people have missed at least one day of work within the past year of the study! (Chronic back pain, 2019) 

Why are so many people suffering from the same problem? Let’s take a moment to think about how the world has changed just in the past twenty years. People are spending so much more time sitting down while staring at computers, and cellphones have transformed so drastically that the majority of us are constantly staring down and rounding our backs in a way we are not meant to be. Even driving can cause pain if we are not sitting properly. It is easy to hunch over without realizing it, to force out posture to shift in ways it is not meant to. 

These are only some of the common causes, but there are so many! The back can be affected by a multitude of reasons, such as obesity, lack of activity, smoking (which can affect blood flow), lifting large objects incorrectly, carrying heavy backpacks too often, improper shoes, bad mattresses, injuries, and so much more.

The good news is that there is often something you can do to help with your discomfort.

In fact, did you know that there are many yoga practices that are specifically designed to ease back pain?

Read on to find out how to practice yoga for low back pain.

Options When You Have Low Back Pain

For many, fixing back pain is not as simple as using heating pads and ice packs. The best thing to do first and foremost is to go to a doctor if you are not sure what the cause of your discomfort is. You also might see a chiropractor. You might be told to take medications, use creams or oils, and even have a stretching routine. 

Sometimes, it might be as easy as becoming more mindful and aware of your posture. This fully depends on what you are dealing with, how bad your pain is, and what is causing it to begin with. If you were to discover that your pain is due to a bad mattress, then there would be a pretty simple fix there; you would have to replace the mattress. If your pain is because of posture, working on proper alignment would be a great option.

The reason that you do not want to self-diagnose is because sometimes, back issues can be caused by something greater than what you can fix on your own. Some common, more serious causes are pulled or torn muscles, pinched nerves, herniated discs, scoliosis, and much more. Once you have been properly diagnosed by a professional, you can decide what the best method of treatment is for you. Oftentimes, doctors will give you advice on how to help your back. 

Low back pain can also be caused from issues in different parts of the body. For example, if somebody were experiencing neck pain from forward neck posture, they would actually be increasing the weight of their head on the rest of the spine. Forward neck posture can be caused by hunching over, rounding the spine too far, and even just from staring down at computers all day. The head is meant to weigh about ten pounds to the upper spine, but when you continuously force your head further and further forwards, it can duplicate the weight to your vertebrae, sometimes making it feel like you are carrying up to forty pounds! Now, if this continued, the posture would keep following it. The back would round, putting more strain in the upper and lower back, and eventually you might even find that you are suffering from low back pain in addition to neck pain. Our muscles and bones are meant to be used in very specific ways. They are designed to hold only a certain amount of weight and are not meant to have to change drastically to keep up with poor posture. Imagine the effects over time that you might experience if you were to continue to incorrectly hold your posture.

Once you have determined what is the cause of your back pain, and learn what is safe to do, one of the best possible ways to help your back pain would be yoga. 

In fact, yoga is especially helpful with low back pain.

How Yoga Can Help with Low Back Pain

Yoga has many benefits for different ailments. There is usually a yoga practice for just about anything. Many people who come to start a yoga practice are looking for relief from discomfort. With low back pain being the most common disability worldwide, it can make sense that many people would be looking for relief from this pain when joining a yoga class.

One study even looked into the effects of yoga on chronic lower back pain. The study looked into one hundred and twenty eight articles to compare results of how yoga can help back pain. After weaning through the different studies, the best ones were chosen and the results were added up. The findings showed that yoga can be just as effective as non-pharmaceutical medications in improving functionality for those dealing with chronic low back pain. When comparing these results to control groups who received no practice, it could be seen that those doing yoga had more relief while the control groups often had increased back pain with no treatment. (Chang, et al.)

So, why does yoga help so much when it comes to low back pain?

Flexibility

Yoga in general is a great way to exercise, increase flexibility, and decrease stress and, often, pain. If low back pain is due to tight muscles, yoga can help to stretch them out and release some of that pain. Tight hamstrings can also be a cause of low back pain. If you are tight in your hamstrings, hips, and/or thighs, you might find that more pressure is being put on the lower back, causing discomfort. Some of us naturally have more flexible hamstrings than others. Think about how some people were born being able to always touch their toes while others are lucky if they can reach their shins. 

Everyone’s level of flexibility differs based on genetics, gender, prior practice, muscle tone, and so much more.

Strength

Yoga can also increase core strength, helping to take some of the pressure out of the lower back. In addition yoga can also strengthen your lower back muscles in general. When our muscles are weaker, putting pressure on them can cause pain. Therefore, through certain yoga poses, you can work on making your core and your lower back stronger.

Posture 

Yoga also increases awareness of your posture. Through practices of mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques, yoga helps you to notice more about your body. If you are holding your posture incorrectly, and putting the weight in the wrong places, you can easily hurt yourself. With yoga, you can become more aware of how you are standing, noticing if you are accidentally causing more pain overtime. If you have been doing this, you can work to reverse it by being more mindful with your alignment.

Movement and Mobility

One common cause of lower back pain is lack of movement. If you find that you spend a lot of time sitting down, or staring at your computer, it might be time to add some more movement into your routine. The poses practiced in a yoga class are designed to target specific muscles and areas of the body. A yoga class focusing on low back pain will involve more stretching in that area, allowing you to get your muscles moving and warm up the parts of the body that are feeling extra tight. This can increase mobility in your back overall.

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How to be Careful When Choosing the Right Yoga Class for Low Back Pain

When choosing the right yoga class for low back pain, it is important to be careful not to take the wrong practice. Certain stretches and fast movements can actually increase pain. Just as you would not go for a run with a torn muscle in your knee, doing poses incorrectly can make back pain worse. 

This is why it is essential to find a class that is both gentle and meant for people dealing with low back pain. You might want to find a class specifically designed for back pain, and you can alway do your research to find what different classes will involve.

For example, restorative yoga is much more gentle and is meant to help those recovering from injuries. Iyengar Yoga is another class that specifically works on alignment. Both of these practices often use modifications and props, but any good yoga class should offer the same. These are some of the better classes for low back pain, however, there are so many more to choose from.

Finding a class that focuses more on stretching out the spine, and that touches on both flexion and extension based pain, is important. 

Understanding the Difference Between Flexion and Extension Based Pain

Now, let’s take a look at the difference between flexion and extension based pain. Understanding different causes of pain allows us to better determine how it should be treated.

Flexion– Flexion is when we move the body in a way where we are decreasing angles. For example, When you straighten your elbow, this is flexion. When it comes to the spine, flexion can be seen from rounding the back, decreasing the natural angle, or curve, that the spine is meant to have. This can cause flexion-based back pain.

Extension– Extension is the opposite of flexion. When flexion of your elbow would be straightening it, extension would be bending it, increasing the angle. In the spine, extension can be seen when you are doing a backbend. If a person tends to walk with their hips forwards, arching the back too far, this might cause extension-based pain.

How Flexion and Extension Can Affect The Back

Our spines are meant to have a very specific angle. If we change how our natural posture is meant to be, we can accidentally hurt ourselves. Whether you become used to rounding and leaning too far forwards (which is very common in those of us who spend a lot of time staring down at computers and hunching while walking), or you extend by leaning too far back (such as during pregnancy), you are putting pressure in the wrong parts of the spine. Overtime, this can cause problems, including disc herniation.

What does this mean?

In between the vertebrae of our spines, we have something called discs. These are spongy and absorb the shock that our spine takes as we walk and move around. If we are standing incorrectly, the vertebrae in our spine can compress in either direction, depending if it is based on flexion or extension, and eventually, discs can be forced out of place, causing them to bulge or completely rupture/ move out of place. This rupture is known as a herniated disc.

A similar issue caused by over-extension or flexion is a pinched nerve. Our spine is full of important nerves that send signals and sensations all over the body. When the spine is compressed, eventually, nerves can be pinched between the vertebrae. Not only can this cause extreme pain in the back, but anywhere that this nerve reaches into might become sore. This is why some people with a pinched sciatica nerve might experience pain shooting down from the low back, to the hips, and down into the leg. 

These are just some of the injuries that can be caused by flexion and extension. It is important to learn which of these is causing your pain so you can better decide how to treat it, and which yoga routines/ classes will be best for you.

5 Best Yoga Poses to Help Relieve Low Back Pain

1. Child’s Pose

This restorative and relaxing pose actually offers benefits for the back by stretching and releasing the muscles in the hips, thighs, and lower back. This is also a gentle stretch for the hamstrings.

You can do this pose by starting on the hands and knees and, on an exhale, lowering the hips back towards your heels. From here, you can bring your arms out in front of you, stretching the back of the body, as you lower your forehead to the ground. If your forehead does not quite reach, you can always use a block beneath it, or you can fold your hands under it instead.

If having the knees beneath you is too intense, bringing them out to the sides and letting your belly hang down between them can be a helpful modification. If having your arms out in front of you is just too intense, you can always bring them down by the sides.

2. Cat/Cow

This is a great stretch for both flexion and extension pain. Be mindful of both of these poses here and take your time moving through them. Start on the hands and knees. On an inhale, arch your back, dropping your hips, and looking up to the sky. On an exhale, round your back, dropping the head down and tucking your chin to your chest. Repeat these poses at your own pace, working with your breathing, as you stretch out the whole back of the body.

 If you have sore knees, you can always place a pad, or roll the edge of your mat, beneath them to  cushion them and ease the pain. If you cannot do this on the mat due to sore knees or wrists, you can also do this while sitting in a chair. If you choose this version, you would basically do the same poses while sitting down. In this case, you would rest your hands on your thighs (not your knees) and as you inhale, you would arch the back, looking up to the sky, and as you exhale, you would round the back, tucking the chin to the chest. Repeat this as many times as you’d like at your own pace. 

3. Reclining Twist

This is one of the best gentle stretches for the lower back. Start on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. From here, bring your hips to one side and drop your knees to the other, turning your head to the opposite side of the knees. Bring your arms out to the sides. Make sure to keep your shoulders flat on the ground here, even if that means easing the knees back a bit. If it marks it easier, you can reach your hand on the same side as your legs to your thighs, carefully holding them in place, but never forcing them down to the ground.

4. Bridge Pose

Bridge pose is wonderful for strengthening and stretching the lower back and glutes while also activating the core. To do this pose, you can start on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent. On an inhale, you would bring your hips up and away from the ground, using your core, and on an exhale, you would focus on lifting the hips up and back, away from the upper body. If you can not easily hold this pose, feel free to place a block, small bolter, or rolled up pillow under the glutes here for support.

5. Reclining Hand to Big Toe Pose

There are a few ways to do this pose, but using a strap is recommended. If you were to do this pose without a strap, you would start on your back and bring one leg up on an inhale. On an exhale, you would then reach the hand of the same side up towards the toed. If the toes were not reachable here, you could always bring both hands behind the thigh. Just make sure your opposite hip never leaves the ground.

Now, if you were to do this with a strap, it would be both easier and would actually help you to have a deeper stretch. This would be done by looping the strap around your foot and using the hand of the same side to hold the strap as you bring your foot up to the sky. Again make sure your opposite hip stays on the ground. Always keep your feet flexed to protect your hamstrings. Checkout this pose below.

5 Best Yoga Poses to Build Core Strength to Prevent Low Back Pain from Coming Back

1. Plank Pose

This pose is pretty straightforward and easy to do. You can start on the hands and knees, pressing into the hands, and bring one leg back behind you at a time, tucking the toes. From here, keep the spine long and the hips tucked, using the core to stabilize you. Hold this for a few breaths or for as long as you’d like. If this is too difficult, you can modify this pose by bringing your knees to the ground to give you better stabilization. If you choose this modification, but find it is uncomfortable on your knees, using a pad or rolling the end of your yoga mat under your knees can be helpful in supporting you here.

2. Side Plank

For this pose, you will start in Plank Pose and slowly begin to come to one side, stacking one foot on top of the other, and reaching your upper arm up to the sky. Keep your spine long here and use your core to hold you up. If this is too difficult, feel free to bring your lower knee to the ground for better support. Hold for a few breaths and then repeat on the other side.

3. Boat Pose

This is a great pose for your core. Start by sitting on the ground and bending your knees. Carefully begin to bring your legs up and away from the ground, stretching them up and out in front of you. From here, you can either keep your knees bent or you can straighten the legs. Next, bring your arms up, reaching them towards the legs, and make sure to always keep your spine tall so that you do not round your posture and hurt yourself. Use your core here to hold you in place and take deep breaths. When you are ready to come down, slowly lower to the ground on an exhale. 

If this pose is too difficult, you can also hold onto your thighs to keep you up and in place. If you choose this, keep your spine long as you do so.

Another modification would be to bring a blog between the thighs for more stability here.

4. Locust Pose

This pose is done by laying on your belly with your arms out in front of you and your feet behind you. On an inhale, you use your muscles to slowly bring your arms and legs up and off the ground. Use your core and keep your vertebrae stacked to stabilize you here. If you choose to, on an exhale, you can bring your arms back behind you, reaching the hands towards one another. This version of the pose is more intense, using more core strength. You can build your way up to this over time or you can stay right where you are. If this pose is too difficult, feel free to instead lift just the arms and then just the legs separately. The best version of this pose for you will depend on your specific needs. Check out this pose in the video below.

5. Balancing Table Top Pose

This pose is a fun one and involves some balance as well as using your core. Start on your hands and knee and, on an inhale, bring your right arm up and your left legs up. If you can’t quite get your leg up, you can stretch it back behind you, touching the toes to the ground. Whatever you choose to do, keep your arm and leg long as you reach them away from you, and use your core to hold you in place.

Hold this pose for a few breaths, or as long as it feels good for you, and then exhale to come back down, switching sides. The longer you hold the pose, the more core strength you will have. Check out this pose in the video below.

How to be Mindful With your Existing Low Back Pain During Yoga

No matter what practice you choose to do, you will want to make sure to be mindful through each and every pose. Different poses will have specific effects on your body. If you suffer from flexion based back pain, certain poses that involve more flexion will not be very helpful, and might even cause pain. If you suffer from extension based pain, then poses that involve more extension might negatively affect you. 

Understanding and knowing your body is always key in helping you to stay safe during any physical activity. Never force yourself into a pose you cannot do. If your body just does not move that way, forcing it to will usually end in you further hurting yourself, and this is something we definitely want to avoid!

For example, if you were working on a standing forward fold in class, and you could not touch your toes, forcing your hands down to the ground would round the back incorrectly, more than likely resulting in pain and pulled muscles. In addition, if you were already suffering from flexion-based pain, this would further push your spine into a deeper flexion. 

If you were to force yourself into a deep back bend, such as wheel pose, and the pain you were suffering from was extension based, this would deepen the extension in your spine, resulting in more discomfort, and possible causing further injuries.

Yoga also helps to increase mindfulness in general, so having an ongoing yoga practice can help you to be more aware of your needs and limitations. If you find that a pose causes you pain (when we say pain, we mean that something hurts, not just a slight stretch or discomfort) it is important to ease out of it and either find an alternative or you a modification. Having props during your class, such as blocks and straps, can be very important and beneficial.

If you don’t know where to start, please talk to your instructor ahead of time and ask any questions you have. 

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How to Talk to Your Instructor About Back Pain

If you suffer from back pain, and you are taking a yoga class in person, talking to your instructor ahead of time is very important. This way, your instructor can let you know if there is anything you should not be doing, and can offer you some modifications if need be. 

Make sure that whatever class you are doing is safe with your back pain. You can also always call the studio ahead of time to find out which practice would be best.

However, talking with your instructor will be the most useful. Making sure that your teacher is aware of your back pain ensures that you will be safer while practicing.

Best Modifications to Prevent Low Back Pain in Yoga

Understanding the cause of your back pain is essential in knowing which poses will help and which ones need to be modified. In addition, if there are certain poses where you find you are not as flexible as you would like to be, please be sure not to force yourself to over-extend them. This is how muscles can be pulled or torn, and this can exacerbate preexisting pain.

Having a block and a strap are incredibly helpful in class. Even a bolster could be helpful. If a class is just too difficult, even with many modifications and props, and you find that you are putting too much pressure in your back still, then you might try out a chair yoga class instead.

Again, knowing your body and what you can handle is key, and if you still are not sure what to do, as we previously said, ask an instructor. 

Let’s look at the example of a standing forward fold again. If you were not able to touch your toes, a modification could be simply letting your arms hang down, or bringing your hands to your thighs, keeping your spine long and your vertebrae stacked the whole time. You also might choose to use a strap here to place beneath your feet, holding both ends of the straps in your hands, and carefully folding forward while still keeping your spine tall.

Want to learn some more tips for modifications? Click here!

Why Every Yoga Class is Not Created Equally When it Comes to Back Pain Specifically

Each yoga class will be a little bit different, and each practice will offer specific benefits. Certain classes will be more intense for others, and not every class will be suited for someone experiencing back pain.

Just as a beginner should not take an advanced yoga class, a person with back pain should not take a class that is not designed for their needs. If you were to take a very fast-paced, intense class, you might find that your back pain is exacerbated from improper use of the spine for your specific needs.

In terms of flexion and extension, some classes for back pain will focus on one or the other. Back pain in general is a broad term, and the reason for your pain will define which class will be best suited for you.

If you suffer from pain due to flexion, an extension strengthening class would be more helpful. If you deal with pain from extension, then a flexion strengthening class will be more suited for you.

Determining the reason for your back pain can help you decide which class you should be taking, and which, if any, poses you should be avoiding or modifying.

How Body By Yoga Combines Physical Therapy with Yoga for Low Back Pain Relief and Prevention

Did you know our yoga programs offer a mix of yoga and physical therapy? 

Our classes are designed to be a slow-burn power yoga, offering both education and physical therapy techniques to help you stretch and strengthen your body while holding each pose for just long enough that it can offer you benefits without being boring. You can take our classes multiple times and use the knowledge and techniques you gain from them to enhance your everyday life.

By having both yoga poses and physical therapy techniques, you are able to have a unique practice that you can customize in any way you need. Instead of just doing a yoga practice, we will teach you more about yourself, your body, and how each individual stretch can affect you and/or help you.

Feel free to look through our programs to find which one will be best for you. Want to check out what program we offer? Click here! 

Best Body By Yoga Programs for Low Back Pain

Did you know that Body By Yoga has a specific program designed for back pain? This program is called Better Back Yoga. It offers gentle stretches for relief in the back of the body, and offers various poses for different causes of pain. Our Better Back Yoga program includes three classes to alleviate pain– Gentle Stretching, Flexion Strength, and Extension Strength– and even has one bonus ten minute routine for Immediate Pain Relief. This program is designed for all ages, levels, and abilities, and you can watch it from any of your on-demand devices.

Our Gentle Stretching routine focuses on tension-based pain, helping to release strain and tightness in the body, and relieving pain as a result. If you sit a lot and do not have much activity, this class can definitely be useful for you.

If you suffer from extension-based pain, our Flexion Strength routine can work wonders for you. If you have the opposite, with flexion based pain, then our Extension Strength routine can be helpful. 

We aim to help you in any way you need.

We also offer many resources and free tips for back pain on our website. Want to check them out? Click here!

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References:

Chang, D. G., Holt, J. A., Sklar, M., & Groessl, E. J. (2016). Yoga as a treatment for chronic low back pain: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of orthopedics & rheumatology, 3(1), 1–8.

Chronic back pain. Health Policy Institute. (2019, February 13). Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://hpi.georgetown.edu/backpain/. 


Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., Williams, G., Smith, E., Vos, T., Barendregt, J., Murray, C., Burstein, R., & Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: estimates from the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 73(6), 968–974. https://doi.org/10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428

Wu, A., March, L., Zheng, X., Huang, J., Wang, X., Zhao, J., Blyth, F. M., Smith, E., Buchbinder, R., & Hoy, D. (2020). Global low back pain prevalence and years lived with disability from 1990 to 2017: estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Annals of translational medicine, 8(6), 299. https://doi.org/10.21037/atm.2020.02.175

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