Updated January 18, 2019
Can Yoga Help With Back Pain?
Though yoga is an ancient practice, modern science is now backing up what yogis have known for years, that yoga is great for posture and spinal alignment (though there are many other benefits).
Yoga postures are called asanas. Each posture that's listed below includes it's name in Sanskrit, which will always end with asana.
Yoga postures will strengthen the muscles of the core which will help you maintain proper posture. Sitting for too many hours for too many years combined with a lack of resistance training results in a weak core. Some people have back issues because they lack the strength in their core and back to maintain proper posture.
Another benefit of yoga is to reduce stress and tension. Deep breathing combined with prolonged focus on doing the postures that consciously tense and relax muscles results in yoga practitioners feeling relaxed and energized after practice.
Long-term practice promotes better awareness of your body and mind, so when you start to carry tension, you're aware of the change and you can work to relieve it.
A 2017 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that yoga is effective for chronic lower back pain and may be a reasonable alternative to physical therapy. The study concluded that those doing yoga were equally less likely to need pain medication as those who were doing physical therapy.
Research from Division of Physical Therapy at Georgia State University came to a similar conclusion. Their main finding was that yoga can decrease pain and increase functional ability in patients with lower back pain. They explain, "In addition to stretching and strengthening the muscles of the back and lower extremities through physical postures, yoga may have the additional benefit of reducing stress through meditation and breathing exercises, contributing to an overall reduction in symptoms for individuals with low back pain."
Who Can do Yoga?
Almost anyone can do yoga, but it's best to speak to your doctor before you begin doing yoga, especially if you issues such as a herniated or slipped disc or a spinal fracture. Dr. Lauren Elson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, recommends that people follow proper form and speed and don't move quickly into a pose, as opposed to "gradually lengthening into it."
It's a good idea to find a yoga program led by a certified instructor, and to let the instructor know what kinds of back issues you're dealing with. And as there are many styles of yoga and types of classes, it's a good idea to start with a more gentle style of yoga. Don't force yourself into any poses. Give your body time to get stronger and more flexible.
If you get the ok from your doctor and you want to start practicing, you're going to want to get a yoga mat so you don't slip. If you're in a warm climate or your yoga class turns the heat up, you may even want to cover part of your mat with a towel. And it's a good idea to bring water so you don't get dehydrated.
Yoga poses are usually done in combinations that balance each other. A pose where you're doing some kind of a forward bend will often be followed by a backward-bending pose. If you're practicing on your own, it's a good idea to follow this guideline.
You may find it useful to use a yoga prop such as a foam block for some of the poses. Yoga blocks are used if you don't have the flexibility to touch the floor, or if you need extra support. These can be especially useful if you have any back issues and you want to start your practice gradually and reduce your chances of straining.
Another thing you'll learn in class is proper breathing, which usually involves breathing into your lower abdomen first, then into your upper lungs and chest. When you exhale, you push the air from your lower abdomen. This is known as diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. Many yoga classes will teach you the ujjayi breath, which involves making a slightly aspirated sound as you inhale and exhale.
Finding a Yoga Class
There are many different styles of yoga and types of classes. Some styles are gentle while others are vigorous. Some will place an emphasis on meditation, and others solely on the physical postures. Some styles, such as Bikram Yoga (or “hot” yoga), practice in 90-105 degree heat.
The best class for you will depend on your level of physical fitness, possibly your age, if you have any injuries, if you like heat or not, and your goals. It’s a good idea to do some research on the class, school, and instructors before you join a class. And you can talk to the instructor before you take a class to talk to them about your goals.
If you try a class and it doesn’t work for you, most metropolitan areas have lots of yoga classes. It’s common that yoga schools offer teacher training, so schools will create teachers and sometimes even competition for themselves. In your area, you may find teachers who just finished a teacher training program as well as teachers with decades of experience who have even spent time in India doing more in-depth training.
If you find a school, class, and/or instructor that you like, get in the habit of asking questions before or after class. Many yoga teachers are very patient and willing to help you improve. You may want to ask about modifications if you have back pain, or about how to do the poses properly. Some yoga teachers will also be open to doing private training, which tends to be significantly more expensive than group classes.
The Best Yoga Poses for Your Back
The following poses are more vigorous poses that might be appropriate for younger people with minor pain. For those with more serious back issues, or for those who are older or less mobile, a qualified yoga instructor would likely recommend much easier poses.
Downward-Facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)
This is one of the most well-known poses in yoga that stretches your hamstrings, calves, and shoulders.
To do this pose, you can start on your hands and knees, both shoulder width apart (called table pose). Spread your fingers apart, exhale and lift your knees away from the floor, press backward so your hips lift up towards the ceiling. Next press your heels down to the floor while looking towards your stomach. Hold the pose for a few breaths. This posture is very commonly done in combination with upward dog.
Upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)
This posture stretches your abdominal muscles, opens up your chest, and is great for your spine as many people hunch forward, looking down at their phones dozens of times per day.
This posture is done by inhaling and lifting your chest off the floor using your back muscles, supported by your hands pushing your torso off of the floor. The tops of your feet should be pressed into the floor and your legs should be off of the floor. Look straight forward or slightly up.
Child’s Pose (balasana)
Child’s pose can be done in combination with upward dog and downward dog, or by itself. It’s a calming pose that’s great for reducing stress while it stretches your shoulders and back.
To do this pose you can start on all fours with your big toes touching. Separate your knees as wide as your hips, then sit back until your glutes are almost touching your heels or resting on your heels. If you have a hard time doing this pose, you can place a folded blanket between your calves and your hamstrings.
You can leave your arms stretched out in front of you, or you can bring them to your sides palms up. Keep your eyes closed, hold the pose and breathe for as long as comfortable.
Cat (marjaryasana) and Cow Pose (bitilasana)
Cat and cow poses are great warmup poses and great for beginners. They’re often done in combination to start your yoga practice to stretch your spine and neck.
The cat pose starts in the table position/on all fours and you arch your back while exhaling, letting your back round, and look down without forcing your head down. It should look similar to a cat when they’re scared and trying to scare off an attacker.
From the cat pose move into the cow pose by lifting your head up, inhaling, drawing your shoulders away from your ears and dropping your chest, giving the opposite rounding that you had with the cat.
If you have a neck injury, it’s safest to keep your head in alignment with your torso.
Triangle Pose (utthita trikonasana)
The triangle pose is great for strengthening your lower back, upper back, and legs while stretching your hips and muscles along the sides of your torso.
Point your front foot straight and your back on a 45-degree angle with your legs 3 to 4 feet apart. Stretch your right arm down towards the floor, touching the ground if possible, or resting your hand on a yoga block if you need. Your left arm should reach towards the sky opening up your chest. Your shoulders should be stacked on top of each other so they make a straight line that's perpendicular to the floor. Gaze up towards your left hand.
Chair Pose (utkatasana)
The chair pose strengthens your shoulders, quadriceps and your posterior chain: glutes, hips, and back. It's called chair pose because it's as if you were sitting down in a chair.
Start by standing upright with your legs straight and putting your feet together with your big toes touching, though beginners can stand with the feet hip-width apart. Inhale and raise your arms above your head, then bend your knees as you exhale your knees, while drawing your shoulder blades into your upper back as you reach your elbows to your ears. Draw your tailbone towards the floor. The goal is to get your thighs parallel to the floor, though you may have to work up to that point. Your weight should be mostly on your heels. This pose can also be done with your knees and feet hip-width apart.
Pigeon Pose (eka pada rajakapotasana)
The pigeon pose isn't a beginner pose, but is a great stretch for the hip rotators and flexors, as well as the glutes. Many people experience back issues do to tightness in these areas.
To do this pose, you can start in downward facing dog. You'll bring your right leg forward and try to get your right shin perpendicular to your left leg, then drop your hips to the ground. If you need support, you can put a yoga block under your right glute. Your right ankle can be somewhere near your left hip, though as you get more advanced, your right shin will be more parallel with the front edge of the mat. The more perpendicular your right leg is to your left leg, the more intense the hip opening will be. Try to keep your hips square with the front edge of your mat.
Slowly lower yourself down, starting with your palms on the floor. You can gradually go down to your forearms, and if you want more opening, reach your arms out in front of you.
You can look forward, or for advanced practitioners, reach back and grab your left leg and pull it up while arching backward.
There are many postures in yoga, and everyone will respond differently to them based on their unique situation. And as you practice, poses that you had difficulty with before may become easy and enjoyable later.
If you're suffering with back pain and you're considering yoga, don't expect immediate results. It may have taken you years to get to the point where you developed back pain, so give it time for your body and mind to change. As with anything, the more you put into it the more you will get out of it.