Can Yoga Really Help Back Pain?

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As a specialized yoga teacher and yoga therapist, my job is to help people heal themselves through the art and science of yoga. This includes postures, breathing, emotional support and stress reduction. I have witnessed miracles on the mat and in the classroom. The successes I have seen are not unusual. Teachers of yoga of any style see their students’ lives improve on every level with disciplined practice.

Thankfully, many studies supporting yoga’s efficacy are springing up on a regular basis. Dr. Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonsall are researching sciatica, osteoarthritis and back pain. Their studies are ongoing and very motivating. See my previous osteoarthritis post for more info.

Back pain is no longer for just the over 50 set. I often see younger students  nearly crippled by poor office ergonomics and bad exercise habits. Often these are weekend warriors who spend the other 70 hours a week chained to their desks and cell phones. Back pain is the No. 2 stay-at-home issue for workers after the common cold.

Raymond’s back pain

Raymond (not his real name) is a 29-year-old Internet executive and an avid weekend snowboarder. He flies internationally and sits through dozens of daily meetings. When I met him, he’d had back pain since graduating college. His back can seize up anywhere along his 24 precious vertebrae, but most often clinches in the lower back by mid-day.

His spasm can quickly spiral into debilitation as the spastic back muscles tighten, interfering with the proper function of the breathing muscles. When a body doesn’t breathe well, it stifles the body’s healing responses. The stress of the pain and the poor breathing is a loop that leads to even more stress, muscular freezing and spasms.

On an even deeper level, when those muscles turn into concrete, they also lock up the membranous dura mater that surrounds the spinal cord, essentially reducing efficient nerve flow to the limbs. This is one of the many reasons why pain in the back grabs our full attention: All of our nerves are recruited to remind the body how much it hurts!

Ray’s back pain persisted daily, but once he found a Yoga Tune Up® class near work, he started using his lunch hour to reset his spinal musculature using a combination of deep core and hip work that reduced the compression on his spine caused from sitting in his office chair.

Ray’s back pain remedy sequence:

Backbend poses such as Setu Bandha Minivini strengthen all his back muscles while simultaneously lubricating the spinal joints with synovial fluid. You can find it as part of this earlier blog post.

Deep abdominal twists like Jithara Parivartonasana (also know as the Revolved Abdominal Pose) strengthen the core muscles, especially the obliques, and wring out stagnancy in the gut. Here’s a video version of Revolved Abdominal Pose.

Lower back lengthening and hamstring stretching poses such as Supta Padangusthasana #3 (also know as Leg Stretch #3) twist his pelvis away from the compressed lumbar spine.

Lastly, the power-building Prasarita Lunges tone his inner and outer thighs and lubricate the hip sockets to improve strength from hips to core.

Ray does not get back pain anymore, and can enjoy his weekend and his week as long as he maintains his yoga practice. If you suffer from back pain, try a few of these poses, and let me know how it works!

Watch our video for lower back pain relief.

Learn about our Therapy Balls Program for your lower back.

Read our “Rebuild Your Foundation with Yoga Tune Up®“article.

[Reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.]

Jill Miller

Jill Miller, C-IAYT, ERYT is the co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and creator of the self-care fitness formats Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method. With more than 30 years of study in anatomy and movement, she is a pioneer in forging relevant links between the worlds of fitness, yoga, massage, athletics and pain management. She is known as the Teacher’s Teacher and has trained thousands of movement educators, clinicians, and manual therapists to incorporate her paradigm shifting self-care fitness programming into athletic and medical facility programs internationally. She has crafted original programs for 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, YogaWorks, and numerous professional sports teams. She and her team of 500+ trainers help you to live better in your body with an emphasis on proprioception, mobility, breath mechanics and recovery. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and International Association of Yoga Therapy conferences. She has the rare ability to translate complex physiological and biomechanical information into accessible, relevant moves that help her students transform pain, dysfunction and injury into robust fitness. Jill is the anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal Magazine and has been featured in Shape, Men’s Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, Yoga Journal, Self, and on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Jill is regularly featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She is the creator of dozens of DVD’s including Treat While You Train with Kelly Starrett DPT and is the author of the internationally bestselling book The Roll Model: A Step by Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Based in Los Angeles, CA, she is a wife and mother of two small children and is currently writing her second book.

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I hadn’t had the experience of trying Leg Stretch #3 on a block until a couple of days ago, but that experience was magical on an SI joint that felt locked up. Love it!

Audrey Snowdon

Having just completed your Yoga Tune Up teacher training program it is great to read your earlier blogs. Ray’s sequence of Setu Bandha Minivini, Revolved Abdominal Pose, Leg Stretch #3, and Prasarita Lunges is great to keep in mind for everyone and especially those students with low back pain. Thank you Jill!

Erika E Belanger

Great article! I’ve always had issues with lower back pain so I can’t wait to try these exercises.
Is the leg stretch#3 a better option than the Happy Baby Mini-Vini for sitting people?

Tracey Arnold

I recently went through a bout of back pain. I believe the injury originated from straining my gluteus medius but the pain radiated into my lower back. Supta Padangusthasana has always been one of my favorite poses. With my injury I had to back off going into it as deeply and used a block under my upper foot for support. I was still able to stretch out my back and it helped to work through the strain in my glute. Seta Bandha Minivini is wonderful for elongating the spine too and helps to strengthen the leg muscles which is turn… Read more »

louis jackson

Curious where you get the statistic that back pain is the second cause of missed work behind the common cold. That is staggering. This is why it is in the best interest of companies to encourage their employees to do yoga: they’ll save money in the long run because the workforce will be more productive. However, not just any yoga, but yoga by skilled teachers who can actually use this art to heal. Nice work Jill. Always in awe. But again, as you always say, you’re just listening to the body. I am a student of the body. 🙂

Caroline M

I found these three simple poses unbelievably helpful as I have been sitting at the computer all day (as many people do) and I found that with my locked up quadratus lumbornum, my entire back hurts just sitting unless I do these stretches. In addition to benefitting from many other YTU poses for my mis-aligned hips (boomerang on floor, boomerang sidebend, and all of the triangle poses) I will not be the first or last to say that YES! yoga can really help back pain. I enjoy a good massage and an occasional visit to the chiropractor but yoga gives… Read more »


!3 years ago I herniated a disc. I went through physical therapy and continued to do recommended exercises. That worked for a few years but the pain increased and I had more physical therapy. Each time I was told to reduce the amount of twisting of my spine. I was warned that the next time my pain increased I would need surgery. I was strongly opposed to surgery since I knew people that had it and still had problems. Five years ago I began to practice yoga. Since I have been doing yoga I have been mostly pain free. I… Read more »

Kyoko Jasper

I used to be a dancer and I once had a flexible spine. But in my late 20’s I had an injury which gradually froze up my lumber spine. Later in my life when I started to practice vigorous vinyasa yoga all these problem started to surface. Now I have a bulging disc on my L5 and I virtually have no arch in my lumber. Some of the yoga practice can trigger a spasm and a sciatic pain. After long journey of searching for the remedy, I found Yoga Tune Up last fall. After taking Jill’s workshop, I knew this… Read more »

T Lyn

Ive been a dancer since I was 7 and a horse rider since 5 and now for the past 10 years Ive been tending bar 3-4 nights a week at some of the busiest bars in Los Angeles. Add to that some serious whiplash from a car accident and I can hardly walk some days. After years of training or forcing my spine into incorrect alignment for the sake of one hobby, art or vocation, my spine has reformed itself into very improper alignment. Its new ‘normal’ is not healthy – Ive seen the x-rays my chiropractor took. After one… Read more »