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The overwhelming prevalence of back pain in America can be gauged from the following statistics/findings:
- Chronic low back pain affects 1 in 3 Americans. (1)
- Approximately 80% of the population experiences back pain at some point in their life. (1)
- An estimated 149 million days of work every year are lost due to chronic low back pain.
- Low back pain is the second leading common disability of adults in the United States.
- Low back pain is estimated to contribute 100-200 billion dollars a year in lost wages and decreased productivity. (2)
Many people spend their days in slump-asana – slumped over keyboards and phones or behind the wheel with little physical activity. Sitting for long periods and poor posture lead to chronic low back pain. (3)
Fortunately, the multitude of scientific research showing the benefits of yoga is continually growing.
One study showed that 6 weeks of medical yoga therapy is a cost-effective intervention and is effective in alleviating non-specific chronic low back pain when the recommended treatment is adhered to. (4)
However, if you tried yoga, and it made your pain worse, it is not surprising. Yoga practices are not created equal.
As mentioned, adhering to the recommended treatment is very important. When done safely and modified to your needs, yoga is extremely helpful in healing the body.
Many common yoga poses performed in popular yoga classes in fitness centers and studios actually aggravate chronic low back pain.
Medical yoga, or yoga therapy, is designed to empower individuals to improve their health and well-being using the teaching and practices of yoga. (5)
The yoga asanas (poses), pranayama (breath), and other spiritual components of yoga aid in enhancing mind-body awareness. As you become more mindful of how your actions contribute to your pain, you can decrease pain by modifying your behaviors.
So, if you are up for giving yoga another try, here are a few yoga poses to reduce back pain if you’re sitting all day at work.
1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
The mountain pose is the perfect pose to work on our posture.
Maintaining an over-exaggerated posture throughout your day is unrealistic. However, if you perform an over-exaggerated posture several times throughout your day, you create new neural pathways and bring awareness to your poor posture.
Over time, you shift your body to sit and stand up straight.
- Helps to alleviate chronic low back pain: Your abdominal muscles are activated, helping to support your lower lumbar spine.
- Helps to reduce rotator cuff discomfort: When your shoulders are rounded forward, your humerus is unsupported, and the amount of strain on our rotator cuffs increases.
When you do the mountain pose, you keep your shoulders back, building up scapular strength and decreasing the weight applied to your rotator cuffs.
- Helps to decrease headaches/migraines: When you gain strong shoulder muscles, your trapezius muscle does not have to work hard to hold you upright. Having weak shoulder muscles or experiencing stress unconsciously makes your shoulders creep up to your ears.
When the trapezius muscle is this tight, your kinetic chain (how the body is connected from the bottoms of your feet to the top of your head) creates tension on your occipital lobe. This increased tension many times creates additional strain to the muscles in your head, causing headaches.
How to do the pose:
- Stand with your feet hip-distance apart.
- Contract your lower abdominal muscles. (In yoga, this may be referred to as a Mula bandha)
- Keep your arms down along your side, and palms rotated toward the front of your mat.
- Roll your shoulders back and draw your shoulder blades together, imagining that you are holding an apple between them.
- Soften your shoulders away from your ears and toward the ground.
- If you feel awkward and uncomfortable, you are doing it right.
2. Forward Bend/Fold (Uttanasana)
When you move, you work and contract your muscles. But when you sit at your desk, in the car, or on the bleachers watching your kids play, your legs are positioned at a 90° angle, keeping your leg muscles in a contracted state.
The forward bend/fold increases your hamstring flexibility, which is important even for those who do not experience chronic low back issues. This pose is typically performed from a mountain pose.
- Increases hamstring flexibility: It reduces the strain on your lower lumbar spine, which can lead to discomfort.
- Increases your ability to get closer to the floor: You need need to do this movement daily when picking up items or your children and pets.
- Increases blood flow to the brain: Increased circulation to the brain helps improve your memory and reduce cognitive decline.
How to do this pose:
- Stand straight and keep a slight bend in the knee. A good rule of thumb is never lockout a joint in any psychical activity that you are doing, especially in a forward fold! Locking your knees increases the load on your facet joints (your vertebrae) by 10 times the amount your spine is designed to hold.
It also limits the mobility in the lower vertebrae and can increase the possibility of pinching discs or nerves.
- Keep an exaggerated posture, which will help keep you safe by forcing you to hinge at the hips, limiting the amount you round at the lower back.
- Hinge forward until you no longer feel that you can keep your back straight. The old saying applies: yoga is NOT about touching your toes but about the journey on the way down.
When you are no longer able to keep your back straight, allow your spine, shoulders, and head to relax toward the floor.
If you want to make sure you hinge from your hips, place your hands on your hips. Contract your belly, feeling a slight posterior tilt of your pelvis. This slight adjustment should decrease an exaggerated lordosis that may be contributing to your low back pain.
- If you feel a strain in your back, bend your knees more, almost going into a squat if needed.
- Come back to standing, first by going back to where you had your flat back and then activating your glutes and quadriceps to bring yourself back up to standing. You should feel no strain in your low back.
Caution: If you have back issues or do not want any, do NOT roll your vertebrae one at a time as you come back to standing. It is highly encouraged to perform the movement in the recommended order, especially if you find that yoga “inflames” or creates additional discomfort after a yoga class.
3. Cat-Cow Pose
The cat-cow pose is great for pretty much anyone but especially for those who sit most of the day and lead stressful lives.
- Alleviates chronic low back problems, headaches, and shoulder tension, if done correctly, by stretching the body from the head to the tailbone.
- Gently massages the internal organs and improves organ function.
- Lengthens the spine and neck to reduce the compression of the vertebrae.
- Aids with chest congestion by increasing the expansion of the tissue surrounding the chest and ribs.
How to do this pose:
- Start on your hands and knees, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Your spine should feel lengthened from the top of your head to your tailbone.
- Draw a deep breath in and then exhale, rounding your shoulders to the sky like an angry cat.
- As you inhale, allow the belly to sway toward the floor into a cow pose.
- While in the cow pose, soften your shoulders away from your ears and keep your forehead parallel to the floor.
In most yoga classes, you are asked to gaze up to the sky while in the cow pose. However, gazing up to the sky can compress the discs and nerves between the vertebrae, which is not beneficial if you are prone to headaches, migraines, and low back pain.
4. Seated Forward Fold
The seated forward fold is an excellent pose to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings, calves, glutes, and the low back and may help alleviate the tension on the pelvis. But just like the standing forward folds, many people perform this pose incorrectly.
- Increases flexibility in the hamstrings, calves, glutes, and muscles in the back.
- Alleviates strain on the low back since leg muscles are connected to the pelvis
- Improves circulation, which promotes healing
How to do this pose:
- Sit with your legs stretched out in front. Keep a soft bend in the knee.
- Hook a bath towel or long strap over the bottoms of your feet. Draw your shoulder blades together and hinge at your hips. If you do not have a towel or strap, place your hands on either side of your legs, or place your fingertips behind your back to keep your spine tall and lengthened.
- Reach your chin toward your toes. Do not round your back while trying to touch your toes. Turning your back decreases the amount of stretching and can put stress on the vertebrae.
- Breathe deeply, and on the exhale, reach your chin closer toward your toes.
- Exhale and round your back toward your legs to the range of motion that feels best for you, and return to a seated position. Rounding the back for a controlled and short amount of time is beneficial and needed.
Caution: Sitting in a position with the spine rounded for long periods can feel great. However, doing so leads to tissue inflammation and may aggravate any existing medical conditions.
5. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
The cobra pose is another great pose to help alleviate low back pain but, again, only if it is done correctly.
- Lengthens the spine and abdominal muscles
- Massages the internal organs to promote function
- Strengthens the back and glute muscles
How to do this pose:
- Lie on your stomach with the tops of your feet flat.
- Place your palms, or your elbow for modification, under your shoulders.
- Inhale and shift your weight forward toward the top of your mat, softening your shoulders away from your ears.
- Reach the crown of your head to the wall in front of you, keeping your spine long. Do not gaze up to the sky as this tends to compress the cervical and lower lumbar spine.
- Lift your chest off the mat, keeping a slight bend in the elbows if your palms are under your shoulders, keeping your hips and legs in contact with the mat.
Caution: If you suffer from chronic low back pain, you are HIGHLY discouraged from performing upward dogs. You should feel a stretch in your abdominals and no strain in the low back!
6. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
The downward-facing dog can be very grounding since both hands and feet are planted firmly on the ground. If you had an extremely stressful day, this pose could help soothe the nervous system and relax the entire body.
- Lengthens and strengthens from the feet all the way up to the head.
- Alleviates symptoms of vertigo by shifting the endolymph (inner ear fluid), which is essential to balance and movement.
- It improves circulation to the brain and heart.
- Alleviates shoulder and neck tension as the head hangs, providing a bit of transition for the cervical spine.
- Promotes fascia mobility, which aids in moving fluid throughout the body, reduces the friction of muscular forces, and decreases hypersensitivity.
How to do this pose:
- From a tabletop position (all fours), walk your hands toward the top of the mat, placing your palms firmly into the mat.
- Curl your toes under and start to lift your glutes toward the sky.
- Keeping a soft bend in the elbows, shift the weight of your body toward the back of the mat, allowing your heels to soften toward the floor.
- Keep a bend in the knees if you experience low back pain as this helps you hinge at the hips even in a downward-facing dog. As your muscle flexibility starts to increase, you can start to straighten your legs.
- Soften your shoulders away from the head to activate the muscles in the back, limiting the body weight to shift forward.
- Allow the head to soften and be heavy.
- Breathe for as many times as what feels right for you at this moment.
Caution: Avoid this pose if you suffer from glaucoma.