Our backs are such an important part of our daily activities whether we are sitting, standing, walking or sleeping. When it comes to our yoga practice, we have the opportunity to slow down and really tune in and listen to our back and any signals it is sending us. As a teacher of yoga for nearly 20 years, I have heard many student accounts of how yoga saved their backs and they can now move and groove in a way they couldn’t before. There are many postures that can help alleviate back pain particularly back pain due to flexibility or strength imbalances.
Most students with a tight back where stretching feels better, the discomfort is due to sore or overused muscles. Students will benefit from stretching but also adding some overall back strengthening to enhance stability throughout their practice or off the mat. There are some techniques that will help maintain correct form to maintain back suppleness and stability. For stretching out try: Cat stretch, Childs pose, Happy baby, (ananda balasana), Downward Facing Dog for traction, forward bend at the wall, and sometimes Rabbit. (Until you know what your injury is, avoid plow as it places a lot of pressure on the vertebrae of the neck and the lumbar/low back.) For strength try: Plank variations (forearm plank, knees can be down), Spinal balance on hands/knees, and gentle variations of Locust (salabhasana) or Cobra.
Quite concerning for students are those experiencing bulging or herniated discs. This is a different sort of ‘back ache’. This back ache is caused by part of the discs (the gel filled cushioning) between each vertebrae (the bony parts of our spine) pressing toward the spinal nerve. Some students will also have sciatica (nerve pain often down the glutes, hip or leg). For these types of injuries, it is vital to get a correct diagnosis from a qualified doctor or physical therapist. The direction of the bulging or herniated disc can be a game changer in knowing how best to manage, support, and heal from it.
Personally, I have had several bulging discs over the years and recovered from a herniated disc just last year. These can happen from several sources: overuse, imbalanced muscles, incorrect engagement (e.g. using back muscles instead of abdominals and glutes – see Use and Cue the Glutes article), too much load, or excess rotation. My first experience with this was moving boxes out of an ex boyfriends house. I was strong and active, but somewhere between the emotional toll of breaking up and moving it all by myself, I was left in bed for a few days unable to move. Once I healed and found how to move and modify my activities to support healing (as well as my emotions), I was much better. The injury still comes up though even today. I can tell when it is irritated, and I know what to do or what to change in my routine to be better stabilized. When it comes to our backs, we want to gain Sthira (steadiness) and Sukha (ease) both in our practice and in ways to support an injured area. Ahimisa (non-harming/gentleness) will be our highest and most divine guide.
The first step for this sort of back care is: Get the correct diagnosis from a doctor or physical therapist, especially if there is ongoing pain or numbness/nerve compression.
The second step is ask the doctor or PT how you should move or what to avoid. If you have a typical bulging disc that is protruding outward, it may feel good to do forward bends, but when coming out of them or do backbending it can feel pinchy or makes symptoms worse. This is important information that the doctor can tell you so you know what to modify in your practice. I have a dear friend who has recovered from her herniated disc by not doing deep forward bends for a few months based on this information from her doctor. Sphnix posture is similar to what physical therapists know as the McKenzie exercise. There are specific steps and awareness to take with this for certain disc issues. (Note, however, if the disc is protruding inward toward the navel direction, then a different modification and posture are necessary.) Get the right info from your doctor – ask for clarity on how to practice your yoga.
The third step is be diligent in how you move and support your back particularly in an active fluid vinyasa class or a heated hatha class. Even a yin class can be too long in a posture and too intense depending on the posture offered. I usually attend the classes I want to take and modify what I do in them if an injury is present. Sometimes an injury also allows you to try new classes. Slow down, try a gentle class where you can get used to connecting more and observing signals and adjusting postures. Get back to Basics with your Back. Then move toward your regular classes once you feel comfortable with the modifications to your practice.
Please watch the video for more information on how to modify and a downward dog that may help free up gravity’s impact on your back without a full inversion practice. Pictures of the vertebrae below.