Anecdotal evidence abounds as to the wonders that yoga-based exercises can do for an aching back, but science is increasingly on yogis’ sides, too. Researchers can conclude that yoga may be “as effective as other non-pharmacologic treatments in reducing the functional disability of back pain.”
Evidence also indicates that yoga may be more effective than “usual care or no care” in the reduction of pain severity or “bothersomeness” of chronic low back pain — not to mention its “positive effect on depression and other psychological comorbidities,” which can be associated with back pain.
Is back pain keeping you from working out, playing with your kids, or even going to work? Try these five exercises for pain reduction, and be sure to see a specialist if you have chronic or severe back discomfort.
Cat and Cow
The cat-cow sequence aligns your spine as you start and end from the neutral tabletop position, and it also encourages movement in the low and mid-back as you flow between cat and cow, yoga instructor Jake Panasevich explains.
Begin on your hands (wrists under shoulders) and knees (under your hips) as you lengthen your spine. Then, inhale as you arch your back (cow pose), moving toward an exhale as you round your back and look toward your navel (cat pose). Repeat as necessary to feel increased mobility and relaxation, always ending in a neutral spine (tabletop) position.
Downward Facing Dog
The downward dog is a classic — and for good reason. It not only strengthens your back but also stretches your entire body so you can find relief from tension and misalignment. Beginning on your hands and knees, make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart and your knees are hip-width apart. Curl your toes under and lift your knees off the mat, in line with your ankles. Stretch your arms, pressing the mat away from you and opening your chest. Lift your sit bones and slowly straighten your legs, walking forward a bit as needed. Pull your lower ribs toward your spine and avoid rounding your lower back.
If you feel discomfort in your wrists, remember to claw into your mat with your fingertips to reduce wrist pressure. Feeling tight in your calves or hamstrings? Pedal out your dog by alternating between pushing each of your heels to the ground, bending and releasing your knees in a smooth sequence.
The Spine Health Institute recommends the triangle pose for strengthening your back and legs while also lengthening the muscles of your torso and along your outer hip. Begin in a wide but comfortable stance with your hands above your head. Lean toward the right, attempting to touch your shin/calf; listen to your body and bend your knee or bring your hand up to your knee if necessary. You can also place your hand on a yoga block instead of the floor. Hold for several breaths and repeat on the opposite side.
Child’s pose isn’t just for when you’re exhausted in the middle of a yoga session and need to take a breather. This restorative exercise stretches your back muscles and can provide instant, tangible relief. Beginning in a kneeling position, shift your knees to the edge of the mat and bring your big toes to touch; you can also adjust the pose by keeping your knees together. Reach your arms toward the front of your mat as you lower your forehead toward the ground; you may also place your arms behind you for a different sensation.
Place a blanket underneath your hips if you can’t quite reach your heels. Breathe deeply, keeping the tops of your shoulders away from your ears.
Spinal twists can bring all kinds of gentle pops and cracks that give the sensation of realigning your spine, but exercise caution with this maneuver, especially if you’re in pain or being treated for an injury. The supine twist is performed lying on your back, initially with your knees bent and feet and shoulders flat on the floor. Bring your knees toward your chest and then gently, slowly cross over to one side. Your knees may or may not touch the floor; consider using a blanket or cushion for support. Try to keep your shoulder blades flat against the mat.
You can also try this exercise with one leg at a time, keeping one leg outstretched and the other knee drawn into your chest. Lower the bent leg to the opposite side, gently twisting as you extend the same-side arm in the other direction (i.e. right leg goes toward the left; right arm reaches to the right). Look toward your extended arm and breathe deeply.
Done improperly, yoga can actually be a source of back pain, so be sure to use proper form and speed. Dr. Lauren Elson of Harvard Medical School warns that those who injure themselves often “quickly ‘drop’ into a yoga pose without gradually ‘lengthening’ into it,” which increases your chance of injury.