I am in my mid forties and can spend large parts of my working day sitting at desk looking at computer. Additionally I have a history of lower back pain so it is not uncommon to experience tightness or more in my back. It is easy for these issues to stop me from getting in my daily movement. Fortunately I can still enjoy a good yoga session as there are many modifications I can make.
Yoga modifications for lower back pain include bending your knees in forward-bends, keeping your back lengthened and in a neutral position. Additionally utilising blocks or blankets for support. In twists, you want to make sure you don't go as deep as possible or avoid them altogether.
While there are plenty of modifications you can make, you also want to avoid anything that can make your pain even worse. In this article I highlight specific yoga poses to avoid if you experience lower back pain. Also ways you can modify different yoga poses so they don't hurt and what types of yoga poses are safe to do.
Different Types of Modifications
Depending on what type of pose you are doing, there will be different things you should take into consideration. This ensures that you don't feel any pain or discomfort in your lower back throughout your practice. Below we have outlined the different types of poses that you can modify and how to modify them.
Forward Bend Modifications
The key to modifying any pose that includes a bend while considering any lower back issues or pain is to bend your knees. By bending your knees, you will be stopping the back from lengthening to the point that causes pain. This is especially true if you have short hamstrings. This allows less stress and strain to be put on your lower back.
Poses that you can bend your knees instead of keeping them straight include:
- Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
- Standing Half Forward Bend (Ardha Uttanasana)
- Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)
- Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend (Upavistha Konasana)
You also want to make sure that while you do the poses above, you are also keeping your knees bent slightly while transitioning between poses. This also ensures you don't stress your back out in between the poses. Another tip is to place a rolled blanket or blocks under your knees to provide extra support for your back.
Backward Bend Modifications
While doing any backbend, you want to make sure that you never collapse your lumbar joint, which is the joint within your lower back. To do this, you have to focus on keeping your lower back long and essentially as straight as possible.
While you may be used to collapsing your lower back joint while you do backbends, you should practice backbends with a long lower back. This will also help you sink into your true full range of motion.
Be careful, though, as if you over-activate your glute muscles or push your hips forward in an attempt to lengthen your lower back, you could still feel pain in your lower back. The key is to use your body's front and bring your pubic bone in towards your belly button. This will help keep space in your lower back and avoid any pain at the moment or in the future.
While you may think you need to avoid twists of any kind, you actually can still keep some twists in your yoga session. Just don't twist as far or as deep as you normally do. During a twist, you are going to be twisting your upper body in the opposite direction than your hips. Consequently your inter-vertebral discs will be under multi-directional forces. If you twist too far, you will be forcing this to happen, resulting in aggravating your lower back.
So, complete all of your twists very slowly, and the second you begin to feel any strain or discomfort, it is best to stop or move back slightly. Some of these poses include:
- Revolved Side Angle Pose (Parivrtta Parsvakonasana)
- Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana)
- Side Crane Pose (Parsva Bakasana)
- Revolved Abdomen Pose (Jathara Parivartanasana)
However, when it comes to twists, you should always pay attention to if they begin to feel painful or uncomfortable. Some people may be able to do some form of twists with lower back pain, while others should avoid them altogether.
Another kind of modification you can do is for poses such as Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana). Here you lay on your stomach, lifting yourself with your hands with your pelvic bone and legs rested on the ground. However, this pose tends to compress the lower back and can leave you feeling some pain.
A great way to combat this is to opt for the Sphinx Pose instead. You lift yourself only onto your forearms, with your elbows directly under your shoulders. This helps stabilise your lower back while the spine stretches. However, you should be cautious if you have bad lower back pain, as this still requires some form of stretching your lower back.
Blocks for Modifications
As we mentioned previously, using yoga blocks can be a great thing to have when trying to make any yoga pose just a little bit easier and help improve your alignment. Some of the many ways that yoga blocks can be used, include:
Between your back and the floor
If you attempt a bridge pose, placing the block underneath your upper back can help relieve some of the pressure that gets placed on your back.
Between your hand and the floor
When you do any pose that requires you to stretch your back and place your hands on the ground, using a block in your hand to help you reach a floor is a great option. This can help you in poses such as a triangle pose or a forward bend so you can avoid overstretching your back.
Between your glutes and the floor
Another way to use the block during a bridge pose is to place it under your glutes. It will provide more support to your back as you don't need to use as much of your back to keep your lower back elevated off the ground.
Between your knees and the floor
In poses that require you to be in a seated position, placing blocks under your knees can add some extra support.
Yoga Props for Modifications
If you don't have yoga blocks, you can also opt to fold or roll blankets as they are thick enough. Or you can use pillows or couch cushions. Whichever prop you use can help you modify more yoga poses in a way that helps you prevent or relieve any lower back pain you have.
You can also use yoga straps. I use straps in poses that require me to stretch my legs without stretching my back too much.
Yoga Poses You Should Avoid
Although yoga can help you with pain or tension in your body, lower back pain, or any back pain, for that matter, it is a different story. To ensure you don't trigger it or make it any worse, there are some poses you are going to want to steer clear of. If you are going to a yoga class, letting your yoga teacher know about your pain can help them make sure they guide you through modifications or tell you what poses to avoid.
There are six poses that you should avoid if you have lower back pain or ones that you should consider modifying if you think you can do it.
Camel pose helps to stretch the front of your body, including your chest and abdominal muscles. Unfortunately it can put a lot of unnecessary pressure onto your lower back. Since this pose requires you to bend your back quite a bit, avoiding it altogether may be best, especially if you have disk issues.
Full Wheel Pose
The full wheel pose is reserved for intermediate or advanced yogis, as it requires a lot of flexibility and strength in your back. Nonetheless, it is best to avoid this one if you are experiencing lower back pain as it requires a lot of pressure to be placed on your back. So, save this pose for when you have no back pain, and you have achieved some level of flexibility in your back.
If you want to try a similar pose, a bridge pose or half wheel is a better option and requires less of a bend from the back.
While the floor bow can provide quite a stretch to your lower back, it is definitely one you will want to avoid. If performed incorrectly you can easily aggravate any lower back pain. If you still want a pose that gives some stretch to your back, opt for the sphinx pose instead.
While you may be able to do this pose even if you are experiencing lower back pain, it requires you to tilt your lower back to a certain degree that can cause tension for some people. This is especially true if you have weak abdominal muscles. In this case you will rely more on your back to keep you seated upward instead of rolling onto your back.
If you want to modify this pose, you can place a block or a blanket behind your lower back and tuck your pelvis in. However, you should do so with caution and stop if it begins to hurt or feel uncomfortable.
This pose requires you to put a lot of pressure on your neck and spine and is not good if you have any back pain. If you are new to this pose, waiting until your back pain resides would be smart. Since if you have weak abdominal muscles or tight shoulders, you will put way too much pressure on your lower back and strain your cervical spine in the process.
Seated Forward Fold
While this is a simple pose, it can be extremely problematic for people who have bad lower back problems or disk issues. Since you will be bending your spine into a rounded position when you fold over, you can risk pinching nerves and aggravating your lower back. Instead of doing a seated forward fold, opt for a standing one with the modifications mentioned above.
Yoga Poses You Still Can Do
Since yoga can serve as a great way to stretch out parts of your body, it can be beneficial to continue doing it from time to time to help lessen your back pain. However, you should always stop doing any pose or modify it if you feel uncomfortable or consult a doctor to ensure you are safe to continue yoga.
Here is a list of some of the poses that can actually help your back pain, keep in mind to not overdo it, though, as overstretching can harm your back more.
This pose gives your back a gentle stretch that helps move your spine. It can loosen any tension that may have built up. It also helps stretch your shoulders, neck, and torso.
This most traditional pose is rejuvenating and can help you improve strength throughout most of your body. Also, giving your back a nice stretch. Although remember to keep your spine as long and straight as possible in this pose, if you need to bend your knees, then do so.
This pose may only work for some people, so try this one slowly. If it works for you, it can help stretch your hips, groin, and spine.
This pose is great for a gentle stretch in your spine, glutes, abdomen, shoulders, and chest. For this pose, remember to lift with your spine and not collapse your lower back, or it may cause pain.
This gentle backbend can provide you with a much-needed stretch. If needed, utilise blocks or a blanket under your upper back or glutes if you find too much pressure is allocated to your lower back.
This relaxing pose is a great way to relieve tension in your neck and your back. It also stretches your hips, ankles, and thighs and is great to add between poses. Remember when doing it, though, to keep your spine neutral and not allow it to sit in a rounded position.
You now know that there are still plenty of yoga poses that you can do while trying to avoid aggravating your lower back or causing pain. So, while you may be tempted to avoid yoga altogether if you have back pain or disk issues, there remains plenty of poses you can work into your yoga practice. It can also help alleviate your lower back pain. I found this article that highlights research showing how yoga eases moderate to severe chronic low back pain.
Listen to Your Body
One of the most important things to take note of throughout your practice is any pain you feel. While the practice of yoga will push you beyond your comfort zone and feeling a certain level of pain is normal to build strength and flexibility, knowing when the pain is bad is important.
Additionally, with everyone's body reacting differently to different poses, this is even more important. Some of the modifications we suggest may still cause some pain, especially if you have problem areas in addition to your lower back. So, take note of these few signs that the pain you are feeling is bad and that you should reconsider your positioning or skip the pose altogether:
- Sharp or stabbing pain.
- Pain felt in your joints, not in your muscles.
- Consolidated and intense pain that is one specific spot (good pain will be spread out in a line).
- Sudden pain.
If any of this occurs, you will want to either be more gentle with yourself and modify what you are doing. Finally consider skipping the pose if possible to avoid serious injury.
Note: If you feel one of the pains that we listed above consistently, and it does not go away, talk to a healthcare practitioner before continuing with any intense exercises.
If you experience lower back pain during yoga, or at all, you can still keep the practice of yoga in your routine. As long as you are careful to avoid poses such as ones that require you to round your back or put too much pressure on it. Also make modifications when necessary, such as placing blocks under your knees or your back.
Yoga can be a great way to help reduce back pain. So, don't count it out quite yet, as it is a great form of movement to keep in your daily or weekly routine.