I had just gotten my 200-hour yoga teaching certification and taught my first class as an “official” yoga teacher. Right after class a student came up to me and asked “do you know any good stretches for my lower back?”
It was obvious that my answer completely confused the student. They just walked away with a concerned expression and I’m pretty sure they never came back to my class. That moment really made me feel like a star yoga teacher and that I was on the right path.
Since then, I’ve gotten the same question more than any other. It’s not as much annoying as it is frustrating, because every person’s case is different and the problem is so complex that I still don’t feel qualified to answer it most of the time.
Let me be clear — if you feel like you have a serious lower back problem, stop reading this article, and go see your doctor.
But…if you feel like you get a minor tweak every so often and you want to know how yoga can help your chances of that happening less and less, I can help you, even though I’m not a doctor (reminder).
Over the years, with all the back pain related questions I’ve gotten and addressing the issue in my own body, I’ve learned that an understanding of simple anatomy and some basic yoga principles are all you need to manage 90%+ of the issue.
Let’s start with some simple anatomy (you can do this!).
Simple Back Anatomy (literally 397 words)
*Important vocab in all caps and bold.*
The back is made up of a complex group of bones that make up the spine which is supported by a complex group of muscles, ligaments (attach bone to bone), and tendons (attach muscle to bone), together referred to as SOFT TISSUES, that stabilize it and allow it to move.
The bones of the spine are known as VERTEBRAE (plural; vertebra is the singular) and they rest on top of one another like a big stack of pancakes.
The spine is made up of four distinct areas:
- CERVICAL, the neck area (7 vertebrae)
- THORACIC, mid- to upper-back area (12 vertebrae)
- LUMBAR, lower back area (5 vertebrae)
- SACRAL, where the hips meet the spine (5 “fused” vertebrae that don’t move independently, together known as the SACRUM)
(The tailbone or “coccyx” is technically a part of the spine, but we’ll just ignore that for now.)
- Cervical spine (neck) is the most mobile in all directions and has the smallest bones
- Thoracic spine is less mobile than the cervical and lumbar spine due to attachments to the ribs (limited motion keeps internal organs safe)
- Lumbar spine is more mobile bending forward and back, and less mobile in twisting
- Sacral spine forms an important joint with the pelvis known as the sacroiliac or “S.I”. joint (this will be important later!)
Between each vertebrae are two FACET JOINTS (one on either side) that allow bony protrusions (known as spinal PROCESSES) from the spine to move across one another and are lubricated by SYNOVIAL FLUID (the WD-40 of the spine).
Two more key points. I know anatomy can be painful but hold on, you’ve got this!
In between each of the vertebrae are DISCS. You can imagine these to be like jelly donuts. Back to the pancakes example, if the vertebrae are like a stack of pancakes, imagine putting a jelly donut between each of the pancakes. Mmmmmmm…..
The example works because the discs actually have a jelly-like center that cushions movement and compression of the spine (this will be important later!). Imagine those Dr. Scholl’s heel insoles with the blue center — stiff on the outside, soft on the inside.
Finally, (yes, almost done) we have NERVES that run through the spine and out to all of our body parts. This allows the brain to send signals to body (this will be important later!).
That wasn’t so bad, right?
Causes of Back Pain
Just a reminder, I’m still not a doctor…but, I’m pretty good at taking notes when listening to doctors.
Sure, taking good notes doesn’t make me a doctor, but it means I can give you doctor-level information in a clean and simple format (insert mental image of me shooting a basketball and leaving hand up in the air as the ball swishes through the net).
(That didn’t happen much in my basketball career, but it’s nice to imagine.)
Moving on — here are the most common causes of back pain from my notes:
- SOFT TISSUE pull, strain, or sprain
- DISC tear or excessive compression
- S.I. JOINT inflammation
- FACET JOINT wear and tear
Any of these issues can arise from:
- impact, like a fall or sudden movement
- poor posture, overtime or while lifting a heavy object
But, in general, there’s one thing that keeps these areas supple, strong, and at low-risk of injury:
Here are a few reasons why movement is absolutely essential to help prevent back pain:
- SOFT TISSUES are engaged through movement, making them stronger more pliant, allowing them to better support the spine.
- DISCS are “avascular”, meaning they do not have their own blood supply, so they require movement to access fresh nutrients and stay healthy.
- S.I. JOINT is stabilized with stronger soft tissues developed through movement.
- FACET JOINTS are compromised when their bones (spinal PROCESSES) degenerate or weaken. Movement causes new bone tissue to form, just like in muscles, which makes the PROCESSES and their FACET JOINTS stronger.
But, there’s a catch: it’s hard to move your back once back pain starts.
Lack of movement causes the back muscles to weaken and begin to atrophy, preventing them from supporting the spine and, perhaps, making back pain worse.
The key is to have a regular practice of spinal movement.
The Challenge for Athletes
For athletes, there’s another catch: athletes may think they’re moving the spine a lot, but oftentimes sports have imbalanced movement in the spine (think of one-sided movements like a baseball swing, tennis’ serve, or golf swing) or incomplete movements (think of running with minimal spinal twisting and no forward folding or backbending).
These repetitive (and sometimes forceful) movements done over time bring imbalance into the spine, which can lead to any of the forms of back pain discussed above.
Athletes also often have tightness in specific areas that make them more prone to back pain. In particular, the hip flexors (which is the primary muscles involved with lifting the knee) often get super tight from repetitive use.
The hip flexor attaches to the front of the LUMBAR spine (low back area). A tight muscle will pull on what it’s attached to, and pulling the front of the spine puts excess pressure on the front of the LUMBAR DISCS (starting to combine vocab words!).
Why you should care: pressure on the front of a DISC compresses the liquid (i.e. jelly in a jelly donut) on the front side and pushes it to the back. The excess pressure on the backside of the DISC puts pressure on the NERVE running past it. This is painful, friends.
In my personal experience and what I’ve observed in others, yoga is one of the best things to do to prevent low back pain. It not only moves the spine evenly in all directions but, in high-quality yoga, the spine is treated (rightfully) as the place where all movement stems from and , therefore, comes first.
So, I’ll update what I said earlier: the key is to have a regular practice of complete and balanced spinal movement.
How Athletes Can Use Yoga to Help Prevent Back Pain
Ok, so now that you’re sufficiently freaked out about back pain, here are some tangible things you can start doing right now to prevent back pain before it starts.
This could be the most important category of yoga poses when it comes to the back, simply because we just don’t backbend much.
Backbends bring the spine into “extension”, arching the spine as the chest broadens and lifts.
There are three general categories of backbends:
- Contraction: back muscles contract in resistance to gravity
- Traction: front-body muscles support the backbend in resistance to gravity
- Leverage: arm and/or leg muscles press the body into a back bending position
All three categories bring some level of strength and range of motion into the soft tissues of the back, which will ultimately serve in protecting the spine.
My favorite category is contraction. It’s not as fun as all those contractions your do on the other side (I’m talking to you “ab blaster” people), but they’re the safest form of backbends and build the most strength within a functional range of motion. A+ in my book.
Here’s a class that will help you get to know backbends a little better:
In addition to stretching out the back muscles, forward folds also help create space in the muscles of the “posterior chain”, which basically refers to the interconnectedness of all the muscles on the back side of your body.
The concept of the posterior chain suggest that tight hamstrings are likely to contribute to a tight lower back because these muscle groups support and compensate for each other.
The beauty of forward folds is almost all of them are accessible with a little bend in the knees and avoiding forcing to go as deeply as possible.
Try this class to work on your forward fold technique and see if your lower back thanks you:
If you’re an athlete, you’re probably twisting a little bit, here and there. But are you going into a twist and then holding that position to give your spinal muscles time to release? Probably not.
In my opinion, twisting is one of the greatest sources of spinal imbalance that occurs in sport, and it’s because the major twisting movements are all one-sided:
- Baseball/softball swing or throw
- Tennis serve
- Hockey slapshot
- Golf swing
- Hammer throw
- Discus throw
Adding on, twisting movements in sports tend to be explosive and use leverage and torque to squeeze every ounce of power out of the movement.
Do this long enough and you’re almost guaranteed to find some sort of imbalance in the back.
Twisting in yoga is pretty dynamic — it can be applied when standing, lunging, sitting, or laying down. Also, if you compete in a one-sided twisting sport, you have the option of using the 2-to-1 ratio technique: for every twist you do in the direction used in your sport, do two twists the other way.
Learn the basics of twists while getting a pretty great workout in this class:
Often a forgotten category of spinal movement, side bends are a hidden gem that I always make sure to include in my sequences.
Backbends, forward bends, and twists are somewhat obvious and familiar, but when you get into a nice side bend don’t be surprised if you don’t want to come out of it (but do, please).
You can also add a slight rotation to the spine that turns the chest upward, which brings an expansive feeling through the whole body and feels just a little more complete than a pure bend to the side.
As mentioned before, we want to have a regular practice of complete movements in the spine, and that includes side bending!
Try this class to round off your spinal movement practice:
Remember earlier when I was talking about how tight hip flexors can lead to lower back pain? Lunges are the solution to that.
When you lunge properly, you remove any excess bending in the lower back and bring most of the stretch into the front of the hip, elongating the hip flexors to a more balanced state.
Lunges are also key in counteracting another cause of tight hip flexors: sitting.
When we sit, our hip flexors are in a state of mild contraction. Sitting every day for long periods of time makes shifts this “mild” contraction into a pretty intense contraction.
Give this class a shot if you’re a chronic sitter or runner:
In yoga, before any movement, the spine should be a tall and long as possible, creating space between each VERTEBRAE.
By learning to extend first, you’re essentially creating space between all of the mechanical and SOFT TISSUE areas of the spine. Slowly, this becomes part of your subconscious, not only in yoga, but in everyday life when you’re sitting or walking.
The benefit is reducing the likelihood of bones or SOFT TISSUE colliding with or running against each other.
Making this part of your subconscious means you’re protecting your spine even when you’re not thinking about it. It brings a chain reaction to the decisions you make with your body and, ultimately, trains you to always keep good posture.
Spinal lengthening is a major principle in a yoga practice. Start ingraining it into your subconscious with this 30-minute class:
It’s been a roller coaster ride, but you made it.
First, you grinded through some anatomy. Next, you got thoroughly freaked out with some of the potential causes of back pain. And finally, you learned how yoga can help protect your back from future pain.
The spine is a truly special place that I feel like we don’t pay enough attention to. The brain literally tells the body what to do through it and almost every part of the body connect to it in some way. That’s a pretty big deal in my eyes.
Because of that, every movement we take (or don’t take) is contributing to the quality of back health we’re going to experience in sport and throughout life.
If you take anything away from this article, just remember that you need to have a regular practice of complete and balanced spinal movement., that regularly moves your spine in all directions.
I’m still not a doctor, but I’ve gathered from listening to a lot of doctors that if you can keep the spine active, you’re most likely going to stay clear of the tweaks and nagging back injuries that will keep others sidelined.
From my non-doctor perspective, I’d say yoga is a great place to start.