Yoga can be great for relieving back pain, but practitioners should avoid certain pitfalls

Aug 31 2011
Individuals who start experiencing lower back pain and seek medical help are often advised to try conservative treatments like physical therapy or exercise first.

This is a good initial approach since pharmacological or invasive treatments such as spinal surgery carry a risk of side effects, some of which can be quite serious. In particular, some patients have reported stomach ulcers and bleeding after taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, while individuals who undergo back surgery sometimes develop infections and scarring, in addition to typically lengthy recuperation periods and reduced mobility.

By contrast, exercise - especially low-impact regimens such as yoga - can provide a complications-free solution for aching muscles, while boosting heart health and cognitive clarity.

Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual technique that originated in ancient India, and has enjoyed a revival in the West since the 1980s. Students at all levels have reported lower levels of stress and blood pressure as well as better moods after engaging in the practice. By helping to relax and strengthen muscles and joints, yoga is also a natural ally in the fight against back pain, but some experts say that individuals should keep a few things in mind in order to reap the full benefits of the exercise.

Eva Norlyk Smith, PhD, recently wrote on the website of the Huffington Post that tight hamstrings - a predicament familiar to many beginner-level yoga practitioners - can actually exacerbate lower back pain. She quoted Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and Iyengar yoga teacher, as saying that "tight hamstrings tend to flatten the lower back, causing people to lose the normal curve of the lumbar spine [which is] a big contributor to lower back pain and lower back injuries."

Norlyk Smith warned against a particular approach that individuals with tight hamstrings tend to take in order to compensate for their lack of stretching ability, namely rounding their back while doing a forward bending pose. She said that it only gives an illusion of going deeper into the pose, while in reality it transfers the stretch to the back, which may exacerbate its tightness and in some cases lead to injury.

In order to avoid these problems, and make the most out of yoga, the expert recommended starting by extending the reach of tight hamstrings. To do so, one should lie on the floor, bend the left knee so that the pelvic bone tilts, then put the left foot on the floor. Subsequently one should reach with the right leg towards the ceiling. In this way, the right leg will reach further up than it would without stretching the left leg first. The exercise should be repeated on the other side.

Regarding optimal poses for opening the hamstrings, Norlyk Smith recommends Extended Hand to Foot using the block, and for stretching the inner thighs, a good pose is Supine Bound Angle.

Medical statistics suggest that the vast majority - about 80 percent - of Americans complain about back pain at some point in their lives.