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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 at some point in their life, which amounts to 80% of the entire population. (1)
- An estimated 149 million days of work are lost due to chronic low back pain every year, which translates to about 100-200 billion dollars in lost wages and decreased productivity. (2)
- Low back pain is the second leading common disability of adults in the United States.
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 on low back pain is continually growing. (4) However, all yoga practices are not created equal, and some might even aggravate your back pain.
Thus, adhering to the recommended treatment is very important. When done safely and modified to your needs, yoga is extremely helpful in healing the body.
Here are a few yoga poses to reduce back pain caused by 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
- Helps to reduce rotator cuff discomfort
- Helps to decrease headaches/migraines
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
- Increases your ability to get closer to the floor
- Increases blood flow to the brain
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 low 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
- 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
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 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
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
- Improves circulation to the brain and heart.
- Alleviates shoulder and neck tension
- Promotes fascia mobility
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.
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.
Some of the asanas are specially designed to straighten out your posture, alleviate the pressure from your spine, and strengthen your core to keep your back healthy and comfortable. However, for any of the above-mentioned exercises to work, they must be done correctly.
The wrong technique can end up exacerbating your condition rather than improving it. If you have chronic back pain, it is necessary that you speak to your doctor before trying any new exercise to avoid further back injuries.