Performing yoga postures can help ease lower back pain.
By Mark E. Liskey
According to the American Pain Foundation, more than 26 million Americans between the ages of 26 and 64 experience frequent back pain. Couple a sensitive back with a day seated in a motorhome, and back pain can really prevent you from enjoying your travels.
People try to eliminate the problem with pain relievers, acupuncture, and even surgery. Another way might be to try yoga. A 2005 study conducted by Dr. Karen J. Sherman at the Group Health Cooperative of Seattle concluded that gentle yoga is an effective treatment for chronic lower-back pain. In addition, this study suggested that one needn’t be a yogi, a master practitioner of yoga, to experience these positive lower-back benefits “” the test participants had never done yoga before. And unlike other forms of exercise, such as resistance training, which is often done in a gym, yoga requires no equipment and can be done practically anywhere. These characteristics make gentle yoga an ideal exercise for travelers with lower-back pain.
Before starting a yoga program, be evaluated by a doctor to rule out conditions more serious than tight muscles, such as a muscle tear, a vertebral fracture due to osteoporosis, or spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal). A bladder infection, kidney stone, or an ovarian cyst can be the genesis for back pain, too. Once cleared by a physician to exercise, you’re ready to unfurl the sticky mat.
In Sherman’s study, chronic lower-back pain sufferers were divided into three groups: one did gentle yoga (Viniyoga), another did physical therapy exercises, and a third were sent a back-care book (via the mail) to read. Between the last yoga class at 12 weeks and the follow-up evaluation at week 26, the yoga group continued to show a lessening of back pain, while the exercise and book groups started to show an increase in pain. In addition, only 21 percent of the yoga group reported using pain medication at week 26, compared to 50 percent in the exercise group and 59 percent in the book group.
Outside the experimental setting, in the real world, the positive effects from learning yoga by reading an article will not be as robust. However, Paul Dunn, functional anatomist and yoga coach for Drexel University’s crew team, suggests that if beginners with lower-back pain go slowly and stay focused on what they are doing, they will start to make safe, incremental gains. In light of his advice, here are five postures and/or exercises based on the most consistently utilized postures in Sherman’s study. Note: Yoga is ideal for tight quarters, so it’s no excuse to upgrade your motorhome.
Though some studies have found that yoga increases hip flexion and spinal muscle flexibility, Sherman’s research team postulated that “the mental focus induced by yoga could also help people to increase their awareness of how they had been moving and positioning their body in maladaptive ways, to relax tense muscles, and to relieve mental stress, as was anecdotally reported by our yoga participants.” The study goes on to say that the mental focus demanded by yogic breathing may act as the connective vehicle between body and mind that is, in part, responsible for the psycho/physical benefits of yoga.
The mental focus garnered from the practice of yoga in general may help in reducing the 50-something spare tire. In a 2005 study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a weight gain study found that overweight participants who did yoga regularly (at least 30 minutes once a week for four or more years) lost on average 5 pounds, while those not practicing yoga gained about 14. The study followed the weight history of 15,500 people for 10 years, from the time the participants were 45 to when they were 55. Alan Kristal, a coauthor of the study, speculates that the reason those who practiced yoga lost weight was not because yoga burns a lot of calories, but rather that yoga is a process in which the participants become more aware of their bodies, which results in better food choices.
1. Belly breathing: Sit cross-legged on the floor, with back straight, and hands on inner knees. If this position is uncomfortable, straighten your legs out in front and sit on the edge of a rolled towel (this helps one to sit up straight). Focus on an object (e.g., doorknob) straight ahead while breathing in through the nose to the count of four. Picture your breath going down into your belly to ensure the full expansion of your lungs. Pause, then breathe out of your nose to the count of four. Repeat until you’re relaxed.
2. Modified cobra posture: Gentle yoga implies that a posture should conform to the person’s body rather than a person conforming his or her body to an ideal posture. With this in mind, and as is true of any exercise, a yoga posture should not be performed if it is causing pain. The modified cobra is designed to promote flexibility in the spine without compromising the lower back.
Lie face down with your hands directly under your shoulders. Inhale, then exhale while gently raising your torso to midchest level. Elbows should remain bent and stomach should remain on the floor. Inhale, and on the exhale return to the starting position. Repeat three to six times, making sure to coordinate your breath with the movements.
3. Knees-to-chest posture: Though simple, this movement has a very relaxing effect on the back.
Lie face up with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Inhale, then exhale, bringing both thighs toward your chest with your hands around or resting on your knees. Try drawing in your navel toward the floor to ensure that your hips are kept down on the mat and your back stays flat. Inhale, then exhale while lowering your legs to the knees-bent starting position. Repeat this movement three to six times.
4. On-all-fours postures: These postures work on spinal flexibility and promote muscle relaxation.
Start on all fours, hips over knees, shoulders over wrists. Your back should be straight, like a tabletop. Inhale, then exhale as your head lifts up, back arches down, and shoulder blades pull in and down toward buttocks. Pause, inhale, and exhale while sitting back toward your heels, keeping your back straight. Hands should remain where they are and legs should open slightly to accommodate buttocks. Imagine pulleys attached to one’s head and tailbone. The back should feel like it’s elongating. Inhale, then exhale and return to the starting position. Repeat three to six times.
5. Deep relaxation: Unlocking the parasympathetic (relaxation) system of the body is the key to muscle happiness. So, try the corpse pose.
Lie comfortably face up, palms up, and feet separated. Put a bolster (a rolled-up towel) underneath your knees if position is uncomfortable on the lower back. Close your eyes and roll your head side to side to release tension in neck. Let shoulders sink toward buttocks and relax entire body. Breathe normally and stay in position for at least a minute. Roll over to one side, and slowly return to a sitting position.
Taking yoga classes or private yoga lessons taught by an instructor who is knowledgeable about musculoskeletal pain disorders, as in the study, would be the most effective way to learn yoga exercises for lower-back pain. An instructor could provide feedback and identify when poses are being executed incorrectly. But classes are not always an option when back tightness occurs. In that case, stomach breathing and a few gentle postures may just do the trick.