Waking up with a stiff back and tense shoulders is a rough way to start the day. Whether from a chronic issue, bad night’s sleep, stress, repetitive daily motions that have strained and inflamed muscles, or an acute injury, painful aches and spasms creep their way into millions of people’s backs each year. In fact, reports claim that 1 in 5 people see a doctor each year for complaints of low back pain.
If your regular regimen of NSAIDS, massage or exercise isn’t cutting it when it comes to alleviating chronic back pain, you may have thought of yoga and wondered if that is an avenue worth pursuing. Well, you’re not alone! A recent study from the Yoga Alliance has shown that yoga practice has grown almost 50% in America since 2012, with women still comprising the largest number of practitioners, but men and especially older adults trying their hand at it more than ever too.
What is Yoga?
When daydreaming of back pain relief, the cliche pretzel bending and twisting of yoga might not seem like a smart option. Won’t that exacerbate your already sore muscles or nerve pain? Nope. Imagine yoga as more of a gentle, stretching incorporation of movements that combines meditation and deep breathing to cultivate a super relaxing and pain relieving practice.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years, originating in the Hindu tradition in India and rising in popularity just 30 years ago in much of the Western world. From the Sanskrit word yuj which means “to join” or “to unite,” yoga practice does indeed embrace spiritual and meditative components, which can actually aid with back pain relief as well. There are many different types of yoga practice, some of which involve more dynamic, rapid movements and others that are very aligned, calming, and restorative.
Benefits of Yoga for Back Pain
In a surprising start to 2017, the American College of Physicians came out with updates to their clinical guidelines for treatment of back pain to say that patients with chronic and acute back pain should ditch the pills and opt for non-pharmacological avenues towards pain relief. These recommended methods based on a systematic analysis of studies and scientific literature around back pain treatment included massage, exercise, spinal manipulation, acupuncture, superficial heat, and you guessed it, yoga!
The gradual and mindful stretching, poses, and deep breathing of yoga has been shown to:
- Boost blood circulation to muscles and tendons to aid healing
- Lower stress levels and release neck and shoulder tension
- Improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis
- Promote better posture and spine lengthening
- Fight cognitive decline and improve clearer, keener thinking
- Promote healthy weight management (which aids back pain)
- Increase muscle tone and overall strength
- Strengthen flexibility, balance, and coordination
Best Yoga Poses for Back Pain
Not all yoga poses are created equally. Especially if you are trying yoga for the first time, jumping into an advanced class with more challenging poses and stretches can actually amplify existing back pain and even lead to further strain or injury of vulnerable tissues.
Experts recommend starting slow with beginner’s or restorative yoga type classes that help you warm up muscles, learn more about the stretching and poses, and gradually build up to successful movements, breathing, and meditation. Great, easy poses for back pain, which also serve as easy yoga poses for seniors, include:
Cat Cow (Marjaryasana and Bitilasana)
On a flat surface, preferably a yoga mat, get on all fours, knees hip length apart and hands perpendicular to your shoulders. First stretch the spine by dropping your belly towards the floor as you push your sitting bones and chest up, creating a dip with your back, and raising your head as you inhale. Hold for a few seconds then exhale, bring your sitting bones down, arch your back and bring your head down and shoulders up. Do 5 rounds, slowly taking deep breaths each time and really feeling the stretch and boosted blood flow to your back muscles and spine.
Half Knees-to-Chest (Ardha Apanasana)
Lying flat on your back with your legs extended, take a deep breath and as you exhale draw one of your legs up so that you still lay flat but grab the top of your shin with both hands, holding your bent knee towards you. Let your spine naturally curve, do not press it into the ground. Hold for a few seconds. Inhale as you release that leg to lay flat once more and then exhale as you bring the opposite leg up for the same stretch. Alternate left and right left legs in this stretch for a total of 5 repetitions.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
This ultra relaxing yoga pose provides a great stretch for the back and hips. On a flat surface on all fours, knees hip length apart, reach your hands out in front of you, palms spread wide and then bring your sitting bones down to rest just above your heels with your legs completely folded. Keep your head down and relaxed and take nice, long deep breaths in and out while you hold the pose and stretch your arms as far as they will go.
How to Get Started
Hooked on the idea but not sure where to get started with practicing yoga for back pain relief? You can stream loads of instructional videos online that provide gentle, motivating guidance and yoga knowledge – search Youtube or DoYogaWithMe.com to get started. Or sign up for a beginner’s or gentle yoga class at a studio, gym, or YMCA near you. Use YogaFinder.com to find one that fits your schedule.