People turn to yoga for all sorts of reasons and with many different goals. Some people are looking to reduce stress and decrease anxiety. Others are hoping to increase flexibility and mobility, and many people practice yoga to reduce low back pain.
While certain types of exercise are well known to potentially exacerbate low back pain, yoga for lower back pain is typically safe to perform with acute or chronic low back pain, provided you don’t have an unstable spinal fracture or significant nerve damage.
Furthermore, there are yoga poses for low back pain that relieve symptoms by stretching and loosening muscles in the back, and yoga poses that can help prevent low back pain by strengthening the muscles in the back, core, hips, and butt, and increasing the mobility in the hips and spine.
In this guide to yoga for low back pain, we discuss the benefits of yoga for low back pain, yoga poses to reduce back pain, and yoga poses you should avoid or modify if you have back pain or a back injury.
We will look at:
- Can I Do Yoga For Lower Back Pain?
- Common Lower Back Injuries
- How Can Yoga For Lower Back Pain Help?
- 20 Yoga Poses for Lower Back Pain
- Practicing Yoga With Lower Back Pain
- Yoga Poses to Avoid With Lower Back Pain
Let’s jump in!
Can I Do Yoga With Lower Back Pain?
In most cases, practicing yoga is safe even if you have low back pain, as long as you don’t have a vertebral fracture, acute herniation, or nerve injuries. However, certain yoga poses are contraindicated with low back injuries, and some poses should be modified to reduce the stress, torque, or pressure on the spine, low back muscles, and hips.
Consult your doctor or physical therapist for a proper diagnosis and list of any exercise restrictions or limitations you may have due to an acute low back injury or chronic low back pain prior to beginning a yoga practice.
A physical therapist experienced with your condition can also help design a rehabilitation program to strengthen the surrounding muscles and correct any imbalances or mobility issues that might have contributed to your injury.
Common Lower Back Injuries
Low back pain may be due to damage to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, or nerves due to overuse or acute injury.
The most common causes of lower back pain include the following:
- Lumbosacral muscle strains
- Lumbar spondylosis
- Osteoarthritis of the spine
- Spinal stenosis
- Vertebral compression fractures
- Disc herniations
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Bulging discs
- Facet joint fractures
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
- Ligament sprains
- Degenerative joint disease
Factors that contribute to lower back pain
There are several factors that can increase the risk of low back pain and injury. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, some of the more common risk factors for developing low back pain include the following:
- Older age
- Sedentary lifestyle or inconsistent exercise habits
- Being overweight or obese
- Genetics, such as in the case of ankylosing spondylitis
- Having a job that requires repetitive twisting, heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling
- Sitting all day in a chair with poor support or poor posture
- Poor posture and slouching
- Weak core muscles
- Tight hips and hip flexors
- Weak glute muscles or improper activation of glute muscles when standing, walking, and moving around
- Carrying heavy backpacks or loads
- Stress, anxiety, and depression
How Can Yoga For Lower Back Pain Help
Yoga has been shown to not only be a safe exercise modality to practice if you have low back pain, but also a more effective way to reduce low back pain and improve function than resting or doing no physical activity at all.
There is also evidence to suggest that yoga may be as effective at restoring function and reducing pain associated with back injuries as traditional physical therapy sessions.
Several of the risk factors for developing low back pain can be reduced by regularly practicing yoga. For example, yoga can improve posture, increase core strength, increase the flexibility of tight hamstrings, increase the mobility of tight hips, and increase glute activation and strength.
According to research published in American Family Physician, 70% of low back pain is due to lumbosacral muscle strains. These are typically overuse injuries caused by either fatigue and muscle damage due to the accumulation of repetitive loads or muscular demand on the muscles in the low back or from lifting, twisting, pushing, or pulling a load that exceeds the capacity of the muscles in the low back or using poor form.
Many people over-work or overload the muscles in the low back. These muscles, such as the erector spinae, multifidus, spinalis, and base of the latissimus dorsi, are relatively small muscles that are not intended to perform heavy lifting or powerful movements.
Instead, the strong glutes should be the primary workhorses used when squatting, running, and walking. However, many people fail to fully activate and recruit their glutes for activities of daily living, exercise, and locomotion.
Instead, they rely heavily on the weaker muscles of the low back, which are quicker to fatigue and easier to overwork and thus injure.
Tight hamstrings and hip flexors can also lead to low back pain because the lower back muscles have to compensate for the mobility limitations and end up having to work too hard or become overstretched.
Finally, a weak core and/or excessive abdominal weight due to obesity alters the body’s center of gravity and pelvic tilt and induces excessive curvature of the lumbar spine (lordosis). These alignment changes can strain the low back muscles and compress the structures in the lumbar spine, leading to low back pain.
Yoga can be an effective means to reduce or prevent low back pain by strengthening muscles in the low back to handle higher loads, correcting some of these muscular imbalances, improving the mind-body connection and ability to activate and utilize the glutes and core when lifting and moving, improving posture, increasing the flexibility in tight hamstrings and hip flexors, and potentially even reducing abdominal fat.
20 Yoga Poses for Lower Back Pain
There are many yoga poses that can help prevent low back pain by strengthening the muscles in the low back, glutes, and core, and increasing the range of motion in the hamstrings, spine, and hips.
The following are just a few of the best yoga poses to relieve low back pain:
- Wind-Relieving or Knees-to-Chest Pose (Apanasana)
- Bird Dog (Parsva Balasana)
- Extended Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
- Reclined Pigeon Pose (Supta Kapotasana)
- Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
- Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Upward-Facing Dog Pose (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
- Tiger Pose (Vyaghrasana)
- Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
- Thread the Needle Pose (Urdhva Mukha Pasasana)
Practicing Yoga With Lower Back Pain
Although it is typically safe to practice yoga with low back pain as long as you don’t have a fracture, unstable injury, or healing surgical site, it is often necessary to modify certain poses to avoid putting excessive stress on your lumbar spine and low back muscles.
Here are a few general considerations for practicing yoga with low back pain:
- Avoid back-bending poses (such as Full Wheel) if you have nerve issues, herniated discs, or compression fractures.
- Avoid poses that involve twisting the spine.
- Avoid extreme flexion or extension of the spine.
- Listen to your body. If you have any pain when holding a pose, stop immediately.
Yoga Poses to Avoid With Lower Back Pain
If you have an acute low back injury, osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease, or a strained muscle in the low back, there are certain yoga poses you should avoid, or at least modify.
Many of the same yoga poses listed above that can help prevent or ease low back pain also have the potential to exacerbate it if you are in an acute phase of an injury.
Other yoga poses can also be contraindicated for those with low back pain because they can put undue stress and pressure on the lumbar spine and soft tissues of the low back, which can exacerbate an injury or contribute to worsening pain.
Examples of yoga poses that can exacerbate low back pain if not modified include the following:
This pose can be hard on your neck, shoulders, and low back. Either avoid it altogether or modify this yoga pose for low back pain by ensuring you squeeze your glutes and quads to properly support your lumbar spine.
Although this is a great pose to strengthen your glutes and lower back while stretching your chest, shoulders, and thighs, Bow Pose compresses your lumbar spine, which can be painful with any disk, nerve, or bone issues. Avoid this yoga pose if you have low back pain.
Boat Pose is a fantastic way to strengthen your core, but it puts pressure on the sacrum, coccyx, and lumbar spine. It’s crucial that you keep your core tight and back flat (not rounded). You can modify this yoga pose for back pain by bending your knees and resting your feet lightly on the ground.
Crescent Lunge Twist
Crescent Lunge Twist and other yoga poses that involve twisting the spine should be avoided if you have bulging or herniated discs.
Full Wheel Pose
This advanced pose hyperextends the back should be avoided if you have low back pain.
This, and other back-bending yoga poses, should be avoided with low back pain due to pinched nerves or spinal stenosis. If you are going to attempt this pose, lift your leg using your quads and glutes, rather than pulling up on your foot. Use a yoga strap to reduce the tension on the back muscles.
This is a great yoga pose to stretch your low back and hamstrings, but the stretch can be too intense if you have low back pain. Modify this pose by placing a soft bend in your knees and placing your hands up on yoga blocks rather than down on the floor.
There are quite a few other yoga poses that either place too much load or muscular demand on the low back or place the spine at unnatural or strained angles, but the above list should serve as a good starting place for examples of such poses.
Low back pain and back injuries are highly variable from one person to the next, so experiment to find out what works and doesn’t work for you. Above all, stop any yoga pose that causes discomfort and consult your doctor or physical therapist for guidance if you have concerns.
For more yoga poses for low back pain, check out this yoga video for an entire yoga workout for those with low back pain.