I hear this question a lot as a physiotherapist. The people who ask me this question range from the skeptical gym rat to the seasoned yoga enthusiasts.
Generally speaking, my answer is yes!
In a 2016 review, yoga was found to be effective in reducing pain and disability, can be performed safely and may improve psychological symptoms. There is an increasing number of spinal problems now that we are tied to our phones and computers. In a 2006 review, the total costs for low back pain in the United States exceeded 100 billion dollars!
As someone whose job it is to improve body mechanics, I believe that yoga can be a positive practice – provided that practitioners know their body’s strengths and weaknesses.
Here are the top three reasons why yoga can be great for your back.
Yoga improves your flexibility and mobility
Moving your whole body in all directions is essential in keeping your joints, muscles and nerves healthy. Learning where you are hypo-mobile (not very mobile) in your body can help you focus your yoga practice on improving your stiff spots. For example, a common stiff area is the thoracic spine, or mid-back. If you are stiff in your mid back, contracting your core more actively in a downward dog can help stiffen your low back and improve your mid back extension.
However, one potential drawback to yoga is that overzealous stretching can lead to injury. If you are already very mobile in an area, pushing further into your range of motion may not be functional or healthy. You can avoid this problem by differentiating where you are “hypermobile” versus where you are “lax”. Hypermobility is movement with control; laxity is movement without control. An example of laxity is a hyperextending knee (hyperextension may show up in standing poses, like triangle or pyramid). For those who are not aware of their own laxity, they might be tempted to push the joint past an optimal range of movement.
One easy way to know you are making already lax joints more lax is listen to your body. When you are pushing past your body’s limits, you may get a range of abnormal sensations like pain, pins and needles, or a sense of apprehension. These warning signs come when a joint is being pushed to the brink of damage or dislocation. Yoga is supposed to feel good. Trust your body’s sensations!
Yoga makes your core stronger
Yoga is a great way to explore different movement combinations. For example, learning to maintain control of your pelvis while moving deep into a lunge is can create flexibility and fortify your core at the same time. Interestingly, strengthening your core can actually help reduce muscular tightness in another area. For example, working on stretching your hip flexors (the muscles that cross the front of the hip) can feel like an endless task. However, strengthening your abdominal wall with a neutral pelvis can actually help relax your hip flexors, thereby leading a stronger and more efficient body.
Breathing can also help you to strengthen your core. The diaphragm, your primary breathing muscle, is actually an intrinsic core muscle. Yoga’s focus on continuing to breath while you do movement can help you to strengthen your core complex. When you contract the pelvic floor while maintaining a flow of breath, the stabilizing muscles of your low back automatically fire. This combination of engagement can lead to gains in all aspects of your body.
Yoga helps control muscle tension
It’s very common to hear that we hold tension in our body. It’s important to differentiate the words “tight” and “tense.” Being tight is a physical state of muscle shortening. However, being tense is actually a behaviour. Often stretching a tense muscle leads to no real gains and sometimes can lead to further tightening. Getting into the proper mindset of being present, breathing full breaths, and clearing your mind of distractions are all helpful in solving tension issues. One of my greatest lessons from yoga is being told that Savasana is the hardest pose in yoga! Simplifying all your thoughts to just yoga while you’re on a mat is hard. Yet letting go of distracting thoughts is essential when trying to relief muscle tension. All the more reason to consider the state of your mind and your focus the next time you are working through a stretch.
Yoga can undoubtedly be great tool to improve the health of your back. But like any other form of exercise, it’s important to know your body well enough so that you can work effectively and avoid injuries. A balance of challenging your flexibility and strength limits with listening to your body’s signals can lead to amazing results.