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.
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.
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.