Back pain is an incredibly common ailment that most of us will experience at some point during our lives.
According to the World Health Organization, low back pain is the single biggest cause of disability in 160 countries and at any one time, 540 million people around the world are affected by back pain.
I’ve been there too.
In fact, it was back pain that originally brought me to yoga more than twenty years ago. I’m pleased to say that yoga successfully eased my then chronic back pain and years later as a yoga teacher trainer I have shared some of the ways yoga practices can help.
With that in mind, in this article we’ll discuss:
- Understanding the anatomy of your back
- Considering what might be the cause of back pain
- The importance of movement for back pain
- 6 yoga poses to help relieve back pain
Understanding the anatomy of your back
The anatomy of the back is a big subject, so in this brief overview, we’ll touch on some of the key areas with a view to providing some understanding of the back and its functions.
The spine is made up of five regions. They are the cervical (neck), thoracic (upper and mid back), and lumbar (lower back) spine with the sacrum (the back of the pelvis) and coccyx (tailbone) sitting below these three main sections.
In total, the spine has four curves – one at each of the three main sections and a fourth curve at the sacrum.
There are thirty-three interconnected bones (vertebrae) that together make up the vertebral column.
At the back of the spine between the vertebrae are the facet joints. These small joints allow us to twist, bend forward (spinal flexion), and bend backward (spinal extension) as well as providing stability to the spine.
Running through the center of the vertebral column is the spinal cord, via the vertebral foramen that protects the spinal cord, and through which the spinal nerves pass.
The nerves travel out through the openings of the vertebrae (intervertebral foramen) to carry messages between the muscles and the brain.
Sitting between the vertebrae are the intervertebral discs, the rounded gel-like cushions that act like shock absorbers for the spine.
The soft tissues of the back – the tendons, muscles, and ligaments work together to support the spine in its functions. The muscles provide support and aid movement. The superficial (extrinsic) muscles of the back aid respiration and help the shoulders to move.
The deep (intrinsic) back muscles are formed of three layers and together they are involved in side bending (lateral flexion), rotation and extension of the spine and head.
Connecting the muscles to the bones are the tendons, which also assist movement, while the ligaments connect to the vertebrae and help to hold the spine in place.
Considering what may be the cause of back pain
It’s not a coincidence that lower back pain is especially common. The lumbar spine is the most mobile part of the back and also carries the most weight, so as a consequence it’s this part of the back where pain and injury is most likely.
That said, if you’re experiencing pain in any part of the back it can be helpful to ascertain whether the root of it is disc-related, bone-related, or muscular.
It can be very difficult to tell without the help of a medical professional, and if your back pain is ongoing it is essential to seek medical guidance.
As a very general starting point, you can consider the pain sensations you’ve been feeling:
- If you experience tightness dullness, soreness, or a spasm if it’s particularly severe, it may be muscular.
- If you experience tingling (including sensations down one leg such as sciatica) it may be disc-related (e.g. a prolapsed disc or degenerative disc disease).
- If you experience stiffness or radiating pain, it may be bone-related (e.g. bone pressing down on a nerve.)
The Importance of Movement for Back Pain
The advice for back pain used to be complete rest and to avoid movement. However, we now know that this is not particularly helpful.
One of the biggest culprits contributing to back pain is excessive sitting which is a result of our more sedentary lives in the 21st century.
Research has shown that regular exercise can reduce the frequency of back pain recurring and yoga is one of the practices proven to be effective.
Yoga for back pain: 6 poses for relief
The following yoga poses are not the only ones you can do to ease back pain, but they are fundamental poses that when combined will move the spine in all directions, which is important in terms of supporting back health.
Please note: before beginning any physical exercise program it is important to consult your doctor to ensure that it is suitable for you.
#1: Cat-Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana)
A cat-cow flow is a lovely movement to warm-up and mobilize the whole back, including the erector spinae, the intermediate layer of the deep back muscles that run along either side of the length of the vertebral column (from the bottom of the skull to the pelvis).
They play important roles in extension and lateral flexion.
Doing cat-cow in a slow, controlled manner allows you to practice spinal articulation (where the whole spine moves vertebrae by vertebrae from its neutral position into extension, into flexion, and back again).
Cat-cow can also provide some relief from sciatica.
#2: Downward Facing Dog (Adho Much Svanasana)
Downward facing dog is a pose that can provide a satisfying stretch for your hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are common culprits when it comes to back pain.
They can also lead to a rounded lower back (posterior pelvic tilt). If your hamstrings feel particularly tight then it is advisable to practice this pose with your knees bent.
That said, encouraging back health is not only about stretching. This pose also builds strength in the upper body including the abdominals. Strong abdominal muscles play an important role in supporting the back.
#3: Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)
Extended triangle pose is a rotation as well as a side bend. In addition to strengthening and stretching the back and legs, triangle pose also stretches and strengthens the hamstrings, while stretching the hips, groin, chest and shoulders.
Engage the thigh, abdominal and gluteal muscles while you’re practicing extended triangle pose. With lots of sitting, the gluteal muscles can become lazy and stop working effectively.
Weak gluteal muscles can contribute to back pain, so opportunities to engage and strengthen the gluteal muscles during your yoga practice can be helpful.
#4: Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Cobra pose is a backbend that comes under the category of spine strengthening exercises.
This pose also helps to combat the rounded upper back and head forward posture (kyphosis) that is often a result of our modern lifestyles with extensive sitting and looking at phones and computers.
When you are practicing cobra pose, engaging the gluteal and abdominal muscles can help to support the lower back. You can reduce the degree of your backbend by practicing a baby cobra pose by bringing your upper body closer to the ground.
If a baby cobra feels like too much, particularly if you notice any uncomfortable pinching sensations in your back, then try a restorative supported bridge pose (setu bandha sarvangasana) with your sacrum resting on a yoga block at its lowest or middle height.
#5: Reclined Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
Twists can help to relieve tightness in the back and also feel satisfying to practice after backbends. A handy tip is to try practicing this in bed along with cat-cow when you wake up in the morning.
If coming into this reclined spinal twist feels too intense in your lower back, then you can reduce the depth of the twist by supporting your top leg on a bolster (or pillows, if practicing this in bed).
Sometimes the instruction given is to turn your head away towards the arm that is reaching back. However, it is gentler for the spine to keep your head in a neutral position towards the ceiling, or forward.
Another tip is to allow your chin to tuck slightly in towards your chest to lengthen (rather than compress) the back of the neck.
It can be easy to forget that the neck is part of spine, but what is happening in this area (the cervical spine) can affect what is happening lower down the spine.
#6: Child’s Pose (Balasana)
In child’s pose, not only is the spine lengthened, the hips, gluteal muscles and thighs are also stretched. The latter is relevant as tightness in these areas can contribute to and exacerbate lower back pain in particular. Another benefit of this pose is that it can be very calming.
If you find that your hips do not touch your heels in this pose, that’s completely fine. In this instance, simply move in the direction of lowering your hips back and downward, as far as is comfortable for your body without forcing or straining.
To make your child’s pose more restorative, practice supported child’s pose by placing a bolster underneath your upper body and rest here for 3 to 5 minutes.
Suggested Further Reading To Delve Deeper:
Movement really can be medicine when it comes to relief from pain.
A regular yoga practice can help you to say goodbye to back pain, maintain good posture and keep your spine healthy. Be patient and kind to yourself along the way, and always seek professional medical advice where needed.
If you want to dive deeper, try reading this book:
Back Care Basics: A Doctor’s Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief by Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D.