Nothing can stop a perfectly good yoga practice (or day, for that matter) in its tracks like a hurting back. And sometimes, the poses you might think would help your aching body could actually be making it worse.
Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints I hear as a yoga teacher — and that’s no wonder. According to a recent article in Men’s Health, one of the world’s preeminent back specialists has dire predictions for most of us. According to the article, and Galen Cranz, Ph.D., author of The Chair, it’s only a matter of time before the ticking time bombs of our office chairs, poor posture and lack of core strength go off. Even for me, who boasts of my awesome Gaiam Balance Ball, yet I too often sit in it like I’m doing a cannonball into a swimming pool.
Tight and/or weak muscles are the root of most of our lower back pain. Even disc problems like herniations or ruptures often are only symptoms of the cause: over contracted muscles that have been pulling down on the spine or muscles unable to support the spine, so it collapses upon itself. Even if disc problems haven’t crept into your life, chronic lower back tension, a weak core and lack of flexibility in your back body are all signs that should not be ignored.
Yoga builds strength and lessens pain
Luckily, a balanced yoga practice can help build the strength to shore up your lumbar, or low back spine, and maintain the flexibility you need to create happy discs. When done properly, it will let you keep a healthier, more pain-free back for a lifetime. I used to have terrible sciatic pain for years and years until I started yoga and used the simple secrets I’ll share with you in a moment.
In fact, the National Institute of Health just found that becoming a regular yogi can send back pain packing, which improves your mood and your ability to move. After 12 weeks, those in the study who took 90-minute yoga classes twice a week experienced a 42 percent reduction in pain and reduced their intake of pain medication. Researchers also found that practicing yoga regularly decreased symptoms of depression by 45.7 percent.
Impulsive stretching can harm you
Often, when pain strikes, our first impulse is to stretch out the area. We may go for a standing or seated forward bend. However, these poses can overwhelm the muscular tension and actually cause spasms, more pain and over stretching of the connective tissue. For most students, because their back body parts (calves, hamstrings, glutes, back muscles, etc.) are tight, straightening the legs in either of these poses can lock the back muscles out of moving the spine into its proper alignment. Think about it: If your legs are at their limit, there will be little possibility for you to preserve the lower back arch, which tilts the sitting bones backward and needs some give in the back legs in order to happen.
So more often, students will straighten the legs first, then try to bend forward, and what happens is not the optimal “lower back long, heart open, core engaged, fold from your hip creases” direction we as teachers seek. More common is that the legs get a stretch, but then the lower back rounds and pressurizes the curve out of the spine. This is not only dangerous for the discs but also strains the sacrum, the surrounding muscles — and often results in more pain instead of less. Plus, it’s not even a balanced stretch.
2 how-to yoga videos: Moves to relieve back pain
3 yoga tips for back pain
Here are three yoga tips to help you unlock your tight back and return to your strong, supple and stable self:
1. Back off to move forward
If you rush into a stretch too quickly, you could trigger the stretch reflex, which can cause the muscle to contract defensively and get tighter or even strain.
Instead, to target back muscles in, say, a seated or standing forward bend, bend the knees so your spine can lengthen into its natural curves. Then, maintain a long spine as you begin to stretch the legs back. When you first meet the edge of a stretch, stop, breathe and soften there. Then go a little farther into your next edge.
Easing off the extreme stretch and instead seducing the body to open by going on a gentle, yet insistent journey through layers of flexibility will help you circumvent your body’s protective reflexes and allow it to release.
2. Vive la resistance!
To signal your central nervous system to release tension in the lower back, or anywhere, you can try the PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) technique, or in simpler terms, resist and release.
It’s used by physical and sports therapists, and by modifying your back-stretching poses to include it, you’ll also gain the benefits of increased muscle flexibility. To make PNF work for you, you’ll need to maintain a balance of three things: muscle action, muscle stretch and proper alignment. These are not passive stretches only.
In my video, you’ll be both using a muscle at the same time you’re stretching it, a technique called resistance stretching, and alternating resistance and release. These moves are part of the reason my students get more flexible, fast, while remaining pain-free. It tells your central nervous system that you’re protected, and it seems to cause a greater release than just passive stretching alone.
Whenever you’re trying to move past chronically tight areas, maintaining proper alignment means that every move you make should serve one area to remain open, strong and free: the spine. If students jam the legs straight but compromise the spine, the pose has crossed the line into unhealthy territory.
Instead, as we resist and release, resist and stretch, back off, gain traction or anything else we do to increase our range of motion, we should only go as far as we’re able while preserving the integrity of the all-important spine. The stretch will come from there, in time.
3. Gain traction
Once you’re warmed up, you’ve done your yoga and you’re ready to rest, try a restorative pose first that will gently pull your lower back spine into traction or a slight opening.
When you’re in a supported pose, like the sacral reset with a block you’ll see in the video, you can release muscular action and allow gravity to take over. As your body rests, your muscles also cool down and reset into new alignment. So the position you’re in while you re-form the mold of your body is very important. First rest in a back traction pose like this one, and then take full savasana to allow your legs to retain their optimal length.
All in all, remember that it took a while to get your back to this point, and it’s a journey back out again. As you move through the stages of your flexibility and re-strengthening, instead of hitting your edge and letting your inner voice say “I’m soooo tight,” try this perspective: “I’m really opening up here — little by little, but it’s going to make a huge difference.”