How to Beat Back Pain

Justine Glenton

by Justine Glenton

Ashtanga & Zen Yoga Teacher

Back sufferers often resort to desperate measures to end the pain and get their lives back; even if that means expensive surgery or dangerous drugs. When back pain strikes, it can be debilitating. A twinge today can mean agony tomorrow. Recent studies show that surgery or drugs are not an effective answer.

The best scientific research says your best option may be something very old and simple, as well as cost-effective. Something gentle and something that offers a multitude of additional health benefits. Something called yoga!

In a study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers split 101 adults with persistent low back pain into two random groups.

Half were enrolled in a 12-week slow-moving viniyoga class. (Viniyoga coordinates movement with breathing and mental focus.) The other half spent 12 weeks in a standard therapeutic exercise class.

The researchers found that the people taking the viniyoga-style class experienced quicker back pain relief than those in the standard exercise class. And they noted that even people using a self-help yoga book had better results.

After another three months, the standard exercise group, too, had improved. However, at the final review, researchers noted that, in every case, those doing yoga were using less than half as much pain medication as those in the standard exercise group.

“Yoga allowed the back pain sufferers to become more aware of their postures that may have [caused] their back problems in the first place,” says Dr. Sahelian.

Key benefits of yoga

Research studies and leading medical experts agree that yoga is great for relieving back pain. Even better, it helps to improve your posture and may realign your spine, thus preventing future episodes. Yoga helps to stretch muscles, ligaments, tendons, and improves balance. It’s an all-in-one body conditioner. It also has many other health benefits. Here are just a few:

  • lowers blood pressure
  • improves heart health
  • improves mood
  • reduces stress
  • improves balance
  • increases energy
  • promotes better sleep

Although a lot of people will use medication to alleviate their back pain, there are yoga poses (asanas) that can also help reduce the pain. Yoga can be used in conjunction with medicine to beat back aches, if not eliminate the medication all together.

With just a few asanas you can bring your legs, hips and spine into proper alignment, release tension and gain supportive strength. These asanas provide traction for your spinal muscles as you root through the hips and let a gentle pull or gravity make space between the spinal bones. You’ll walk taller and enjoy a body that’s no longer stopping you, but rather serving you to live, move and play to the fullest. Don’t overemphasize the abdominal work. A common misconception about healing back pain is that the back is weak and that you should just work the core more. Actually, when you only work the core muscles — as in a hundred crunches a day — you may just be shortening your front body to match the back one. This can further pull on the spine and cause more disc compression and too little (or too much) curvature. The six-pack might look good in magazines and Diet Coke commercials, but those bunchy, contracted muscles are actually not so ideal for your back. 

Optimally, you want to work into greater core strength and length in your abdominals, side waist, low and mid back, while keeping the abdominal muscles long and lean. To do this, your back muscles will have to release, and both your back and core will have to stretch as well as flex.

Breathe slowly and deeply through the nose for the duration of the practice. On your inhales, flare the ribs wide, and as you exhale, contract around your navel, still maintaining a long, natural spine.

Try these top yoga poses to alleviate back pain:

Downward Dog

This classic yoga pose is a great total body stretch that targets back extensors, or the large muscles that help form your lower back, support your spine, and help you stand and lift objects.

Try it: Start on your hands and knees, with your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Have your feet a hips width apart and toes facing forward. Pressing back, raise your knees away from the floor and lift your tailbone up toward the ceiling. For an added hamstring stretch gently push your heels toward the floor. Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths, and repeat the pose five to seven times.
Downward Dog


Cat Pose (Marjaryasana)

This is a wonderful way to warm-up the spine. This asana will also provide an excellent massage to the spine and abdominal organs. This pose also elongates the back of the trunk and abdominal organs.

Try it: Starting in an all-fours position, move into cat pose by slowly pressing your spine up, arching your back. Tuck your tail bone under drawing in the lower belly and pushing gently up into top vertebrae. Hold for a few seconds.
Cat Pose


Cow Pose

Try it: Starting in an all-fours position, move into cat pose by slowly pressing your spine up, arching your back. Hold for a few seconds and then move to cow (pictured at left) by scooping your spine in, pressing your shoulder blades back and lifting your head and sticking your bottom out. Moving back and forth from cat to cow helps move your spine onto a neutral position, relaxing the muscles and easing tension.
Cow Pose

Repeat 10 times, flowing smoothly from cat into cow, and cow back into cat. Repeat the sequence as needed.

Pigeon Pose

Pigeon pose, which can be a little challenging for yoga newbies, stretches hip rotators and flexors. It might not seem like the most obvious position to treat a back ache but tight hips can contribute to lower back pain.

Try it: Start in downward-facing dog with your feet together. Then draw your left knee forward and turn it out to the left so your left leg is bent and near-perpendicular to your right one; lower both legs to the ground. You can simply keep your back right leg extended straight behind you, or for an added hamstring stretch — seasoned pigeon posers only! — Carefully pull your back foot off the ground and in toward your back. Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch to the other side, and repeat as needed.
pigeon pose


Supta Padangusthasana

The reclining big toe pose alleviates back pain while providing a great stretch to the hips and the back of the legs. This asana also diminishes menstrual pain and sciatica. If you are feeling stiff, try performing this asana with the heel of the leg on the ground against a wall. For the maximum benefits and for balance, be sure to stretch both the left and right (Halasana)
Supta Padangusthasana


Halasana - The Plow Pose

Can reduce back pain. In addition, it can reduce headaches and help with infertility, insomnia and inflamed nasal sinuses. Women who are pregnant should not practice the plow pose if it is new to them, but if they were already performing this asana before pregnancy they can continue to do so
Halasana the plow pose


Twist (Bharadvajasana I)

Bharadvaja's twist is medicinal to the spine and belly organs, and it alleviates pain in the lower back and the neck. When performing this pose, remember to twist to both the left and right sides
twist Bharadvajasana I


Child's Pose

It may look like you’re resting, but child’s pose is an active stretch that helps elongate the back. It’s also a great way to de-stress before bed at the end of a long, exhausting day.

Try it: Start on all fours with your arms stretched out straight in front of you, then sit back so your glutes (butt muscles) come to rest just above — but not touching — your heels. Hold the position for 5 to 10 breaths, and repeat as many times as needed for a good, soothing stretch
Child's Pose

A final note: It’s always a good idea to ask your doctor before starting a new fitness regime, especially if you’re prone to pain. Once you get the green light, you can do these poses in any order. Gradually increase the intensity by holding them for longer amounts of time.


Justine Glenton

Justine has been practising yoga for 20 years. She currently teaches Ashtanga and Zen Yoga all over central London in leading health clubs, hotel spas, schools and fitness centres. www.yogawithjustineglenton.co.uk
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