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Unlocking the Power of Yoga: A Holistic Approach to Relieving Back Pain

back pain can lead to tension in the shoulders and neck

Back pain affects at least 80% of people at some point in their lives. Whether it's a dull ache that lingers for weeks or a sudden sharp twinge when reaching for something, back pain can disrupt our daily activities and quality of life. The good news is that a regular yoga practice can help relieve back pain and prevent future flare ups.

In this post, we'll look at how yoga helps relieve back pain through gentle stretching and strengthening of the back muscles. We'll overview some of the common causes of back pain and how yoga addresses the underlying issues. We'll share yoga poses that are especially beneficial for back pain, as well as provide a sample beginner yoga routine for back pain relief. We'll also cover lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, and stress management that can help when used in conjunction with a yoga practice. While yoga is extremely beneficial, we'll discuss circumstances when it's important to see a doctor about your back pain. By the end, you’ll understand how to use yoga to help manage and alleviate back pain.

Yoga Shows Its Stuff for Back Pain Relief

You know how it can sometimes feel like you've tried every possible treatment under the sun for that nagging back pain, but nothing seems to provide lasting relief? Well, recent research is showing that yoga may just be the answer we've been looking for. In 2017, a really interesting study was published in a top medical journal called the Annals of Internal Medicine. The researchers took 320 adults suffering from chronic low back pain and divided them into three groups. One group went to weekly yoga classes, another did physical therapy sessions, and the third just learned some education on managing back pain through things like proper posture and movements.

After 12 weeks, they checked in on how everyone was feeling and functioning. And you know what they found? The yoga group was kicking butt and taking names! They reported far better improvements in their back function and relieving those nagging symptoms compared to the physical therapy and education groups.

This drives home how powerful a consistent yoga practice can be for battling chronic back issues. The special sauce of yoga, blending poses, breathwork, and mindfulness together, seemed to outperform some of the more traditional therapies in terms of both regaining mobility and cutting down on pain levels.

The beauty of yoga is that it harnesses the mind-body connection while still being a low-impact form of exercise. That makes it an awesome option, especially for those who may have trouble with more intense physical therapy routines. This study really highlights yoga's holistic potential as a safe, effective way to find real relief from persistent back pain and improve overall quality of life.

So if you've been dealing with a stubborn back issue, it may be worth rolling out the yoga mat and giving this age-old practice a try! The research doesn't lie - yoga's got some serious back-healing powers.

Anatomy of Back Pain

The spine is made up of 33 bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of one another, supported by muscles and ligaments, and separated by gel-like discs that act as shock absorbers. The magic of yoga practice is that it's centered around the 6 movements of the spine, and uses traction to stretch the muscles and connective tissue that work together to move the skeleton and keep everything in place. Muscles work together to move the body around, but sometimes the balance is thrown off and one muscle becomes tight and short, and it's counterpart can become long and weak. Yoga practice helps to bring balance back to the body, so the tight muscle can release and the weak muscle can grow stronger.

These vertebrae are divided into sections:

  • Cervical (neck) - 7 vertebrae

  • Thoracic (upper back) - 12 vertebrae

  • Lumbar (lower back) - 5 vertebrae

  • Sacrum - 5 fused vertebrae

  • Coccyx (tailbone) - 4 fused vertebrae

The two most common causes of back pain are strain or injury to the muscles/ligaments, and problems with the vertebral discs. Disc issues often result in a slipped, herniated, ruptured, or bulging disc, which can put pressure on the spinal nerve and cause pain.

Sciatica is a specific type of back pain caused when a herniated disc presses on the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down through the hips and buttocks. This can result in sharp pain, numbness, or tingling that radiates into the leg and foot.

It's also common for back muscles and ligaments to become strained from poor posture, improper lifting, lack of core strength, or simply as a natural part of aging. Muscle tension and spasms can go hand-in-hand with strains.

Understanding the anatomy and common causes of back pain provides context for how yoga's movements and poses can help target and relieve discomfort in the back.

tension in the shoulders - back pain

Benefits of Yoga for Back Pain

Yoga is an excellent way to help alleviate and prevent back pain. Practicing yoga offers numerous benefits that directly target the causes and symptoms of back pain.

A 2011 study from the journal "Spine" analyzed data from 6 randomized controlled trials involving a total of 570 participants with low back pain. The study found that yoga was an effective treatment, leading to reducing pain, improved function, and higher satisfaction rates compared to other exercise or self-care.

Increases Flexibility

One of the main benefits of yoga is that it improves flexibility in the muscles and soft tissues surrounding the spine. When these tissues are inflexible or stiff, it can put strain on the back and compress the discs, nerves and joints, leading to inflammation and pain. Yoga postures gently stretch the muscles, increasing range of motion and reducing tightness. This releases pressure on the spine to provide relief.

Strengthens Key Muscles

Yoga is also great for building strength in the core muscles that support the back and spine. It targets muscles such as the abdominals, back extensors, glutes, and hamstrings. Stronger muscles are better equipped to maintain proper posture and spinal alignment, taking pressure off the back. They also provide stability, which reduces strain.

the spine - yoga is great for keeping the spine limber

Improves Posture

As a result of increased flexibility and core muscle strength from yoga, most people find their posture improves. Good posture keeps the natural curves of the spine aligned and distributes weight evenly, reducing mechanical stress. Yoga also helps reinforce awareness of posture and alignment of the body. This prevents slouching, slumping and other postural habits that contribute to back pain.

Reduces Stress

Chronic stress causes muscle tension and spasms that can throw the back out of alignment. Yoga incorporates breathing exercises, meditation and deep relaxation to activate the body's relaxation response. This alleviates muscle tension and mental anxiety that could worsen back pain. The mental effects of yoga help reframe negative thought patterns surrounding pain as well. Reduced stress can make back pain more manageable.

Yoga Poses for Back Pain

Certain yoga poses are especially beneficial for relieving back pain. Focusing on poses that gently stretch and strengthen the back can help reduce muscle tension, improve flexibility, and promote proper spine alignment. As you try out this sequence, pay attention to how your body feels during the stretch and adjust the intensity as needed. Avoid pushing yourself too far into the stretch, especially if you feel any pain or discomfort. It's important to honor your body's limitations and progress at your own pace.

childs pose - balasana - back pain relief

Child's Pose

Child's pose is a resting posture that gently stretches the lower back. Make sure your wrists are directly under your shoulders and your knees are hip-width apart, with your knees directly under your hips. Your spine should be neutral, and your gaze can be directed downwards. From this position, gently begin to shift your weight back towards your heels, simultaneously lowering your hips towards your heels. As you do this, keep your arms extended in front of you, maintaining the length in your spine. Gradually lower your forehead towards the mat, allowing your chest to come closer to your thighs. You can keep your arms extended forward or relax them by your sides, whichever is more comfortable for you. Once you've settled into the pose, focus on deepening your breath and allowing your body to relax. Child's Pose is a resting posture in yoga, so take this opportunity to release any tension and find a sense of calm and grounding. You can hold the pose for as long as feels comfortable, breathing deeply and surrendering into the stretch. To come out of the pose, gently press into your palms, slowly lifting your torso back up to tabletop position.


The cat-cow pose massages the spine and relieves back tension. Get on your hands and knees with a flat back. On an inhale, drop your belly down and look up slightly to arch your back like a cow. On an exhale, lift your belly up and arch your back like a cat. Repeat 5-10 times.

downward facing dog - adho mukha svanasana

Downward-Facing Dog

Transitioning from tabletop position to downward facing dog in yoga is a seamless movement that flows naturally from the initial setup. Begin by ensuring your wrists are aligned under your shoulders and your knees under your hips in a stable tabletop position. As you prepare to move into downward facing dog, tuck your toes under and start to lift your hips towards the ceiling, simultaneously straightening your arms. Press firmly through your palms and fingers, engaging your core muscles to support your spine. Allow your knees to straighten gradually, but keep a slight bend if needed to maintain comfort and stability in the pose. As your hips lift higher, aim to create an inverted V shape with your body. Focus on lengthening your spine, drawing your chest towards your thighs, and pressing your heels towards the floor. Your head should be aligned with your upper arms, with your gaze directed towards your feet or slightly back towards your thighs. Take a few deep breaths in this position, allowing your body to settle into the stretch and find stability. Downward facing dog is an energizing pose that stretches the entire body while building strength in the arms, shoulders, and legs. When you're ready to exit the pose, gently bend your knees and lower them back down to the mat, returning to tabletop position.

revolved crescent lunge - the greatest stretch ever

Revolved Lunge (A.K.A The Greatest Stretch Ever)

Begin in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart and your arms relaxed by your sides. Take a large step back with your right foot, allowing your right heel to lift off the ground. Lower your body into a lunge position, bending your left knee while keeping your right leg straight. Your left knee should be directly above your left ankle, and your right knee should be slightly off the ground, hovering just above the floor. As you settle into the lunge, focus on feeling a stretch in the front of your right hip and thigh (the hip flexors). Place your left hand on the ground or a yoga block on the inside of your left foot. Then, twist your torso to the left, reaching your right arm toward the ceiling. This movement helps to open up the chest and shoulders while providing a deeper stretch through the hips and groin. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, breathing deeply and maintaining good posture. Keep your core engaged to stabilize your body and prevent overarching the lower back.

Switch Sides: After holding the stretch on one side, carefully release the twist and bring your right hand back down to the floor. Then, step your right foot forward to return to the starting position. If you find it difficult to reach the ground with your hand, you can use yoga blocks or place your hands on a stable surface like a chair or bench for support.

bridge pose - supported bridge

Bridge Pose

Bridge pose strengthens the back muscles. Lie on your back with knees bent and arms at your sides. On an inhale, press your feet down and lift your hips up high, keeping your chin tucked slightly. Hold for 5-10 breaths, then lower back down slowly. Repeat 2-3 times.

Knees to Chest

This is a gentle back release. Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Hold your shins and pull your knees toward your shoulders to stretch your lower back. Breathe deeply and hold for 30 seconds or longer.

savasana - corpse pose - yin yoga

Corpse Pose

Savasana or corpse pose allows the body to fully relax at the end of practice. Lie flat on your back with arms and legs comfortably spread out. Close your eyes and breathe deeply into your belly for 2-5 minutes. Sink into the floor and release all tension.

Beginner Yoga Sequence

When starting a yoga practice for back pain, it's important to keep the poses gentle and focus on alignment. Avoid pushing too far into any poses or overstretching. Here is a simple 15 minute beginner yoga sequence for back pain:

Child's Pose

  • Come onto your hands and knees, knees hip-width apart.

  • Sit your hips back towards your heels and let your chest sink down to rest on your thighs.

  • Broaden your sacrum and draw your navel in towards your spine to lengthen your lower back.

  • Reach your arms forwards and relax your head down.

  • Hold for 5 deep breaths. Child's pose stretches and releases the low back.


  • Come into a tabletop position wrists under shoulders, knees under hips.

  • Inhale drop your belly, lift your gaze and tailbone up towards the ceiling (Cow Pose).

  • Exhale round your back like an angry cat and draw your navel inwards (Cat Pose).

  • Repeat 5-10 times, coordinating breath and movement. Cat/cow warms up the spine.

Downward Facing Dog

  • Come into tabletop then tuck your toes, lift your hips up and back to come into Downward Dog.

  • Ground your hands, broaden the shoulders and lengthen the spine.

  • Peddle your feet out one at a time bending one knee then the other.

  • Hold for 5-10 breaths. Downward dog decompresses the spine.

Low Lunge

  • From Downward Dog, step your right foot up between your hands.

  • Drop your left knee to the floor and sink your hips down low.

  • Reach your arms overhead, optionally taking hold of the elbows.

  • Hold for 5 breaths then repeat on the other side. Low Lunge opens the front of the hips.

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Yoga can be an excellent complementary therapy for managing and alleviating back pain. Its combination of gentle stretches, strengthening poses, and mindful breathing practices target the root causes of back issues, from tight muscles to poor posture and stress. While not a complete cure, a regular yoga routine can help increase flexibility and mobility, build core strength, improve alignment, and induce the relaxation response - all of which reduce strain and compression on the spine. For those struggling with chronic or acute back pain, incorporating yoga into your lifestyle is a low-risk way to find relief and potentially prevent future flare-ups. Be sure to start slowly, listen to your body, and consult a doctor for severe or persistent pain. With patience and commitment to your yoga practice, you can experience the transformative benefits of increased strength, freedom of movement, and an overall enhanced quality of life.

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