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An estimated 84 percent of people may experience low back pain. If you’ve ever felt it yourself, you know that the most basic, daily movements can be challenging. Suddenly sitting, standing, and bending seem like advanced yoga postures. Back pain is actually one of the most common reasons that people visit the doctor. Fortunately, new studies are supporting yoga’s efficacy and many individuals are turning to the practice for help.
Just a week before writing this article, I woke up with pain in my lower back. Perhaps it can be attributed to the many shifting circumstances in my life or maybe it was a sleep-related injury. Regardless, I awoke from a relatively restful night of sleep with pain. The last time this happened I learned not to put heat on it—heat can make the swollen tissues even more inflamed. The second thing I learned is that bed rest is not the answer either. Instead, I put some cold muscle therapy on my back and took it easy for a few days, only doing gentle yoga postures and avoiding more strenuous exercise. I also alternated between sitting and standing as sitting for long periods of time can put extra stress on the back.
Dr. Steven Weiss, yoga teacher, chiropractor and author of The Injury-Free Yoga Practice, offers a unique perspective on yoga for a healthy back. He posits that yoga postures are beneficial but can be equally harmful. The difference in outcome lies in the precise application of anatomical alignment in the poses.
For strengthening and stabilizing the lower back, the key in all postures is to maintain a small egg-sized curve at the base of the spine (L3-5). Poses such as happy baby and downward facing dog become both more challenging and more therapeutic when you focus on holding an egg-sized lumbar curve in the spine, creating extension of the spine.
1. Downward Facing Dog
Why it works: This is yoga’s most ubiquitous pose and it’s most useful. The entire spine is stretched and decompressed in this position. It also lengthens the hamstrings and promotes blood circulation.
2. Cat/Cow Pose
Why it works: This pose is simple yet effective for bringing flexibility into the spine and for stretching the back, hips, and abdomen. It’s great for relieving lower back pain and sciatica.
3. Childs Pose or Supported Childs Pose
Why it works: It helps align the spine and takes pressure off the lower back.
4. Reclined Pigeon Pose
Why it works: This pose is a virtual medicine cabinet of relief. It stretches the spine, hips, and inner thighs (tightness in these areas can cause low back pain). It’s also great for relieving sciatic pain.
5. Legs Up the Wall Pose
Why it works: It gently stretches the hamstrings and lower back. Place a folded blanket or other support under the lower back, extend the legs up the wall allowing the soles of the feet to face the ceiling, and let the sacrum drop toward the floor.