Tips for Using Yoga to Treat Common Back Issues

Zaeem Zaidi, yoga therapist and instructor at MyYogaTeacher, discusses two common conditions he sees in people in their 20s-30s and 30s-40s, and recommends ways to incorporate yoga, in combination with conventional therapies, to treat these conditions. “Yoga is helpful in managing back pain when done in combination with other conventional treatments," he says. "My best recommendation is always to keep up a regular yoga practice with a knowledgeable instructor. This will help you gain strength in the right areas, and enhance the blood flow around degenerated discs and joints. The more your blood flows, the higher are the chances of regeneration.”

20s and 30s

Degenerative disc disease (DDD), a common cause of back pain for many, can start early, according to Zaidi. The discs that cushion the vertebrae start to dry out, in some cases in your 20s, more often by your 30s. Normal wear and tear, as well as injuries, can further disc deterioration. The severity and acceleration of disc breakdown depends on the individual, and also affects each person differently. Some may have mild discomfort, while others experience severe, intense pain. It is important to understand the spine's structure and curvatures, first. The regions of your spine are as follows: back of the neck (cervical region); mid-back (thoracic region); lower back (lumbar region); the sacrum, plus coccyx, also known as the tailbone, is located at the bottom of the spine. The most common places disc deterioration occurs are the cervical and lumbar spinal areas. While most experience back pain at first, the pain in some cases may spread to surrounding areas, like the glutes and thighs, because disc compression can also impact spinal nerves.

Signs of DDD range from minor to severe, and may include chronic neck ache; constant stiff back; limited spinal range of motion; sensation that the back has "seized" or "locked up"; and, in severe situations, a feeling of leg or foot weakness. Minor symptoms of DDD can be treated with therapies like applying an ice pack, massage, stretching, and yoga. 

Zaidi recommends regular practice of yoga asanas such as:

  1. Upward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana: The upward facing dog pose rejuvenates the spine and is especially recommended for people suffering from stiff back. The movement is suitable for persons with lumbago, sciatica, and those suffering from slipped or prolapsed discs of the spine. The pose strengthens the spine and cures backaches.

  2. Cat and Cow Stretch or Marjariasana: Multiple studies have shown that flexing and extending the spine in cat and cow pose helps increase spine flexibility, reduce inflammation, and relieve back pain. 

  3. Child's Pose or Balasana: Child's pose helps to relieve back strain. When performed with the head and body supported, it lengthens and stretches the spine and improves neck and lower back discomfort. It extends the hips, thighs, and ankles softly. It has shown a significant improvement in chronic back pain in previous research. 

30s, 40s, and above

A common condition affecting people in their 30s, 40s, and above is ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a type of chronic inflammatory rheumatic arthritis that targets the spine and sacroiliac joints, causing inflammatory back pain. Symptoms include: chronic pain; stiffness in the lower back and hips, especially during the morning hours and after periods of inactivity; and ongoing neck pain and exhaustion. Plus, symptoms may intensify, improve, or stop, without warning.

Zaidi believes yoga can help improve range of motion, physical function, and reduce inflammation. He recommends some yoga poses such as:

1. Neck movement (front-back-side bending, twisting, and rotation): Neck movement aids in restoring and maintaining neck muscle and spinal cord flexibility, which increases range of motion, improves blood flow, and reduces inflammation, which is beneficial in treating AS pain.

2. Warrior Pose or Virabhadrasana I and II: The warrior pose improves one's bearing and carriage in all of its variations. In addition, with the weight on the heels, it helps to improve posture and spinal suppleness. Furthermore, previous research discussed in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga reveals how Virabhadrasana can improve chronic back pain. 

3. Triangle Pose or Trikonasana: Triangle pose cures backaches and neck sprains by toning the leg muscles and removing stiffness in the legs and hips.