Can Yoga Alleviate Back Pain?

By Laura Spaulding

Whether your back pain is a result of working in the garden or a long-standing condition, yoga exercises taught by a qualified instructor can be of real help.  Yoga exercises, or postures, have evolved over many centuries of practice. The postures have been observed, studied and developed by dedicated practitioners who analyzed their effects on different kinds of people. In some cases, the form or method of performing the postures has been changed to make them more effective at building strength and restoring natural flexibility. An experienced, trained yoga teacher also has the knowledge to modify postures or use props or aids to meet the specific needs of individuals. How does yoga help back pain?


Normal Flexibility

Normal flexibility is sufficient for yoga classes. Extreme flexibility can cause problems, too, such as a tendency to develop arthritis in joints that have become de-stabilized.  Many new yoga students have lost normal flexibility with resulting back pain and dysfunction.  Stiffness can be the result of long periods of inactivity, a chronic illness, being sedentary or working long hours at a desk. Many leisure activities like jogging or biking can also reduce normal flexibility in the hamstrings and hip muscles, causing stiffness in the back.

The good news is that normal flexibility can be restored, and studies have shown that people regain flexibility at the same rate, whether they’re age 16 or 60. Yoga postures gently restore flexibility by returning muscles to their normal length and increasing the range of motion of joints. Yoga postures create beneficial changes in muscle tissues; old injuries gradually improve or disappear completely. Students also learn how to intelligently stretch and move. Movements become easier, more balanced and fluid.


Strength, Resilience and Endurance

While most people associate yoga with flexibility, it also builds strength. Many of the pretzel-like postures we think of as yoga actually require more strength than flexibility. Many postures are isometric exercises in which muscles must be held in contraction to maintain the posture. Other postures require the student to lift his or her own body weight.

Most classes begin with standing postures, which build strength in the major muscle groups in the hips, legs, shoulders and arms.  Beginner classes include these postures everyday to build strength, stability and endurance.  Students gradually develop the ability to hold postures for longer periods with ease and steadiness.


Posture, Alignment and Balance

Experienced, trained teachers are always observing students’ alignment in the postures. If the body is correctly aligned, joints work more efficiently and there is more freedom and joy in the posture. Yoga improves posture through realignment and by enhancing the student’s awareness of how the body is standing, sitting and moving.


Relaxation and Stress Management

One of the most effective and easiest relaxation techniques is to stretch while breathing deeply – yoga!  Deeply held tension has been released by the postures, and during the class the instructor has gently reminded everyone to breathe deeply. I always tell new students, “Just crawl in here and I guarantee you’ll float home!”  All yoga classes end with a deep relaxation period, often guided by the instructor. Most students say this is their favorite part of class.


Total Self Awareness

We often speak of the mind and body as if they were two separate things.  Through yoga we come to understand that they are indeed one. What affects one must affect the other.  Yoga helps us to be more aware of how we feel – mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. We learn to attune to ourselves and our surroundings more quickly and perceptively and make the required adjustments.  As one of my teachers said, “Listen to your body while it’s whispering; don’t wait until it’s yelling.”


Back pain is complicated and can result from different causes: traumatic injury resulting from a fall or auto accident, strain from improper lifting or poor posture and degenerative diseases such as arthritis, just to name a few. Stress-related back pain is also common. When back pain lingers for several days, it’s wise to check with your medical professional to rule out a serious condition. Also check with your medical professional for permission before beginning yoga classes. Advise your yoga teacher of any restrictions at the start of class. In most cases, you can do yoga, and it will help.

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Laura Spaulding began practicing yoga in 1967.  She was authorized in 2004 by K. Pattabhi Jois to teach Ashtanga Yoga and is currently in India studying yoga at the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute.  Laura has a B.A. from the University of the South, Sewanee, and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.  She is a Yoga Alliance E-RYT 500SM  teacher and president of Yoga East, Inc.


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