Yoga: the secret to relieving back pain
Author Gill ShafferLast updated 12th March 2020
- Active Lifestyle
Back pain is a major problem facing many of us in the UK. Yoga teacher Fenella looks at simple ways to alleviate back pain that can allow you to move more freely.
Around 30 million days of work are lost each year in UK due to back, neck and muscle problems and musculoskeletal conditions, according to the Office of National Statistics.1 They account for more prolonged absences than any other ailment.
Many of the people that I teach notify me of lower back pain when they join a new class. For me, it is essential to find out what that back pain has involved, especially if the injury has related to a bulging disc in the lumbar spine.
Lots of exercise classes start with leg stretching routines to release stiffness in the hamstrings (the long muscles running down the back of our legs), which is often caused by our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Unfortunately, such sequences can be more damaging than beneficial for people with lower back issues.
After many years of teaching I can’t help observing posture, gait and how people move; I can spot a lower back issue from a long way off! It is especially noticeable if the student has tight hamstrings, which tends to be identified by a flattened curve around the lower back area.
While yoga can be very helpful in improving lower back pain, it is very important that it is taught in a way that does not worsen this condition. Instead, it should provide a tool kit to stop it getting worse in the future.
Essentially these clever cushions between the vertebrae of the spine are designed to act as shock absorbers for the brain in the range of activities that the body endures on a daily basis.
They are a combination of an inner disc, which is made of a gel-like substance, and the annulus fibrosis, which is a ring of ligament that supports and surrounds the centre.
An individual who does not suffer from lower back pain will tend to have a mild forward curve in their lower back which helps to evenly distribute the weight through the discs and spinal column.
When we bend forward (spinal flexion), we naturally put more weight on the front of the discs. This pushes the gel-like disc backwards into the ligaments that are now being stretched. Forcing these stretches with straight legs will naturally weaken the supporting ligaments which may tear and the gel-like inner disc then leaks out, causing a herniated disc. Anyone who has experienced this will know how unbelievably painful it can be, particularly when it presses on a nearby nerve. It may refer into the leg and hip.
We all know that heavy lifting can be a killer for lower backs, but so can repetitive forward bends, mainly because half our body weight is above our waist!
These long muscles extend from the back of the knee and attach to the sitting bones. When we do seated forward bends, tightness in the hamstrings prevents the pelvis from rotating forward and instead tilts it backwards, forcing the movement into the lower back and putting unnecessary strain on the ligaments.
We are led to believe that if we build up our abdominal muscles, we are less likely to suffer lower back pain, which can be true. However, sit ups and crunches cause the long back extensor muscles that run parallel to the spine to weaken, bringing an imbalance to the lower back. Over-developed abdominal muscles tend to increase the posterior tilt of the pelvis by lifting the front of the hips, pulling down on the rib cage and increasing the forward slumping action of the spine. This also leads to the classic shortening of the back of the neck and hunching of the shoulders… not a good mix!
In a class, students with lower back issues will tend to default to their natural posture, our goal as teachers is to prevent this posterior tilt in the pelvis and release tightness in the hamstrings.
Our pelvic tilts
A very simple exercise to check your pelvic tilt is to lie on your back with one straight leg stretched out on the floor and take your other straight leg to the ceiling. If you can’t hold your leg perpendicular to the floor, then the chances are that your pelvis is tilting posteriorly and you are at risk of damaging your lower back if you force your forward bends.
Detailed below are postures that will help you to progress towards forward bends, helping you to practice safely and with awareness. Please read the disclaimer at the bottom of the page before attempting any of the following exercises.
MARIJASANA/BITILASANA - Cat/Cow
The Pose: Position yourself on all fours. Breathe in and draw the shoulders away from the ears and lift the tail bone to the ceiling while keeping strength and stability through the abdominal muscles. Look up at the ceiling. Breathe out and tuck the chin towards the collar bone, the tummy lifts up towards the spine and the tail bone moves towards the nose. Repeat slowly 6 times.
The Benefits: This combination of postures brings flexibility and mobility to the spine and helps to coordinate movement and breath together.
SETHU BANDHASANA - Bridge
The Pose: Lie supine with knees bent and hip width apart. Press down onto the big toe, little toe and through the inner foot, keeping the knees parallel as you exhale and lift the hips to the ceiling. Clasp hands below the pelvis and extend through the arms to stay on the tops of your shoulders. Lengthen the neck, engage the buttock muscles and observe the breath. Hold for 6-8 breaths.
The Benefits: Reduces anxiety, fatigue, relieves backache, headaches and insomnia, rejuvenates tired legs and improves digestion.
UTKATASANA - Chair
The Pose: Stand with feet together, bend the knees and extend arms alongside ears, shoulders are relaxed and arms strong, as you tilt the pelvis back and form a bolt of lightning shape. Keep knees deeply bent and see if you can see your toes as you tilt the pelvis back and keep strength and length in the arms. Hold for 6-8 breaths.
The Benefits: Builds strength in ankles, calves, thighs and spine. Stretches shoulders and chest and stimulates abdominal organs.
SALABHASANA - Locust
The Pose: Lying on your stomach, interlace fingers behind your back and draw upper arms towards each other to externally rotate the shoulders back and down. Squeeze the thighs and raise the arms away from the body to lift the torso away from the floor. Hold for 6-8 breaths.
The Benefits: Strengthens the muscles of the spine, glutes, backs of the arms and the legs. Improves posture and stimulates the abdominal organs.
MAKARA ARDHO MUKA SVANASANA - Dolphin plank
The Pose: Lying on stomach, bring elbows under shoulders and press firmly into the whole surface area of the hand. Curl the toes underneath you and elevate thighs and torso off the floor, engaging thighs and abdominal muscles. Hold for 6-8 breaths.
The Benefits: Develops equal strength between the abdominal and back muscles that support the spine and builds strength in the legs.
SUPTA PADANGHUSTANA - Supine hand to foot
The Pose: Lying down, keep left knee bent initially and squeeze right knee down towards your body. With the aid of a belt, or clasping around your thigh, extend your right leg to the ceiling. If you are able to maintain the leg perpendicular to the floor extend your left leg away and flex foot to engage left thigh and lengthen hamstrings as well. Repeat on the other side.
The Benefits: Alleviates stiffness in lower back and can be helpful with symptoms of back pain, lengthens hamstrings and tones calves. Brings alignment to the pelvis.
BHARAVAJRASANA - Mermaid
The Pose: Kneel and take feet to the right resting left shin in right instep. Take the left hand as close to the left ribs as you can with fingertips or hand flat on the floor and rotate the body around to look over the left shoulder. Repeat on the other leg.
The Benefits: This is a gentle spinal twist that lengthens the spine, opens up through the shoulders, and hips, massages the abdominal organs and can be helpful in relieving lower backache, neck pain, and sciatica.
VIPARITA KARANI - Legs up the wall
The Pose: Approach the wall sideways so that your hip is as close to it as possible. Swing your legs up the wall so that your buttocks are in contact with the wall. Rest with legs extended and lower back on the floor. Stay for as long as you like!
The Benefits: Helps to alleviate lower back pain, re-energises tired legs and can be helpful to relieve headaches.
If these postures are practised 2-3 times a week for between 8-10 minutes, symptoms of back pain will diminish as the back becomes stronger and the hamstrings grow longer!
Modern lifestyles are not really conducive to healthy lower backs: we sit for unsuitably long periods with poor posture, we lift small children, move heavy furniture, carry shopping and then decide that the garden needs to be cleared in a weekend and then wonder why our backs give out! Consistent practice of yoga postures may help to alleviate this backache.
Disclaimer: FutureYou Cambridge is not liable for any issues connected with the exercises described on our website. If you feel any pain or discomfort when performing any of the exercises above, please consult a professional before continuing.