The practice of yoga may be thousands of years old, but recently modern research and study has brought its many benefits into the spotlight. In addition to increasing flexibility and strength, using yoga for lower back pain seems to be getting the most attention, sometimes with startling results. Researchers have been finding that yoga is a powerful treatment for even some of the most serious back pain conditions, such as scoliosis. In this article, we’ll also look at some OM-azing yoga poses that can work for general back pain and discuss some of the merits (and cautions) about hot yoga for lower back pain.
Why should you try yoga for lower back pain?
Yoga stretches and strengthens every muscle in the body. Even basic poses offer a wonderful foundation to build muscle strength and flexibility, develop a strong core, and reduce back pain. As the following video explains, a large majority of lower back pain cases are due to inflexible or weak muscles in the back.
Before trying any new exercise regimen, however, always talk to your pain doctor. They may be able to recommend poses that will work better for you or advise you on ones to avoid. And, as every good yoga teacher should tell you, take it carefully and take it slow. Yoga is meant to be a restorative, relaxing, and energizing practice. If you ever feel sharp or severe, back off and try a gentler approach to the pose.
7 yoga poses for lower back pain
If allowed by your pain doctor, try these six poses to see if yoga works for your back pain. These can be helpful for people who suffer from general and muscular types of back pain.
1. Cat and cow pose
Resting on all fours, with the knees below the hips and hands below the shoulders, breathe in as you lift your tailbone up. Let your belly sink to the floor while your head and chest rise. Then, exhale as you reverse, arching your back like a stretching cat. Continue this exercise slowly for ten or 20 repetitions, breathing deeply and moving at your own pace.
2. Downward facing dog
From your hands and knees, tuck your toes and lift your tailbone into the air, forming an upside down “V” with your body. Reach your heels down to the floor, but don’t worry if they don’t touch. Feel the stretch on your hamstrings and the lengthening of your back. Keep the feet hip-width apart and your hands pressing into the floor. Stay here for about one minute.
3. Locust pose
From downward dog, shift forward onto your hands into a plank position and lower to the floor. Keeping your arms by your side, lift your head, chest, and legs away from the floor. You might only be able to lift a few inches off the ground; that’s okay. If lifting your shoulders and feet at once is too much, try alternating by raising the chest only and then lowering before lifting the legs. Stay elevated for 30 seconds and then release. Relax for a moment, and then repeat once or twice more. This pose strengthens the back muscles and provides a slight back bend without overly exerting the spine.
4. Bridge pose
Roll over and lie on your back. Bend your legs and press your feet into the floor, keeping your upper body still. Press into your feet and lift your tailbone, curving your back as much as feels comfortable. Clasp your hands under your back, pressing them into the ground. If you have a yoga block available, try placing it at the base of your spine for support. Stay here, breathing, for about one minute.
5. Reclining big toe pose
On your back, lift one leg straight into the air. Wrap a towel, a belt, or a yoga strap around your foot. Holding onto the excess material, lift your leg toward you in a 90-degree angle until you feel the hamstring stretch. Stretch for one to three minutes, and then repeat on the other side.
6. Spinal twist
This pose deeply stretches the muscles in your lower back. When you’re just starting out, take this pose slowly and don’t over twist to aggravate any lower back pain. Begin by sitting with your legs stretched in front of you. Move your right leg so your foot is pressed up to your left buttock. Bend your left leg so your knee is pointed up and place your foot on the outside of your right knee, which will gently twist your lower back. Raise your arms and place your right elbow against your left knee and your left hand on the floor behind you. Keep your head and upper torso facing forward. Hold for several breaths, release back to center, and repeat with the other side.
7. Child’s pose
Start by kneeling and then stretch your arms forward until you’re lying facedown, with your bottom raised. You can take child’s pose as deeply as you need to. By spreading your legs, it will create less of a stretch on your back. Likewise, you can raise your bottom slightly to also take off some pressure from your back. Child’s pose gently stretches and helps reduce tension in the back and neck.
Does hot yoga for lower back pain work?
Yoga has long had a reputation for slow-moving postures that are relaxing and induce a nirvana-like state, but hot yoga is here to shake that image up. One of the most popular and traditional forms of hot yoga is Bikram yoga, a series of 26 poses performed in a heated room (usually up to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%). The goal of hot yoga is to increase flexibility in the joints and to tire the muscles out, but there are increasing testimonials as to hot yoga’s effectiveness in treating serious back pain and injury. So, while there’s no definitive proof that yoga for lower back pain works, there are many who have found relief by trying it out.
Consider Sara. Sara is a yogi who started Bikram yoga to try to deal with two herniated discs in her low back. Her doctors gave her two choices: cortisone shots for the rest of her life or an operation to try to correct the herniated discs. Sara chose instead to begin studying Bikram yoga, jumping in to two classes a day. Of her experience, she writes:
“It was no miracle cure from the start. Classes were hard and uncomfortable. I had set backs regularly. At the time, my job only allowed me to attend 3 to 4 times a week. Some days I didn’t think I could go through the pain and challenge of a class, but I always felt better (increased range of motion, better sleep, less pain and an ability to participate in more) after attending. Over eighteen months, I saw slow progress. The miracle happened when I started practicing two times a day. It took me 10 days of doubles to be pain free. I kid you not. PAIN FREE. I could sit without a back support. I could roll over at night. I could put my pants on standing up.”
Sara was so inspired that she became a teacher and opened her own studio. However, while hot yoga can be helpful in healing back pain, it is not for everyone. Pregnant woman and people with heart problems or high blood pressure should not practice hot yoga. In addition, it’s vital that you:
- Hydrate properly before stepping foot into the hot yoga studio
- Talk to the doctor before class to let them know about your pain condition and to ask about any modifications
- Rest when you need to rest — most teachers suggest child’s pose if you’re overheated
- Listen to your body and take a break from the room if the pain or heat are getting to you
As always, consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise program. Start slowly and listen to your body if you’re going to try hot yoga for lower back pain!
Could yoga actually help with scoliosis pain?
Scoliosis, one of the more severe causes of back pain, could actually find some relief with yoga.
In 2014, researchers from Columbia University set to find out if a simple pose like vasisthasana (side plank) could help treat idiopathic C-curve scoliosis. Idiopathic conditions are those with no discernible cause, and a C-curve indicates that the spine is curving sideways in one direction (as opposed to S-curve, when the spine takes that shape). Twenty-five patients with C-curves between six and 120 degrees were taught side plank and instructed to hold that pose daily for as long as they could. Radiographs to measure the curvature were taken three to 22 months later to measure any change.
Holding side plank an average of one and a half minutes a day for six days a week, after six months, there was a significant decrease in the measure of the scoliotic curve. Nineteen of the 25 patients saw a reduction in the curve of just under 41%. Dr. Loren Fishman, lead researcher of the study believes that it is the uneven nature of the exercise that helps change the uneven curvature of the spine.
While this study is just one small step towards proving the benefits of yoga for lower back pain in scoliosis treatments, Roger Cole, a Stanford-educated scientist and certified Iyengar yoga teacher, had this to say about the study’s results:
“This is exciting work because it provides the best scientific evidence I know of to date that a simple yoga technique may provide a powerful means to help correct scoliosis. Up until now, we have had to rely on anecdotal success stories. While the study does not definitively prove that yoga is an effective treatment for scoliosis, it looks promising and should certainly grab the attention of the medical community. It justifies larger clinical trials that could one day put yoga treatment of scoliosis squarely in the mainstream of modern, evidence-based medicine.”
More research on yoga for scoliosis pain
Teachers and students alike say that yoga was their choice for treatment of scoliosis. John Friend, founder of the Anusara school of yoga with its focus on heart-opening and proper alignment, says that his scoliosis was completely corrected by his intensive yoga study. For Maura Roth-Gormley, yoga teacher at Baltimore Yoga Village in Maryland, a combination of the alignment principles of yoga studied and practiced deeply during her teacher training with Shiva Rea and intensive study of ballet were key in healing her back.
Dr. Fishman acknowledges that the small size of the study warrants more research but also believes that this is just the beginning to perhaps designing full yoga programs focused on healing scoliosis without back braces, or worse, surgery. He recommends other poses that are similar, such as ardha chandrasana (half-moon pose), but believes that patients should only begin this intense practice under a doctor’s supervision:
“I believe the people practicing this method must be monitored every month or so because the process is so strong that if unmonitored and done too long, it may actually reverse the process and produce a curve on the other side. When the curve gets down near zero or is negligible, then the pose should be done on both sides to keep the spine straight.”
Finding a yoga teacher who’s right for you
Even if the practice of yoga is ancient, research on its benefits of yoga for lower back pain is still in its infancy. Because of this, it is imperative that you begin your practice under the supervision of your doctor and with a qualified yoga teacher.
Yoga teachers are not regulated in the U.S., but teachers registered with the Yoga Alliance as either RYT-200 (a registered yoga teacher with 200 hours of training) or RYT-500 (registered but with 500 hours of training) have met a standard set of rigorous training guidelines. An “E” indicates that they are experienced teachers, and most Yoga Alliance-certified teachers also list any specialties they may hold (e.g., prenatal yoga or therapeutic yoga).
Start slowly, and listen to your body. Some soreness after activity is to be expected with any new exercise program, but sharp, stabbing pain or shooting pain is an indication that something is not right. Approaching yoga for lower back pain in a gentle, restorative way can help you learn to find relief from pain while improving your flexibility and stress levels.
And, while many people may find relief by trying yoga for lower back pain, other more severe causes of back pain may not respond well to this treatment. Some patients may even find that their back pain intensifies after trying yoga for lower back pain. Because of this, it’s imperative that you talk to a pain doctor first to determine the source of your pain. In this way, you can avoid any activities that could increase your pain. Likewise, they may be able to suggest more appropriate therapies for you.
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