The Benefits of Yoga Series: Back Pain
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Almost all of you will have experienced lower back pain at some point or another. It is a rare human who does not know what it is to have an ache or pain in the lower back, however long or short lived. It is one of the most commonly cited reasons for visiting the doctor, or taking time off work. Fortunately the benefits of yoga for back pain are accessible, holistic and personal to you, as we will discover.
There are of course dozens of causes of lower back pain (it is far beyond the scope of this blog to cover them all, nor offer any form of diagnosis - please book an appointment with your GP, osteopath, chiropractor, or similar back specialist if you have any concerns).
Some common complaints for example are Type 1 Sciatica, either caused by a protruding spinal disk pressing on a root nerve exiting the spinal cord causing pain down the leg (and not always in the lower back). Type 2 Sciatica which is where the sciatic nerve runs through (rather than over) the piriformis muscle(s) (which join the sacral spine to the head of the femur). Pressure in this muscle then presses on the nerve causing pain in the piriformis muscle itself (in the upper buttock area) and down the sciatic nerve into the leg(s).
Ligament strain is another cause of back pain, as is arthritis. Alternatively stress, poor posture, scoliosis, and injuries may be affecting the structural alignment of the spine and ribs, giving rise to muscle spasms in a variety of locations, that can be more painful than the original problem.
The upshot is there is no one size fits all to back pain - each and every individual is different, which is why the benefits of yoga for back pain are so plentiful; namely because with a good teacher your practice is tailored to you specifically.
What is more, stress, tension and psychological well-being play a huge part in pain in the body - and back pain is no exception.
Have you ever noticed that the neck pain you occasionally get might be related to something that is a real “pain in the neck”?
Or perhaps you notice your back “go” when you are feeling a particularly heavy burden, that you are unable to bear.
Or maybe when you notice that stiffness in your shoulders you might ask yourself whether you feel like you are “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders”?
How Does the Mind Affect the Body?
When the body’s stress response is activated tension in muscles is increased, and some can go into spasm as a result of the mental tension. The Author Dr. John Sarno (author of Healing Back Pain: The body Mind Connection) argues that the cause of back pain is usually psychological. Getting down to, and resolving the root cause of the mental tension will usually see the pain disappear.
Emotional states (be it joy, anxiety, confidence, melancholy - etc. etc.) all have a corresponding physiological (bodily) state.
Habitually being in a state of tension or anxiety for example, will therefore not only have an adverse effect on mental health, it also has an effect on your physical health. The converse is also true; a habitual state of joyfulness, or calm for example has a health giving effect on both your mental health, and your body.
The two; body and mind, are inextricably interconnected.
What Are the Benefits of Yoga for Back Pain?
“Beyond stress, and emotions like anger and dissatisfaction, yoga links back pain to posture, muscle tightness and muscle weakness, as well as to a lack of body awareness - all issues that yoga is very effective in addressing.”
- Yoga As Medicine
The the beauty of yoga is that its holistic approach, that encompasses many disciplines such as muscle strengthening, gentle and systematic stretching, breath work and mindfulness. This means that there are multi layered benefits of yoga for back pain on both a physical and psychological level.
The simultaneously lengthening and strengthening nature of asana practice systematically addresses weakness as well as increasing flexibility. Asana sequences help ease back pain by increasing the circulation that carries nutrients to the intervertebral disks while also removing toxins for example. These gelatinous shock absorbers don’t have their own blood supply and therefore depend of the movement of the surrounding structures to bring nutrients to them. Movement causes the disks to be compressed, which squeezes out stale fluid and then to expand bringing a fresh supply of nourishment and fluid. This is what yogis call the “wring and soak” effect.
The attention to breath and particularly the elongation of the breath serves to bring down the body’s fight/flight stress response. This leads to muscle relaxation through out the whole body. Additionally the undulations of the breath gently massages the spinal column, which also help bring nutrients to the disks.
“Awareness is crucial to the yogic approach to back pain … be attentive to how you are using your body when you wash dishes, pick up the laundry, watch TV or engage in any of the routine activities that are part of everyday life.”
- Yoga As Medicine
Awareness plays a key role in the yogic approach to posture. It is easy to develop bad postural habits from a lack of awareness. The practice of mindful asana helps it become natural to bring awareness to your body’s alignment as you go through your everyday tasks. A regular asana practice also supports your posture to improve by increasing muscle tone and alignment as you gently move and stretch.
Two of the key teachings in Ashtanga yogic practice are Ahimsa, meaning “non-harming” (i.e. compassion), and Satya, “truthfulness.” Bringing these qualities gently into your practice on the mat means honouring your body where it is. This means accepting with your compassionate and curious awareness all that it wants to communicate - be that pleasure or pain.
The truthfulness element means taking time to slowly and gently open into the areas of the body, such as the lower back, hips and hamstrings, where there might be a lot of holding and tension. It means not rushing or pushing through poses to achieve a certain shape or be as flexible as someone else. Quite the opposite!
It means honouring how the body is - and only coming into a pose as far as it is comfortable; comfortable for the body and not for the mind. It may be tempting to push a little further to get "into" a pose, but this misses the point of yogic practice - which is to listen to, to mindfully tune into and choose the body's messages over the mind (the ego).
Having a calm mind and calm breath in and through your flow of poses, accepting what is another benefit of yoga for back pain. Steady breathing is key to shifting the balance in the autonomic nervous system, for the reason that it activates the restorative parasympathetic side, so the deep muscles (and psychological states such as mental tension) that are likely the source of the pain, start to let go.
Poses to Support and Strengthen the Back
“Yoga done right gets more interesting over time.”
- Yoga As Medicine
- Cat-Cow Pose
Benefits: Cat-Cow is great for creating mobility along the whole of the spine.
How To: On your mat or a carpeted floor, start off in a neutral table top position, in other words kneeling on all fours with your spine straight. Ensure that your joints are stacked so your shoulders are directly over your wrists and hips directly over your knees.
Exhale and gently arch your spine and look up (this is cow), taking care to keep an orange sized gap at the back of your neck.
Inhale and round your back, soften your neck and feel for a space between your shoulder blades (this is cat).
Move slowly between the two poses coordinating your breath with your movements. Ten to twenty times.
- Supine Hip Rotator Stretch Pose
Benefits: This is a really good stretch of the external hip rotor muscles (including the piriformis, see above). Tightness in the rotator muscles interferes with the pelvis’ ability to move normally while walking etc. When the pelvis is held too static the biomechanical forces are transferred into the lunar spine causing pain and stiffness. This is a great way to stretch them out.
On your mat or a carpeted floor lie on your back with your knees bent. Exhale and tile your pelvis externally, bringing your lower back toward the floor and your right knee halfway in towards your chest. Take your left foot and cross it over your right knee, keeping your shin bone parallel to the floor.
With your right hand, reach around the outside of your right leg, behind the bend of the knee. Place your left hand on the inside of your left knee.
On an exhalation simultaneously bring your right knee towards you as you gently push your left knee away. Feel the stretch in your outer left hip. Hold the pose for five to ten breaths.
Repeat on the other side and ensure that you are steadily and mindfully breathing as you soften into this pose.
To lessen release the stretch release the bent leg from the hands and take the foot down to the floor.
Take time to enjoy the the benefits of yoga for back pain, and breathe your way to to a healthy alignment.