Yoga For Back Pain

KraftsowThis article adapted from Gary Kraftsow’s Yoga For Wellness manual explains the science and methodology behind using Viniyoga and Yoga therapy to relieve back pain. A double blind study published in the December 2005 edition of the Annals Of Internal Medicine showed that 3 months of a specifically designed Yoga practice gave significant relief to subjects suffering chronic back pain. Gary Kraftsow designed the Viniyoga sequence in that study. This is the first in a series of articles from Gary on the science of using Yoga to relieve back pain…

Many people suffer from tension and pain in the back.These conditions are variable and relate to the condition of the curves in your spine and the muscles supporting your spine.There are many kinds of back pain.  Examples include mild to severe pain in your upper back (your thoracic spine) and mild to severe pain in your lower back (your lumbar spine).You might also suffer mild to severe rigidity and restricted movement in either or both your upper and lower back.

Yoga For Back Pain – A Warning

As with neck and shoulder conditions it’s important to assess the cause of your back pain. First we want to find out if there is serious damage to any of the discs in your spine (your intervetebral discs). If there is damage to these discs you’ll usually have numbness or tingling sensations in your legs and feet or sharp, electric immobilizing pains in your back. If you have any of these symptoms you should seek out professional diagnosis. While Yoga therapy can assist in the healing process for damaged discs the wrong practice could worsen your condition.

Working with tension, restricted movement and chronic pain in yoga therapy there are 3 main factors to consider.

1. Musculoskeletal Condition…

Your musculoskeletal condition put simply is the state of your spine and the muscles supporting your spine.

Examples of musculoskeletal conditions that contribute to your back pain include excessive curvature of the upper back or kyphosis.


This excessive upper back curvature can result in an inward collapse of your chest (hunched or a “hunchback” look in more common language).

There could also be a decreased curvature of the lower back causing it to flatten resulting in “military spine”.

Another common condition is lordosis or excessive curvature of the lower back.

lordosisbackpainThis can cause compression in the rear of the discs in your back (your intervetebral discs).

Finally scoliosis or a decreased curvature in your lower back can cause your back to flatten out.

This can cause compression in the forward part of the your intervetebral discs.




Scoliosis can also result in “lateral displacement” in your upper and lower back.  In simple language lateral displacement is where your spine curves sideways unnaturally.

All of these musculoskeletal conditions are related to corresponding muscular imbalances, chronic muscular contractions and/or muscular weakness.

You can be born with a back condition or you can acquire it.

Often your tendancy towards a particular curvature in your spine is established early in your life when your body is still growing.

Then this condition is exaggerated by repetitive activity.

As an example excessive rounding of the upper back (kyphosis) can be increased by any activity that requires long hours of bending forward.

Desk work in an office, driving a taxi or working as a dental hygienist could all increase that rounding worsening your condition.

2. Neuromuscular Patterns…

The second factor that profoundly affects the way we work with back pain is the neuromuscular patterns that condition your movements.

In simple terms your muscles are trained over time to move in certain ways and often these movements aggravate and perpetuate your back condition.

Retraining new and more structurally beneficial movements is one of the goals of our viniyoga practice for back pain.

3. The Biomechanical Relationship Between Your Spinal Curves…

Finally we need to consider the biomechanical relationship that exists between your main spinal curves.

The conditions in your upper and lower back are connected.

When one spinal curve increases the other will usually increase to compensate – worsening the condition of your back and your back pain.

Let me give you an example…

A woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy might have increased curvature in her lower back and her hips pushed forward.

This creates the dual condition of lumbar lordosis and sway back – both of which will push her body weight forward.

To stop her falling forward our pregnant woman body compensates by increasing the curvature in her upper back which moves some of her body weight backward.

In a similar way your muscles will contract to support any part of your body that is out of vertical alignment.

Over time this can cause muscle fatigue, soreness and muscles strengthened and trained in ways that worsen the back condition (negative neuromuscular conditioning).

Yoga For Back Pain Exercise…

You can observe your body’s natural tendency to compensate for poor spinal posture with this simple back pain exercise.

From a standing position hold a plastic water bottle in your hands.

Try raising your arms forward and up halfway until they are parallel to the ground.

You will notice a slight backward displacement of your shoulders.

After a short while as you hold this position you’ll also notice muscle tension in your shoulders and upper back.

This is because you body is changing its posture or “compensating” to maintain its balance while holding this position.

And this compensation requires the contraction of the muscles in your shoulders and upper back.

Source: Written by Gary Kraftsow and adapted From Yoga For Wellness © Gary Kraftsow 1999-2006 All rights reserved

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