Having back pain is kind of like having a nose: if you haven’t had it at some time, you’re an anomaly. And everyone’s is different. I guess that’s pretty much where the resemblance ends...but you get my point. Back pain is common, but unlike having a nose, it kind of sucks.
Many people make the assumption that having back pain means you need to stretch your back. Unfortunately, for many of the most common causes of low back pain, stretching your back and the putting your body into the positions you need to in order to do so can actually contribute to the problem. For example, one of the most common causes of back pain is injury to your discs. Your discs are the shock absorbers between the bones of your back (vertebrae). They are placed under the most stress with bending or twisting movements. They are also susceptible to injury in the mornings because they spent the night rehydrating while you were off your feet - and that’s why you’re tallest in the morning right when you get out of bed!
Now, consider you have injured one of your discs. Your back will feel tight and achey, your instinct is most likely to stretch. Why would this be a bad thing? With your disc already injured, your spine needs extra support. Your back muscles tighten in order to compensate for the injury, and you’re actually increasing the likelihood of further injury to that area if you stretch the muscles that your injured back needs for support. Think about your go-to poses for stretching your back. I bet you thought immediately of forward bend and spinal twist - two motions that put the most stress on your discs.
Of course, not everyone with back pain has a disc injury, and poses like forward bend and spinal twist aren’t necessarily bad for you, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pain relief poses. Cat and cow poses are also no-no's for immediate pain relief because they mimic the similar spinal movements as forward bend (and yes, before you ask, I am allergic to cats).
The Right Approach to Pain
So what should you do if you have back pain and want to relieve it? One of the first things I try with many of my patients is gentle, repetitive cobra or up-dog poses to, but not past, the point of pain. Usually I start with no less than 10 repetitions, three times per day and increase the repetitions from there. In the world of rehabilitation and physical medicine, this was a technique pioneered by Robin McKenzie, a physical therapist from New Zealand. If someone really feels like they need to release tension in their low back, I also recommend a ladder climb stretch, side-bending mountain pose or, for experienced yogis who can keep their spine in neutral or slight extension, downward-facing dog.
If you are susceptible to low back pain and looking to strengthen your core, I recommend strengthening your spine in a neutral position. Plank, bridge, and bird/dog are great poses to start with. Maintaining conscious, gentle pressurization in your core throughout your yoga practice will also certainly help reduce pressure on your low back, no matter what pose you are in. As I’ve mentioned before: many people argue (and I agree) that if you aren't strong enough to maintain core stabilization in a difficult pose, you shouldn't be holding it.
How and When
Sometimes what you don’t do can make the most difference. In my opinion, one such exercise is crunches. Doing crunches only places repetitive forward bending stress on your back and is only targeting what I consider to be the aesthetic, rather than functional, abdominal muscles. A friend of mine was once asked what a good replacement for crunches was. His response?
“To me, that’s like saying ‘If I take donuts out of my paleo diet, what should I replace them with to lose weight?’ Maybe you don’t need to add anything at all, you just need to take the junk out.”
(You can find his whole article here)
Here are some additional yoga-specific tips: when performing seated or standing forward bends (or really any type of hamstring stretch) either lead with your chest to avoid excessive bend in your low back or put a bend into your knees. And avoid doing them vigorously in the mornings, especially right away when you wake up. Personally, my favorite hamstring-focused yoga poses are staff pose and reclining big toe pose. Also, it might be worth considering the headstand or handstand - if you are strong enough to perform them safely, they can alleviate pressure from your discs much in the same way an inversion table would.
Here, I attempted to shed light on one of the most common causes of back pain, but there are many causes. If you have specific questions about maintaining core pressurization in your practice, or what poses might be right for you, talk with your yoga teacher and they'll help you safely find what you need. If you are having moderate to severe back pain from an unknown cause, consult your doctor before beginning any physical program.
Rachel Wiegand has been an athlete her whole life but yoga has been the only constant throughout moves and life changes. A former personal trainer, she is now a practicing chiropractor in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and enjoys helping patients find a physical activity that fits their lifestyle best. In addition to yoga, she practices Pilates and is an avid Crossfitter. On her weekends you can find her teaching yoga at CrossFit Sheboygan, with her hubby at Lake Michigan on her paddleboard, or at the dog park with her boxer, Dug.