Yoga Moves for Back Pain?

Is yoga good for back pain?

The short answer to this ques­tion is yes.

Feel free to stop read­ing right here, because, unfor­tu­nate­ly, the longer answer is more nuanced.

That’s because each per­son with back pain is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from any oth­er. And every yoga teacher or class is dif­fer­ent. What that means is that there’s no uni­ver­sal answer about yoga and back pain. It all depends.

What I believe is that any type of move­ment you do that you’re pay­ing atten­tion to is almost invari­ably ben­e­fi­cial. Yoga, when it’s prop­er­ly taught, is a prime exam­ple of this atti­tude toward move­ment. Your atten­tion is focused on your body’s expe­ri­ence as you’re mov­ing.

If you engage in yoga (or any move­ment expe­ri­ence) with this atti­tude, you prac­ti­cal­ly can’t go wrong. If you’re pay­ing atten­tion to your own bod­i­ly expe­ri­ence, it’s much hard­er to do your­self harm.

It’s not impos­si­ble to mess your­self up, though, so I’ve list­ed a few pre­cau­tions lat­er in this arti­cle.

Favorable research results on yoga postures for back pain

A research study from the Annals of Inter­nal Med­i­cine in Decem­ber, 2005 showed how effec­tive yoga could be for back pain patients. The researchers enrolled one third of the patients in yoga class­es (viniyo­ga). A sec­ond group was enrolled in “stan­dard phys­i­cal ther­a­py” exer­cise class­es for back pain, and a third group was hand­ed a book on low back self care.

The group tak­ing yoga fared bet­ter than the oth­er two groups.

Here are my rec­om­men­da­tions:

  • If you have back pain, con­sid­er find­ing a top notch yoga teacher in your area.
  • Take a pri­vate les­son or two to acquaint your­self with the teacher’s approach and to give her or him a chance to under­stand your body and its lim­i­ta­tions too.
  • Your teacher can then sug­gest a class that will be appro­pri­ate for your spine and your lev­el of yoga expe­ri­ence.

Potential injury precautions

In 2009, the Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Yoga Ther­a­py pub­lished the results of a yoga-teacher sur­vey about yoga-relat­ed injuries. Though the injury rate from yoga was quite low, low back injuries were among the most com­mon types of injury.

Yoga teach­ers felt that some of the most impor­tant con­trib­u­tors to injury were:

• Overzeal­ous, too-intense prac­tice
• Poor body align­ment
• Improp­er or insuf­fi­cient instruc­tion

Low back injuries in par­tic­u­lar were asso­ci­at­ed with for­ward bend­ing pos­es, espe­cial­ly pos­es that com­bined for­ward-bend­ing with rota­tion.

My recommendations:

These are based on my own expe­ri­ences with patients, my under­stand­ing of body mechan­ics, and my bias­es.

  • Don’t work too hard to try to achieve an exter­nal stan­dard of achieve­ment. Pay atten­tion to your own body, accept its lim­i­ta­tions, and expe­ri­ence the chal­lenges of each pose as it relates to you. A good teacher will rein­force this appro­pri­ate atti­tude.
  • Pos­es that involve repeat­ed or pro­longed for­ward bend­ing can put a strain on the inter­ver­te­bral disks. If your low back is aching, don’t assume that stretch­ing it will help. That can back­fire.
  • A lot of yoga class­es empha­size repeat­ed­ly assum­ing a down­ward dog pos­ture. That’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a prob­lem (some of my best friends are down­ward-fac­ing dogs.) But sup­port­ing your body weight on your hands can place a strain on your wrists. Pay atten­tion.
  • I’ve seen some yoga class­es in which there was an undue empha­sis on pulling your shoul­der blades back as if they could touch togeth­er behind you. I sup­pose this con­sti­tutes a well-mean­ing attempt to com­pen­sate for poor pos­ture. But in my opin­ion it’s the wrong way to go about it.
  • I’m not keen on bikram yoga, or oth­er yoga class­es taught in a heat­ed room. Maybe if you’re under thir­ty.
  • Every good yoga teacher should have the capac­i­ty to accom­mo­date to an indi­vid­ual student’s lim­i­ta­tions on the fly. This could mean pro­vid­ing appro­pri­ate props or sup­ports, giv­ing indi­vid­u­al­ized instruc­tion on a par­tic­u­lar pose, or sug­gest­ing alter­na­tive pos­es.

The core prin­ci­ples of yoga — bal­ance, core sup­port, spinal flex­i­bil­i­ty, strength, relax­ation, and body aware­ness — are all valu­able goals for any­one seek­ing relief from low back pain and a health­i­er life.  Yoga class­es can be a key part of your path­way to improved health.


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About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website,, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.

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