Everything I teach in this article, when done correctly, will not only ease pain in the back but break up your day and decrease your stress. You will help heal your back all while creating new neural pathways that will decrease pain and discomfort in the future.
The mind and body are connected in fascinating ways and what better way to learn about oneself than with mindfully giving yourself the gift of attention through yoga.
A Brief History
The history of yoga is an ancient one; through written records it can be traced back at least 5000 years, though it may be much older as, traditionally, it was handed down through oral history. But can yoga ease back pain, even after 5000 years?
Many people associate yoga with Eastern religions but that is a misconception; the antiquity of this practice shows it to predate any modern era religion.
Knowing that it is not affiliated with any religion, but is merely a practice of the self may make some more comfortable in trying it.
The terminology of the yogic tradition derives from Sanskrit, the lingua franca of the educated in ancient Indian culture. The root of the word “yoga” is “Yuj”, which means to unite or to join; the intent is to practice unifying the mind and body – or the self and the universe.
Through this, one may learn self-awareness, self-compassion, and deeper understanding of one’s nature as it relates to the world around them.
In Western culture, yoga has become increasingly popular, however, as quoted from an NYtimes.com article titled: The Purpose of Yoga “Many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise.”
Westerners tend to “glorify busy”; we are not fully aware of the now but are more focused on the next thing we have to do.
If you are looking to practice yoga for all the benefits of both mind and body a little research is necessary to know what to look for. If you are just wanting to catch a yoga class to de-stress or just stretch for a bit than choosing someone or someplace is much more simplified.
So, what does any of this have to do with back pain? Let’s bring science into the mix to illustrate the benefits to the body.
The Science and How Yoga can ease Back Pain
There are a few fascinating articles on upliftconnect.com that shed some light on the affect yoga has on physical health. One such benefit is improved nerves system function and strength.
With repetition of poses and postures, the brain creates new neural pathways. That means the more we train our bodies to practice proper posture, even as we sit at our desks all day, the more our brains use that specific neural pathway, with more practice, it becomes easier to do without thinking about it.
One of the first things you will learn in any yoga class is to sit, or stand when the pose calls for it, in a relaxed but erect position.
Every movement begins with proper posture, whether you sit cross-legged on the floor as you prepare for your mindful movement or you have moved into the asana, or pose, it all comes back to the repeated childhood admonition: “don’t slouch” or “sit up straight”. Yes, your parents were correct… I won’t tell them if you won’t! There is a device called “The Muse”, which is a great meditation tool. I wrote my 300-day experience using The Muse, in case you want to read it.
If further proof is needed, then I refer you to the American Osteopathic Association. A very short article on the benefits of yoga recommends the practice as a preventative form of treatment with similar cornerstones as the practice of Osteopathy. With respect to back pain it says:
“The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome,” explains Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can also lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia.”
If one were to practice yoga regularly, Learning how to properly align themselves for each pose would lead to core strength as well as strength and stability in the back, neck and shoulder regions. All the while decreasing, easing or possibly even ceasing the pain and discomfort.
Now, if I were searching “yoga and back pain” I would want to find specific things I could do right now, right where I am. These next couple sections will be dedicated to a short 5-10 minute flow that can be done at home and/or the office.
How can Yoga ease Back Pain at Home?
This is where you should set the intentions for the following exercises. Is it to focus on the breath? Is it to pay attention to posture? Or is it just to de-stress? Also use this pose to really tune in to your body, really feel what each part of the body feels like.
For this pose merely sit cross-legged on the floor, or a pillow if that is more comfortable.
Close your eyes and keep your hands either palms up on the knees or folded in your lap; breathe naturally for several breaths.
Next, begin to feel your breath fill the lungs all the way to the sternum. This slightly deeper breath begins to circulate oxygenated blood to sore muscles and creates a feeling of space in the torso. Do this for several breaths.
Last, breathe in deeply so that the air fills all the way through the diaphragm and into the belly. Again, do this for several breaths.
While this is done the back should be straight and the head held high. Remember, posture is KEY.
Knees to Chest
Now lie on your back and just pull your knees to your chest. The back is supported while doing this, but it allows for a nice stretch. Hold for several breaths; if you wish, you could gently rock from side to side as you hold your knees. This can be a mini-massage to the lower-back.
From your back bring your feet to the floor, keeping the knees bent. Gently drop both knees to one side, letting gravity help you. There is NO need for the knees to touch the floor just rest both shoulder blades on the floor and enjoy this stretch for a few breaths. Repeat on the opposite side.
Sphinx or Modified Cobra Pose
Rolling to your stomach, bring your hands up next to your shoulders and gently press up giving the lower-back a slight bend. Only go as far up as is comfortable; this is the modified cobra.
The sphinx pose is similar however the elbows remain on the floor, keeping them directly under the shoulders as you press up. Hold for several breaths.
With both hands, press the hips back to rest on your feet and let the head rest on the floor. This is not only a safe way to stretch the back but is also a restorative pose. Come back to this pose any time you need a break during any yoga class.
Come to all fours, wrists directly under the shoulders, knees directly below the hips. Engage the abdominal muscles, this keeps the back supported and aligned in a neutral position.
Now, rounding the back up and pulling the pelvis toward the head as it dips down, exhale slowly. Keep the abs engaged.
Next, raise the head up, crown toward the ceiling, and drop the abdominal region toward the floor being careful to protect your back by not letting the stomach just hang loose, again, keep those abs tight. Inhale as you lift your head.
Repeat for several breaths or as many times as it feels good.
How can Yoga at the Office ease Back Pain?
The three-part breath mentioned above can be modified to be done from the office chair you sit in or even as you stand.
Crescent Moon Pose
While still seated (or again while standing) make sure your posture is again erect. Lift your arms above your head, keep the abs engaged and bend to one side being careful to only bend as far as you are able to sustain while keeping the proper posture.
Repeat on each side for a few breaths.
Again, realign the posture and cross one leg so the area right above the ankle is resting right above the knee of the opposite leg. Inhale and as you exhale twist to one side. It is important here to note that this is not about how far you can twist but to keep your back supported, abs engaged and stretch comfortably.
Repeat each side for several breaths
These can also be done seated. Sitting erect in your seat, rest your hands on your knees. Inhale and pull slightly on the knees to arch the back, as you exhale, keep the abs engaged and round the back. This will involve some actual forward and backward movement in the chair as you do these.
Do this for several breaths.
BONUS: What to Look for in a Yoga Instructor/Studio
It is necessary, before finding the right fit for you, to begin with introspection.
What are your intentions, your goals, your needs; all these questions should be approached both by what you want physically but also what you need emotionally. Really sit with yourself and BE HONEST about your headspace.
- Are you stressed and/or tense?
- Does your body hold that stress/tension in your back, shoulders, neck?
- Are you wanting to learn more about yourself and be more in touch with your body’s signals.
All of these should be thought about beforehand because there are just so many options out there!
A quick search of your local studios should give you a basic idea of their practices and style. Now comes the fun part! Take a class! Do so with an open mind, with a mindset of curiosity about the practice as well as yourself as you move through the class.
The more classes you attend you will begin to notice that there are signs you have found the right fit:
1) Most importantly you feel safe. Not just safe-in-the-building-from-intruders kind of safe but safe from judgment, safe from bullying or body shaming. These are clear indications that you aren’t going to wish to come back for future classes and ensuring that you will be in a negative headspace at the outset.
2) Is your instructor approachable? Do you feel comfortable asking them to help you modify a pose? Do they listen if you aren’t a hands-on person and do not wish to be touched when adjustments to a pose need to be made? Basically, do you jive well with them?
Another consideration is whether you can hear their guidance from wherever you choose to set up in the class and are their instructions clear?
3) Do you leave feeling more open and grounded than when you entered? Did anything inspire you during the class? Most often if you leave not feeling any better than when you started the motivation will not be there to return. This is something you are doing for YOU so make it something worthy of YOU!