When Yoga Helps or Hurts Low-Back Pain

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When Yoga Helps or Hurts Low-Back Pain

Low-back pain is one of the most common complaints I hear as a yoga instructor. Considering most of us spend the day sitting — for meals, at a computer, on our couch — it’s no wonder. A regular yoga practice can help strengthen your muscles and lengthen your spine to create space between the vertebrae and release tight hamstrings and hips, which contribute to sore backs. It can also delay aging and degeneration of the spine. But, if not done properly or with caution, yoga can exacerbate low-back pain.

SKIP YOGA AND HEAD TO THE DOCTOR IF YOU

  • Spike a fever
  • Suffered a fall, car accident or other trauma
  • Experience numbness or tingling
  • Have pain that wakes you up in the night
  • Have prolonged or chronic pain

To understand how yoga can help or hinder your back pain, let’s start with a quick anatomy lesson. The discs between vertebrae act as shock absorbers, protecting us when we run, jump or generally jostle our bodies. A normal spine has a slight curve forward in the low back, keeping your weight evenly distributed between each disc.

FORWARD FOLDS

When we reach for our toes, our low back flexes and loses this curve. So if we have back pain and practice too many forward folds or push too hard in them, we risk making the pain worse.

Here’s what makes this trickier: Tight hamstrings contribute to low-back pain and one way to loosen those hammies is with forward folds. Our hamstrings run from our knees to our hips and attach at our sit bones, those bony protrusions in our butt. When our hamstrings are tight, they pull on the sit bone, change the tilt of our pelvis and flatten that normal curve in our low back.


READ MORE > 5-POSE YOGA FIX FOR DESK DWELLERS


YOUR LOW-BACK Rx

GO EASY ON FORWARD FOLDS

Keep your knees bent. If the pain is severe, eliminate seated forward folds completely. Standing forward folds are far more supportive. When you’re ready to approach seated forward folds again, add a blanket or bolster under your knees for added support.

WORK ON LOOSENING AND ELONGATING YOUR HAMSTRINGS

Supine hand-to-foot pose with a towel or strap, half monkey with blocks and legs up the wall pose are all great. Down dog can help you lengthen the back and give space to those shock-absorbing discs, but use blocks under your hands, take a wide stance with your feet at the edges of the mat, keep a slight bend in the knees or employ some combination of these modifications. These adjustments make the pose more accessible for those of us with tight hamstrings.

STRETCH THOSE HIPS

Supine pigeon and happy baby are great ways to ease the hips open and work toward pigeon.

STRETCH THOSE ABS

It’s common to think weak core muscles are the cause of our back pain, but endless sit-ups can shorten the front of the body. This can reduce the curvature of the spine even more. Work on lengthening your abdominals, side waist and back with cobra and gate.

WORK ON ELONGATING YOUR SPINE

Utilize child’s pose and triangle. Loosen your spine with cat and cow and a supine spinal twist.

FOCUS ON YOUR BREATH

Moving up and down in forward folds is weightlifting for your low back. It’s important to engage the core and use your breath to support the movement.

ALWAYS DISCUSS ANY INJURIES OR CONDITIONS WITH YOUR INSTRUCTOR

These include pregnancy and low-blood pressure. Doing so ensures he or she can offer modifications.

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  • Patrick Dwyer

    Well written article. Love that you addressed overdoing forward folds can actually worsen lower back pain. Keep up the great work!

  • Nathan

    Good info. Yoga can really be helpful for low back pain, as long as both teacher and student are mindful of directions that feel good vs those that further cause discomfort.
    I would like to point out that there is no good evidence that tight hamstrings cause or contribute to back pain. The only time hamstrings should be of concern is if they are unequal in length or tightness.