There are many ways to cause back injury, especially in the lower back. Back injuries and pain can have a myriad of causes, such as a weak core due to lack of exercise, sitting for long periods with poor posture, even strain from too much exercise. However, with yoga, you can exercise and strengthen your core, alleviate pain from a back injury, improve posture, and more. The only drawback? Yoga has the potential to damage your back, defeating the purpose of practicing it in the first place. Fortunately, with this guide, you’ll know which poses are best for your back and which should be avoided so you can practice without back injury.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Back Injury
Before getting into which yoga poses are good and bad for the safety of your back, it’s important to understand why yoga can cause back injury, and how to avoid that. Yoga can be a very efficient tool for soothing back pain because it stretches and strengthens muscles that provide support to the back and spine, but only if practiced properly.
Move Slowly and Steadily
People who are new to yoga and older adults are particularly prone to developing a yoga-related back injury. This is because most injuries that result from yoga are a result of improper form and moving too quickly when stretching. The key is to slowly ease and lengthen into poses rather than simply dropping into them. Quickly dropping into a pose is like getting on a treadmill and starting your run at the highest setting instead of pacing yourself and gradually increasing your speed.
Set a Foundation
Stretches should begin with using your muscles as a foundation for your movement. From here, you can begin to slowly lengthen and stretch your body, using proper form. Dr. Lauren Elson, an instructor at Harvard Medical School states, “When I perform my sweated twist, I have to remember that the point of the pose is not to rotate as fast and far as possible. Instead, I need to activate my core muscles and feel as though my spine is lengthening. Then I can twist slowly until I feel resistance, and hold for as long as it’s comfortable and then tension melts away.”
Remember that pain in a stretch is your body’s way of letting you know that something is wrong. If this happens, slowly ease up on the stretch to avoid causing a back injury.
Of course, you’ll want to speak with your doctor before adding yoga to your exercise regimen, especially if you currently have back pain. You will also want to avoid yoga if you’re suffering from a spinal fracture, herniated disc, or other serious back issues.
Making your yoga instructor aware of your specific pain and limitations will also help in protecting your back from injury. Once aware of your specific pain, your instructor will likely either provide you with modifications for certain poses or provide you with guidance to help avoid placing stress on your back. There are even yoga studios and classes that focus specifically on relieving back pain.
Yoga Poses to Avoid
The following poses are considered to be particularly difficult. If you are new to yoga or just trying to avoid risky stretches, you’ll want to stay away from these, especially if you are practicing without someone to guide you through them.
In both seated and standing forward fold poses, it’s common to end up curving the back while collapsing the front part of your body. This usually happens in an attempt to pull oneself as close to the toes as possible, because rounding the spine adds length. The problem is that rounding the spine like this can end up putting strain on the muscles or even tearing a ligament or rupturing a disc, in extreme cases. Apart from increasing your risk of injury, curving your back in this position also stops you from getting the full benefit of the stretch throughout your body, such as in your hamstrings.
However, if you plan on attempting this pose, the following tips may help you stay safe.
- Avoid tilting from your spine and instead, tilt from your pelvis. Sit up with your feet straight out in front of you, keeping your spine straight and tall. Then pull away your glutes to find your sit bones, and ground yourself. Make sure the crown of your head falls in line with your tailbone.
- From this position, move your chest toward your thighs while keeping your spine straight. You should be able to feel the tilt coming from your pelvis, and the trunk of your body should move like the arm of a lever.
- Stop once you reach the point where you can no longer move lower without curving your spine.
- Remember to pull your shoulder blades back down the spine in order to keep your chest open during this pose.
Backbend poses are the most common cause of yoga-related back injury, because these poses are the most difficult to stay safe in. Further, poses such as Bridge, Wheel, and Cobra require flexion of the spine, which is known to cause harmful stress. In addition to this, the curvature of the spine that this pose requires can cause the vertebrae or nerves to become pinched, muscles spasms, and back soreness, particularly in the lower spine. This will include poses such as the camel pose. It’s recommended that you avoid this pose if you have a spinal disc issue.
Tips for staying as possible while practicing backbends include the following.
- Similar to forward folds, movement in backbends should come from your pelvis. However, the difference is that instead of focusing on moving your tailbone back, you’ll need to move the center of your pelvis forward.
- While doing this, make sure you’re pulling the pelvic floor upward, toward your belly button. If you don’t do this, you risk moving your pelvis outward without proper support. This will also help engage your core, specifically the transverse abdominals.
- Continue lifting through your chest as you continue the stretch, especially as you feel your spine curving back. Lifting your chest will make sure that there is space between the vertebrae, avoiding pinching.
Twists are usually gentle poses meant to stretch and relax the spine, but there are many things you must keep in mind in order to get the most out of these poses and avoid hurting yourself. The lunge twist is a common twist pose that can cause injury. Although there are ways to practice twists that can avoid back injury, if you suffer from a bulging disc, you’ll probably want to avoid poses that involve twisting. These poses can place pressure on the spinal discs and if you don’t use proper form, you can end up muscling into the pose instead of allowing your abdominals to drive the movement.
In order to protect your back during a twist, you’ll want to keep the following in mind.
- Keep your spine straight for the duration of the twist. It can be tempting to curve your spine, but you’ll need to keep it straight to both avoid injury and get the full benefit of the pose. Draw your spine up straight and tall and maintain that straightness while twisting.
- Make sure you keep shoulders and back down, rather than pulling them up toward your ears. You’ll also want to keep the crown of your head in line with your tailbone, like in the forward bend.
- You may also want to keep your hips in mind to make sure that your pelvis is balanced. Both hipbones should be in the same plane, without either moving in front of or above the other. This will keep your spine stable and avoid pulling any muscles or ligaments.
During any yoga pose, you will likely feel tempted to look in the mirror or at your instructor or the rest of the class, but doing so puts excessive tension in the neck. Taking your head out of alignment with the rest of your spine will put unnecessary stress on the cervical spine, so it’s important to focus on keeping your head in line with the rest of your spine.
Back Safe Yoga Poses
These poses are considered to be very safe for the back, posing very little risk of injury.
The child’s pose elongates and aligns the spine, decompressing it and removing pressure in order to provide a good stretch. In order to properly practice this pose, do follow these steps.
- While kneeling on your mat, keep your knees hip width apart with your feet together behind you. Inhale deeply, and as you exhale this breath, settle your torso over your thighs.
- Move your ribs away from your tailbone and move the crown of your head away from your shoulders in order to lengthen your neck and spine.
- Then rest your forehead on the ground while extending your arms out in front of you.
- Hold this pose for 1-3 minutes.
The cat/cow pose provides extension of the spine, promoting mobility and relieving tension in the lower back. This pose will also allow you to familiarize yourself with the neutral position of your spine, which will be helpful when practicing other poses and will also improve your posture.
- Begin this pose on all fours, keeping your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees.
- Slowly inhale, and while exhaling, round your spine and move your head down toward the floor (this is the “cat” part of this pose).
- Inhale again and lift your head, chest, and tailbone toward the ceiling while arching your back (this is the “cow” part of this pose).
- Hold this pose for 1-3 minutes.
Downward Facing Dog
Downward facing dog is a great pose for stretching out your hamstrings and calves, which can relieve lower back pain. You can also modify this pose for comfort by slightly bending your knees if your hamstrings and calves are especially tight.
- In the child’s pose position, keep your hands on the floor, sit up on your knees, lift your buttocks and press back into the downward facing dog pose.
- Spread your fingers wide and straighten your legs while slowly dropping your heels down toward the ground.
- Let your head relax between your arms, and aim your gaze either through your legs or up toward your belly button.
- Hold this pose for 1-3 minutes.
The locust pose will strengthen your back and core muscles and has the lowest risk of injury of any backbend pose.
- Begin by lying flat on your stomach and interlacing your fingers above your sacrum, at the end of your spine.
- Straighten your legs and engage them by lifting them as well as your chest, off the floor.
- Then press your belly button into the mat and aim your gaze directly in front of you in order to keep your neck curved naturally.
- Move your shoulder blades together, drawing them away from your ears.
- Avoid squeezing your butt too tight, as this will prevent the pose from strengthening your core muscles.
- Avoid lifting your gaze too high as well. This will shorten the back of your neck and compress your cervical spine.
Upward Facing Dog
Upward facing dog is a basic yoga pose with the purpose of expanding the chest and opening the lungs in order to strengthen the muscles in your spine, arms, and shoulders.
- Begin on your stomach and place your palms on either side of your ribcage.
- Press down evenly throughout each finger and your palm.
- Your shoulders should be directly above your wrists.
- Then, lift your body so that only your palms and the tops of your feet remain on the mat.
- You’ll want to make sure that you engage your legs as much as possible in order to avoid compressing your lumbar spine.
- Keep your shoulder blades together so that your chest will remain open.
- Relax your buttocks and engage your thighs, and make sure to gaze directly in front of yourself so that your head remains in alignment with the rest of your spine, avoiding any compression.
- You will also want to ensure that your wrists are directly beneath your shoulders and that your weight is evenly distributed throughout your palms, or else you may experience a wrist injury.
The purpose of the floor bow is to open your chest and stretch the front of your body. This pose can also help in relieving minor back pain while at the same time strengthening your back muscles, improving your posture.
- For this pose, start on your stomach and grasp the outside of each ankle.
- Kick out your legs and lift your hands while slowly lengthening your chest toward the ceiling.
- Then draw your knees and feet toward each other until they are hip distance apart, and draw your ankles in, keeping your feet engaged.
- Be careful not to allow your legs to spread too far apart, as this will cause compression of your lower back.
- You will also want to make sure you’re actively kicking into your hands in order to avoid injuring your knees.
While yoga is generally considered a regenerative and relaxing activity, you’ll need to make sure you’re using good form and engaging your body properly in order to avoid causing a back injury. If you have back pain, we recommend that you speak with your doctor before you begin practicing yoga, but even once you get the okay, remember to follow these tips and avoid risky poses. Take the necessary precautions and get the most out of your yoga practice!
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