Is your back bothering you? You’re not alone. “Back pain is one of most common reasons people see a doctor or miss days at work,” according to the National Institutes of Health. The World Health Organization reports that low back pain is a major cause of disability worldwide.
Yoga to the rescue, right? A Harvard Health Publishing Report calls yoga “one of the more effective tools for helping reduce low-back pain” because it strengthens and stretches tight back muscles and improves mobility. But some asana poses may actually make posture worse and inadvertently exacerbate back problems, according to Dr. Kevin Khalili, DC, author of Preserve Your Curves: Spinal Freedom with Yoga and Pilates.
That’s because some of the daily postural and movement habits that cause spinal misalignment—slumping on the couch, leaning into the computer, sleeping curled into a fetal position—are actually replicated in asana practice. In his e-book, Khalili shares an anecdote about a long-time yoga instructor who came to his office suffering from constant low-back pain. They determined that her condition was caused by sitting for long periods in Lotus position.
“I posed a question to her,” he writes. “Since most of us are forced to sit all day, although we understand that doing so is not beneficial to our backs, why would you do more of it—in an even more compromised sitting position—and expect a different result?”
When he offered her modifications for her seated asanas, he says her low-back symptoms disappeared.
Yoga, do no harm
Khalili doesn’t deny yoga’s benefits. He says yoga increases strength, builds the immune system, reduces stress, enhances circulation, and improves concentration.
“These benefits are genuine,” he says. But only when practiced correctly.
Moving too fast, doing poses out of alignment, or dropping into a yoga pose instead of gradually lengthening into it make you a candidate for back injury, according to Dr. Lauren Elson, medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report An Introduction to Yoga.
You may not even know your practice is causing incremental harm. Often we leave yoga class full of energy, which masks any hint that something may be wrong.
“Repetitive stress disorders are so damaging because symptoms don’t typically develop until the condition is at an advanced stage,” he says. “The best and most effective way to head off these conditions is through prevention of the repetitive stresses that causes them.”
5 back-friendly asana options
Regularly practicing poses that are helpful for back health—those Khalili calls “Treasured Movements”—can strengthen the back and help mitigate long-term damage. Here, he offers some classic poses that are spine-sparing and back strengthening. You can find more in his book.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Up Dog strengthens the shoulder muscles and stretches the low back and core. Keep your shoulder blades back and down. Hold the pose for 3–6 breath cycles. Try to arch your low back a little more with each exhale.
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
Bow Pose strengthens the shoulder, neck, and low-back muscles while stretching the shoulder and quadriceps. Hold the contraction for 1–3 full breaths. Try to arch your back a little more with each exhale.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
With your knees bent and shoulder blades back and down, lift your hips into the air until you feel a deep contraction in the gluteal region. Hold the pose for 3 seconds and slowly drop your hips down to the mat. Repeat 12–15 times.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big Toe Pose)
This pose stretches the calf, gluteal, and hamstring muscles. Lie on your back with both legs bent at the knee and your feet flat on the mat. Without lifting your head or shoulders, bring one of your knees toward your torso, and wrap a yoga strap around the arch of the foot. Fully extend that leg, keeping the knee locked and holding the strap with both hands. Gently pull the extended leg upward toward your head with the strap, keeping your shoulder blades back and down toward your buttocks; keep your knee locked to stretch the hamstring safely. Try to keep your hips and low back on the mat throughout this exercise.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Locust strengthens the shoulder, neck, and low-back muscles while improving balance and coordination. Lift both legs and the upper back while keeping shoulder blades back and down. Hold the pose for 1–3 full breaths. Try to lift a little higher with each exhale.
To avoid back pain and injury, Dr. Khalili recommends against performing inversions altogether. Plow Pose, Headstand, and Shoulder Stand compress the neck and back, which can cause injuries. Inverted poses are not recommended for people with sinus infections, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, bleeding disorders, or eye problems such as detached retina and glaucoma.
Khalili also strongly recommends that you have a chiropractor examine your spine and posture (including doing an X-ray) before starting a yoga practice. “Share the information with your [yoga] instructor to help him or her customize a safer, more successful protocol for your body type,” he says.
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