I Should Go Do Yoga...Back Pain

Ah back pain…if you’re a sufferer like me then you’ll know that it can be debilitating, and incredibly frustrating to boot. There are an infinite number of causes; poor posture, injury, tight hips, tight hamstrings, sciatica, slipped disc…the list goes on, and because of this it’s likely that you’ve read, or been given, loads of differing advice on how to relieve the pain.

Now I’m just going to put this disclaimer out there: I am not a doctor, or an osteopath or chiropractor or physiotherapist, so if you do suffer with chronic back pain, or have had an injury, please seek their advice first before doing these exercises! I’m just going with my own experience here.

Often you'll find yoga tips for relieving back pain include back bends, but for me this just hurt even more. In my personal experience, lower back pain has a few root causes: tight lower body muscles (hip flexors, psoas, hamstrings, hips and in some cases latissimus dorsi), anterior or posterior pelvic tilt and lack of abdominal strength (with exceptions – read on to find out more). Let’s delve deeper...

Posture

Poor posture, particularly in your pelvis, can cause havoc with your lower back as you will be straining the muscles to try and protect your spine. Stand in your normal relaxed standing position, side-on to a mirror and take a look at what you see. There should be a natural curve forward in your lower spine, and back in your upper spine, but for most people who sit at a desk, or stand for long periods have one of two postures:

  1. Rounded shoulders, chest and/or abs, bum sticking out, with anterior pelvic tilt  
  2. Rounded shoulders, hips forward, dumping the weight into the pelvis, with posterior pelvic tilt

Check your posture, does it look similar to either of these?

Neutral pelvic position in Tadasana

Neutral pelvic position in Tadasana

To try and re-align and get a feel for how your spine should be positioned let’s practice Tadasana. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart (or a distance that feels comfortable). Push down through your feet evenly, as if you’re trying to push the floor away from you. You should feel a nice natural internal lift in the rest of the body.

Draw your shoulders up towards your ears, and then round them back and down your back, pulling your shoulder blades together. If you have spent years hunched over a computer this might feel a bit strange to start with, but stay with me. Take a big inhale and feel your chest lift upwards towards the sky. Dip the chin into the neck just slightly, so your neck is nice and straight.

Now let’s take our attention to our pelvis. Place your hands on your hip bones and explore the range of motion in your lower back by tipping your pelvis forward and sticking out your bum, and then tipping it back and your hips forward. Do this a couple of times until you find a middle point which feels balanced and natural. It should look a little something like the right hand picture here, but everyone is different, so go with what feels good.

Once you have found your ‘feel good’ point, close your eyes and engage your lower abs just slightly, so your pelvis feels supported. Now notice how your body feels in this position. Do you feel taller? Lighter? If no, keep playing with your pelvis position, and the engagement of your lower abs until you do. If yes, commit this feeling to memory, and try to recreate this position as much as possible in your daily life; waiting for the bus/train, waiting for the kettle to boil, standing at the sink washing up…as often as possible!

Tight Muscles

Hamstrings

Most sufferers of lower back pain have tight lower body muscles, particularly those pesky hamstrings, so the obvious cure would be to stretch out those hamstrings, right? Well yes, but hold your horses.

If you're falling back in this position, stretching your hamstrings this way could damage your back

If you're falling back in this position, stretching your hamstrings this way could damage your back

Sit in Dandasana (pictured) with your legs stretched out in front of you and your back straight. Can you sit in this position comfortably, without feeling like you’re going to fall back? If the answer is no, it’s probably because the tightness of your hamstring is pulling the pelvis backwards, meaning when you fold forward, you’re going to be hinging in your lower back, not your hips. This puts strain on the spongy discs between your vertebrae, which could lead to herniation or bulging…leading to more pain.

Instead, bend your knees slightly so your pelvis is tilted further forward and bend from the hips.

Alternatively, and a safer option if you’re unsure of the right positioning, is to lay flat on your back, and using a belt or strap, stretch your hamstrings one by one. Warning: in this position, it’s really important to keep the leg you’re not stretching really heavy to the ground, and don’t let your pelvis arch away from the floor. If you do this, you’ll just be putting more strain on your lower back, so only go as far as you can while maintaining a flat lower back to the floor.

If you want an even more relaxing stretch, press your bum up close to a wall (enter from the side – pictured) and stretch your legs up against the wall at 90 degrees. You can relax here for as long as you like; it’s also a really nice restorative pose, allowing all your organs to take a break, because gravity is allowing the blood to flow back to the heart.

Psoas

The psoas is a tricky little thing and very temperamental. This is because it is the only muscle which connects your torso and your spine, as well as having fascial connection with your lungs, which means a tight psoas can actually stop you from breathing properly!

Let’s go back to the posture: if you have a very curved lower spine and your bum is sticking out, you likely have a tight psoas and need to stretch it, but if you have a flat lower spine and your pelvis is tipped backwards, you probably need to strengthen your psoas, not stretch it! Chances are, if you’re having lower back pain though, especially if it’s combined with any hip and knee pain, then your psoas needs stretching. So how do we do that?

The key to releasing tension in this muscle is relaxation. I know, it’s a lot easier said than done. Lay on your back, and tilt your pelvis (as you did in Tadasana) so you have a nice flat (or not exaggeratedly curved) lower spine.

Bring one knee into the chest, while pressing down through the hip, back of the thigh, calf and heel of the extended leg to stabilise that pelvis position. Don’t allow the lower back to arch any further from the floor. By stabilizing the pelvis, extending the leg will lengthen the psoas. If you allow the pelvis to tilt, the psoas doesn’t lengthen or release, but pulls the lumbar spine forward, arching the lower back. Keep the pelvis in place by drawing the bent leg toward the abdomen. Stay in this position for enough time to feel completely relaxed (minimum 10 breaths) before swapping legs.

Now come to a lunge position, knee above the ankle and back knee on the floor. If this hurts, you can use a blanket or a cushion to pad underneath the knee. Place both hands on the floor either side of your front foot. If you can, lift the toe of the back foot, and then if that feels OK, reach around and pull the foot in towards the glute. Turn your body so you're facing the ground to really get into the psoas muscle.

Hips

For more stretches for the hips and hamstrings see my full post here.

Abdominal Strength

A lot of people say that lower back pain is because the front of the body isn’t strong enough to hold you in a good posture, so you crash into your lower back and dump your weight in your hips (pictured). This is true in some cases, however, just strengthening your abs and ignoring your posture and tight lower body muscles isn’t going to help, so that’s why I left these exercises to last. Similarly, how you strengthen your abs is important. Doing sit ups is going to have the same effect as a standing or seated forward bend (as I explained earlier) and may actually damage your spine.

Only start to practice these after spending a decent amount of time focusing on your pelvic positioning, and releasing tension in your hips, psoas and hamstrings.

Plank

Everyone loves a good plank, right? This pose strengthens the abs but also all the other muscles in your body, so is a great all-rounder. It also helps you to focus on spine stability and positioning as well.

Things to be aware of in plank:

  • Don’t let your hips dip, or let your weight be held by your hips and lower back, you want to squeeze your abs to maintain a nice straight line between shoulders and feet.
  • Keep your wrists below your shoulders so you don’t strain them

Navasana (Boat Pose)

If your psoas needs strengthening this is a great exercise too. Come to seated with your knees bent in front of you and feet flat on the floor. Hold behind your thighs and raise your legs so your shins are parallel to the floor. Maintain balance on your sitting bones by engaging your lower abs. To go further, stretch your arms out in front so they’re also parallel with the floor. To go even further, extend your legs, keeping the lift!

Don’t forget to breathe! Hold for 5 breaths and repeat 3 times.

So there you have it, my yoga poses to help with back pain. Try to practice them every day, ideally in the 15-20 minutes before you go to bed. This will ease up the muscles before you go to sleep and will also help you sleep better!

For poses to help with tightness in the shoulders, click here.