Evolution has ensured that humans have more unique about our species than just having the ability to enjoy a good cup of coffee or appreciate a sunset.
Being upright and having a large brain also means that we, as a species, are more prone to back pain than are most other creatures. Walking on two feet instead of all fours puts added stress on our musculoskeletal system.
Add to that the fact the spine is tasked with holding up our big brainy heads – which can weigh 11 pounds – and the very structure that makes us special can start demanding extra care, especially in a world where many of us constantly lean over smartphones and sit at desks for much of the day.
Maybe you are super active and healthy yet back pain still sends you to the side-lines.
Whatever your back story, you’re not alone. The American Chiropractic Association estimates that up to 80 percent of adults will experience a back problem at one point or another. The American Council on Exercise reports that 31 million American adults suffer back pain on any given day and that exercise can often help.
So enters yoga. The good news is that as humans have evolved, so has our understanding of yoga. It’s very possible, through yoga, that you have within you the ability to form and execute a plan that might help you decrease back pain and restore mobility.
You don’t have to become a full-on yogi or even buy special clothing to reap the benefits of poses that can reduce back pain. It does, however, help to have a basic understanding of why yoga works.
Yoga movements and poses focus on strength, flexibility, mobility, and balance.
Yoga frees up your joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments to work with each other instead of inhibiting each other. Low back pain is frequently caused by tight hip flexors, tight and weak hamstrings, and underutilized glutes.
Developing a stronger, more flexible core through yoga can remedy some people’s back pain, with “core” being defined as those muscles which lie below the chest and above the knees.
As with any exercise program, it’s wise to ask your doctor to clear you for exercise. Always remember that yoga is a process you should adapt to your body. Poses should never be forced.
Think about the concept of evolution mentioned above and give yourself time to learn and adjust. Add gentle movement to the pose only if it feels good. Take time to inhale through your nose (breathing deeply through your belly, as opposed to shallow breaths in your chest) and exhale through your mouth. Remember that the goal is to diminish pain and create release, not to create new tension.
Deep cleansing breaths provide oxygen to all body parts including your brain and muscles. Increased oxygenation renders focused, functional, healing movement.
Below are seven yoga poses that can potentially help mitigate back pain for many individuals. You can do them in order or single out which ones feel particularly productive to you.
Cat cow pose is done on all fours, knees and hands, which is a good thing. Have you ever heard a cat or cow complain of lower back pain? There’s a reason why.
Supporting yourself on all fours takes weight off of your spine and allows you to safely take your spine through flexion and extension. Rounding your back into cat pose stretches the muscles in your back and creates space between vertebrae, while simultaneously contracting and strengthening your abdominals.
Conversely, pressing your belly toward the mat in cow pose stretches your chest and abdominal muscles. The movement warms your core muscles and fascia. If you focus on exhaling and inhaling along with the gentle movement, you will oxygenate your muscles to be ready for more.
It works because…
Cat Cow loosens and warms while increasing flexibility and strength in muscles around the spine, hip flexors, shoulders and and chest.
Downward Facing Dog
It’s interesting how many yoga poses draw on the basic movement patterns of our four-legged friends. You’ll be on your hands and feet in Downward Facing Dog as you lift your rear end towards the ceiling to make your body into a triangle.
Think about lengthening your back as you press your hands into the ground and draw your chest toward your thighs. It is fine to keep your heels lifted if you need to. Try “Walking the Dog” by pressing one heal at a time toward the ground to increase blood flow, lubricate your joints and warm your muscles.
It works because…
Tight hamstrings put extra stress on your lower back. Really tight muscles in the back of the lower leg can inhibit movement patterns and lead to spinal dysfunction as well.
Downward Facing Dog gives you the opportunity to actively stretch your hamstrings and calves in a supported way, diminishing the risk of strain which less well-supported stretches can pose.
In addition, Downward Facing Dog elongates your lats, erector spinae, cervical spine, and other muscles in your back and arms, which tends to feel great throughout your whole head-to-toe chain.
Return to your hands and knees and bring your toes closer together. Sit your hips back while your belly drops to the floor so you are sitting on your heels with your arms stretched in front of you.
Experiment with your arm placement. It might feel good to rest your arms next to your legs. It might feel good to keep them forward in front of your head with your palms down.
If twisting does not hurt your back, try threading your right arm underneath your forward reaching left arm, while turning your head and peering through the triangle you created. Balance it out by threading through the opposite side. Anything goes in this restorative pose.
It works because…
Child’s Pose gently rounds your spine, allowing you to create space between your vertebrae down the length of your spine in a safe, supported way.
In addition, you can take some very deep belly breaths while resting in this pose to oxygenate muscles and your brain.
Finally, the supported posture allows you to experiment with very gentle twisting motions which can both loosen your cervical spine and relieve lower back pain if you thread the needle.
Once you’ve rested in Child’s Pose, return to all fours for Bird Dog. Bird Dog requires a bit of concentration in order to stay in alignment.
You’ll be going from imagining being a four legged animal to being a two legged bird. Or, think pointer dog.
First, make sure your hands are under your shoulders, finger tips forward. Knees should be under your hips. Stabilize through your middle as you lift your right hand. Extend your arm forward, eyes focused down. Slowly lift your left leg, straightening it behind you while keeping your hips facing the mat. Hold it. Progress slowly and try to increase your time in this balanced pose.
Moving Bird Dog Variation
Once you increase your confidence in Bird Dog, activate it! Draw your knee to your nose and your elbow to your knee and you’ll be doing a crunching movement that will simultaneously stretch your back and create space between your vertebrae, strengthen your abdominals, hip flexors, upper back stabilizers and shoulders. If you do lose your balance, you won’t fall far, making it a good safe functional balance and mobility challenge.
Make sure you spend equal time working both sides.
It works because….
Bird Dog takes your erector spinae, hip flexors, arms, abdominals and other supporting muscles in both the upper and lower back through multiple ranges of motion. Bird dog involves muscular balance when held.
Increasing lever length as arms and legs are extended demands strength and stability in your middle, but often feels good as elongating your muscles can help open-up joints.
Supporting muscles in your inner and outer thighs will be challenged along with your glutes as you do a side-lying Clam Shell. You can really dig into the Clam Shell to focus on stablity and strength in your core.
Lie on your side with your knees stacked on top of each other and bent to a ninety-degree angle in front of you. Your hips should be at about a ninety-degree angle too. Keep your trunk still and lift your top knee while keeping your feet together (like a clam shell). Do several repetitions guided by your breaths on each side.
It works because…
Clam Shell strengthens your glutes while requiring a fair amount of stability in your abdominals and lower back. It also requires you to use your adductor and abductor muscles in your outer and inner thighs.
Activating and strengthening both primary movers and smaller supporting muscle groups like this helps enhance functional mobility and strength throughout your core so that your back is fully supported when you venture out into the world.
Bridge and Bridge Variations
From Clam Shell, gently roll over onto your back. Feel free to hug your knees and rock back and forth a few times with your chin tucked into your chest in order to gently massage your spine.
Then lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Bend your knees and bring your heels toward your rear end. Your middle fingers should be able to touch your heels. When you’re ready, push your feet into the ground as you lift up your rear. Hold for several breaths.
The great thing about Bridge Pose is that there are lots of variations with which you can experiment. Try pulsing your glutes. Drop your rear end toward the ground a bit, then squeeze and contract them several times for added strength work. Try lifting one leg and holding or adding a glute drop with your leg lifted.
It works because…
Bridge puts you in a position that opens up your hip flexors. Tight hip flexors can definitely contribute to back pain. Bridge demands abdominal and back stability and builds serious glute and hamstring strength.
The combination of core balance, strength and stability involved in Bridge can help mitigate factors that lead to chronic lower back pain for some individuals.
Anything that relieves stress can also help you to relieve tension which may accumulate in your back. Happy Baby can remind you of those early days when you didn’t suffer from back pain by helping you release your cervical spine, your mid-back and lower back.
From Bridge, lie on your back, curl into a ball and grasp your big toes or the outer edges of your feet. Widen your knees and just find what feels good. If an infant can do it, so can you! Gently rock side to side if you want. The idea is to open your hips, gently massage your spine and restore your mind and body.
It works because…
The hip opening along with the added gentle compression of back muscles against the floor allows you to gently massage your back muscles with little effort. It tends to feel good and it’s kind of fun. Thus, the name: Happy Baby!