By Janet Ashforth
You can live free of back pain. Depending on the source of your pain, you can prevent and alleviate back pain with yoga poses that have been scientifically proven to get the job done. Whether you have low, mid or upper back pain, there’s a pose for you. And yoga for back pain doesn’t have to interrupt your busy day. With a few minutes of daily practice, you may never have to suffer again.
Yoga for Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain is so common that the US military adopted a yoga program designed to combat low-back pain for its service members. It’s called “RESTORE” and it’s comprised of 15 yoga postures scientifically proven to alleviate and prevent low-back pain. Give these two powerful poses from the program a try or explore the full “RESTORE” program to employ the military's secret weapon against low-back pain.
1. Supine Spinal Twist
This posture stretches your glutes and your lower back muscles while alleviating pressure on your lumbar spine.
Directions: Lie on your back with your arms extended to the side. Bend your right knee and slowly drop it to the left. Allow your knee to rest on the floor. At the same time, gently turn your head to the right. Hold for a least 10 deep breaths or until you feel less tightness. Repeat on the left side.
Ultra-tight variation: If your back is too tight for your knee to come to the floor, don’t push it. Grab a pillow (or two) and place it under your knee for extra support. As your tightness abates, you can remove the pillow(s) and allow gravity to take your stretch further.
2. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Your low back pain could be caused by sitting for a good portion of your day. You may drive, sit, work on a computer or watch television which can add up to hours in a seated, forward bend position. This pose stretches your hip flexors and lumbar vertebrae and strengthens your glutes.
Directions: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Your ankles should be in line with your knees. Slowly raise your hips toward the ceiling as high as you can and hold for 5 breaths. Lower and repeat as many times as you like. Keep your neck flat on the floor and your arms down by your sides.
There is no variation necessary for this pose. If you’re very tight, you won’t be able to raise your hips as high but that will improve with consistency.
Yoga for Mid-Back Pain
Mid-back pain can be just as excruciating as low-back pain and is frequently caused by tightness in your spine or lack of strength in your back and abdominal muscles. Your abdominal muscles work with your back muscles to help to support your spine. If these muscles are weak, your back muscles work too hard which can cause pain and tightness.
3. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
This pose is great for mid-back pain since it stretches your spinal vertebrae, hip flexors, abdominal muscles, chest muscles, and tailbone. It strengthens your glutes and actively engages all the muscles along your spine.
Directions: Start on your knees with your hands placed on top of your glutes by your low back. Slowly begin to push your hips forward until you feel a stretch in your hip flexors and low back. Slowly relax your head back. Next, begin to slowly reach for your heels. As you reach for your heels, it may be difficult to keep your hips pushed forward. Either grab your heels and slowly push your hips forward again or wait until your flexibility has increased before adding the heel grab. Hold this pose as long as you’re able and breath deep. You may feel dizzy, lightheaded or even nauseous at first. That’s okay. Listen to your body and come out of the pose when you need to.
4. Parsva Balasana (Thread The Needle)
This simple beginner’s pose gently opens up the outer muscles of your shoulders and gives you a gentle spinal twist right at the mid-back. If you’re very tight in this area, you will feel it immediately.
Directions: Start on your hands and knees. Tuck your toes under your feet and place your knees hip-width apart. Reach your left arm forward until you feel a nice stretch in your back. Take your right hand and reach it under your left arm. Your right arm should be on the floor level with your chest. Place your right shoulder and head on the floor as well. Keep your hips and legs stationary. Breathe and relax into the pose. Hold this pose for 10 deep breaths or up to several minutes.
Yoga for Upper Back Pain
Upper back pain is usually felt in your upper Trapezius and Rhomboids. Your upper Traps attach at your cervical spine and clavicle and can be under tremendous physical stress. Emotional stress is also a common cause of tightness in this area. Upper-back pain can be constant or it can occur as spasms felt deep in these muscles.
5. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
This effortless pose can be a lifesaver if you have upper back pain. Gravity works on the weight of your head to create a gentle traction that releases your cervical and thoracic vertebrae. As your vertebrae release, your muscles will start to relax and loosens up and you will feel your entire spine stretch all the way down to your lumbar spine while your hamstrings stretch as well.
Directions: Stand with feet together and arms relaxed at your side. Slowly bend forward from the hips with a straight back. Keep your knees slightly bent to take pressure off your low-back. Once you’re folded forward, let the weight of your head hang. You have three options for your hands: let them rest gently on the floor bearing no weight; grab your opposite elbows and allow your arms to hang heavy; or gently place your hands on either side of your head and allow the weight of your hands to give you a little extra traction.
5. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Essentially, this pose is a seated version of standing forward bend. It’s a great pose if the standing version feels a little too intense for you.
Directions: Sit with a straight back and your legs in front of you. Keep your back straight as you bend from the hips. Keeps your knees bent and continue forward until you feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings, back or neck. If you can lay your upper body onto your legs, then slowly bend your forehead to your knees. Hold this pose for 10 deep breaths or up to several minutes. Only straighten your knees if you don’t have any lower back issues.
7. Purvottanasana (Upward Facing Plank)
Your upper-back pain could be caused, in part, by tightness in your chest muscles and this pose is will help with that. Yoga International is a well-known yoga school with a great in-depth article on how chest tightness can trigger back pain.
Directions: Begin by sitting on the floor with your knees bent and your feet a comfortable distance from your hips. Place your hands behind you wider than your hips. Your fingertips should point toward your feet. Lift your hips up to form a table-top with your body. Adjust your hands and feet if necessary so that you feel stable. Hold for as long as you can and breath. You can progress the pose by raising your hips toward the ceiling. Eventually, you can drop your head back to increase the stretch.
Keep safe during your yoga poses by educating yourself on proper form. Even the little details of a yoga pose matter. Check with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to perform these and other yoga poses.
Janet Ashforth has been a personal fitness trainer for over 20 years and currently owns her own fitness company. She uses fitness training, yoga, meditation, nutritional guidance and massage to guide her clients to health and wellness. Ashforth has held certifications from the American Council on Exercise and American College of Sports Medicine, and is also a licensed massage therapist.
- YJ Editor. 2018, Sept 27. This 15-pose Sequence was Scientifically Proven to Treat Chronic Low-Back Pain in the Military. Retrieved from https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/military-sequence#gid=ci0233ffe0100026d8&pid=6_plank_variation
- Gaia Staff. 2016, September 28. Parsva Balasana: Thread the Needle Pose. Retrieved from https://www.gaia.com/article/thread-needle-pose-parsva-balasana
- ExRX.net. Muscle Directory/Trapezius (Upper Fibers) Retrieved from https://exrx.net/Muscles/TrapeziusUpper
- ExRX.net. Muscle Directory/Rhomboids Retrieved from https://exrx.net/Muscles/Rhomboids
- Keller, D. ND. 3 Poses for Neck and Shoulder Pain. Retrieved from https://yogainternational.com/article/view/3-