How to Use Yoga to Radically Transform Your Life by Alleviating Lower Back Pain
A no-nonsense guide to getting serious about feeling better by taking better care of your lower back
Back pain sucks.
I never realized just how much it sucked until I started suffering from debilitating lower back pain in the summer of 2015. It got to the point where I couldn’t stand or walk for longer than three minutes before the pain got so unbearable I could hardly function.
The thing about back pain is that it is very fickle. Fickle in the sense that — at least for me — it came and went. There were some days and weeks where my back felt good and gave me little problems. But on the days that it did, it sucked all pleasure out of life and filled my days with dread and misery.
That’s how it was for a few years.
During that time, I wasted so much money on medicine and chiropractic care that if they had any effect on relieving my lower back pain, it was short-lived, insignificant, or was likely due to the placebo effect.
Something had to change.
That something occurred after I had what I thought was a typical lunch with my then-girlfriend (now fiancée). We were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant when my back started acting up again. This was different, though. The pain was worse than anything I had ever experienced before. It got so bad that I actually began to cry.
To this day, I still feel shame and embarrassment just thinking about how vulnerable and damaged I felt. But something else happened that forever changed my life: I vowed right then and there that I would do whatever it took to heal my bad back.
I realized I had to make a change. Specifically, I had to start treating the underlying disease (my bad back) and not the symptom (back pain).
As soon as we got home from the restaurant, I went straight to my computer to research methods on how to fix a broken back. My search yielded numerous results, but amidst the sea of promotional materials and health bloggers masquerading as physical therapists, something kept popping up that I never previously considered before or even knew much about: yoga.
I spent the next two hours researching anything yoga. I was hooked. After meticulously researching various yoga programs, I purchased DDP Yoga in the latter part of 2017, and I can honestly say it was the best $80 I ever spent. Since becoming a “yogi,” I’ve not had any back issues, and I feel stronger now than ever before.
The effects of yoga on alleviating back pain are grounded in solid scientific research, and my only regret is that it took me so long to begin this incredible journey.
While it may not seem like it now, I know that yoga can do for you what it did for me. It changed my life, and my hope now is to pass along the lessons I learned — and the mistakes I made — that puts you in a good position from which to do the same.
3 Scientifically Proven Reasons Why Yoga Relieves Back Pain
Now that I’ve been pain-free for well over a year, I often wonder why it took me so long to try yoga, given how popular it has become over the last decade. I reached two conclusions: 1) I didn’t think it would provide lasting and significant relief, and; 2) I didn’t understand why it worked.
To help ensure you avoid the same pitfalls — and save time and money in the process — I’ve laid out solid scientific evidence which validates yoga as a tried-and-true method of back pain relief.
Yoga emphasizes three things in particular that makes it great for relieving back pain: deep stretching, diaphragmatic breathing, and improved posture.
Being the gym rat that I am, I always knew the benefits that physical exercise and stretching could have on curbing pain. However, the way I did it didn’t have a significant effect on alleviating my lower back pain. I believe the reason for that was because I didn’t engage in a structured intensive stretching program—I only stretched out the body part I was working out that day. As such, I didn’t get the full effect. But as soon as I started my yoga program and began to perform the various deep stretches that yoga is known for, I started seeing real results.
According to a recent study, yoga exercises and intensive stretching alleviates lower back pain. The study consisted of 228 participants, divided among three groups. Participants of one group participated in a 12-week yoga program, participants in another participated in a 12-week intensive stretching regimen taught by a licensed physical therapist, and participants of the third group each received a self-care book that contained information on what caused back pain and provided instructions on what exercises to do to help alleviate their back pain. The researchers found that the yoga and stretching groups saw greater pain reductions at the 3-month and 6-month mark post-study than the self-care group.
The reason why stretching is effective at providing back pain relief is that stretching relaxes tight muscles and makes you limber, allowing you to engage in a variety of physical activity without causing injury or pain and discomfort. Also, it improves circulation which nourishes the spine.
Research also indicates a strong correlation between core stability, breathing pattern, and lower back pain. If the body does what it’s supposed to do, the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, and key core muscles work together to keep you healthy and pain-free.
Healthy breathing habits decompresses the spine, creates space between ribs to allow the disks to rests where they belong, and helps ensure proper alignment of muscle groups which stabilizes the spine. For the latter point, since our chest rises and falls in conjunction with our breathing, improper breathing causes discord and muscle misalignment, which in turn leads to back issues.
Another study found that patients with lower back pain tend to develop respiratory dysfunction over several years due to the weakness of low back muscles. Weakness of the lower back muscles leaves stale air inside the lungs, which restricts fresh oxygen from entering the body, causing pain and discomfort. While the study found that back pain is what led to the respiratory problems (and not the other way around), the researchers contended that incorporating proper breathing techniques into one’s daily workout regimen would help reverse the effects.
Yoga rehabilitates patients with lower back pain because the poses are carefully crafted to address imbalances in the musculoskeletal system as well as issues with posture. Since a common cause of lower back pain is a misalignment of the spinal column, yoga poses enhance alignment and stability, which reduces pain and discomfort.
Here’s a study that examined 29 yoga postures and their effects on chronic lower back pain. After the 16-week trial, which consisted of the yoga intervention treatment group attending a 1.5-hour long yoga session every week, as well as being encouraged to do yoga on their own for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, the researchers found that pain intensity and discomfort were reduced and the participants’ spinal range of motion increased (which corresponded to a positive change in musculoskeletal alignment).
A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Alleviate Back Pain With Yoga and Change Your Life
It can be intimidating to start a new workout program, especially if you don’t already work out often. It can also be frustrating to navigate the slew of workout programs and weed through all the glitzy claims and false promises to come up with one that works for you. This is why I devised a simple, easy-to-follow guide on how to use yoga to change your life and heal your back.
Step 1: Research and research some more
The best way to find high-quality yoga workout programs is to Google search for them. Try typing into the search box and mixing and matching the following keywords: “yoga,” “workout,” “back pain,” “program,” “online,” “purchase,” “DVD.” Doing so generates a long list of yoga programs from which to choose. I already mentioned that I chose DDP Yoga, but I encourage you to choose one based on your own preferences. That said, I have strong opinions on how to choose a good one.
Take your time deciding which yoga program to purchase — it can be a big investment. Some yoga programs are of higher quality than others or may be more suited for helping you reach your goal sooner, so it cannot be understated how important of a step this is in the process.
In reaching my decision, what helped most was reading reviews and testimonials and even watching several YouTube videos of normal people performing the workouts and sharing their thoughts. Make sure that the people who wrote the reviews and testimonials and who made the videos are not affiliated with the workout program in any way. You cannot trust someone’s review or testimonial of a product or service whose sole purpose is to try to sell you said product or service. For this reason, NEVER rely on reviews or testimonials displayed on the website of the yoga workout you’re interested in purchasing. You can bet there won’t be any less-than-stellar reviews.
You may even be wondering whether it’s necessary to purchase a yoga program at all considering how much free content there is on the internet. The no B.S. answer is, yes.
Free workout programs are generally of lesser quality and they don’t offer the support or structure that I have found to be so important to staying focus and motivated. For example, for an additional monthly fee, the program I purchased allows me to connect with a community of yogis who inspire and motivate me to get the most out of the program and myself. I was also mailed a calendar that mapped out which workout I needed to do on which day, taking the guesswork and confusion out of it. Just remember that there is a reason why free content is free, and you must pay for the good stuff.
Step 2: Purchase necessary equipment and supplies
Once you select and purchase a yoga program, you should have a good idea what kind of equipment and supplies you’ll need to get started. Most paid workout programs will outline exactly what you’ll need or would be useful to have.
Generally, necessary yoga equipment/supplies include:
- Yoga mat
- Yoga pants/attire
- Ample floor space
Optional supplies include:
- Heart rate monitor
- Yoga grip block
- Foam roller
These may change slightly depending on the yoga program you purchased.
Make sure you have everything you’ll need on the day you plan to begin the program. There is nothing more off-putting and less motivating than rescheduling your workout because you don’t have everything you need.
Step 3: Practice and familiarize yourself with traditional yoga poses and techniques
If you’re new to yoga, it would be wise to practice and familiarize yourself with how to execute common yoga poses and exercises. Proper form is everything, so to get the most out of your workout and so you don’t have to waste time repeatedly pausing the video to correct your form, practice some of the more complex yoga poses the night before.
Whenever I purchase a new workout program, I’ll watch the full workout the night before so I know what to expect and to make sure I can do all the exercises correctly (and also, I admit, because I’m excited and curious about the new workout program). If I’m unsure about an exercise or pose, I’ll practice it until I’m comfortable and I have the form down. It would also be beneficial to watch yourself do some of the exercises or yoga poses in front of a mirror, if possible.
To get you started, here are six common yoga poses and how to do them. There are many more, but these are basic ones that you’ll find in most workout programs you can purchase. Having some familiarity with them will help you follow along in any program more confidently.
This pose seems simple, but believe me, there is a lot going on. Mountain pose is a standing pose from which all other yoga poses start. Stand with your feet together and press your toes firmly into the ground. Try to feel the ground beneath your feet and become in tune with what each body part is doing. Your thigh muscles should be firm, and knees slightly bent. Press your shoulder blades into your back and neck, and head should remain still. This pose improves posture which strengthens the back muscles.
Downward Facing Dog
The downward facing dog is the most well-known of all yoga poses. To begin, drop to your hands and knees, and with your hands spread out flat against the yoga mat, start walking toward your feet. This will raise your butt, causing you to look downward. The key is to make sure your back and knees are straight to avoid injury. It’s good for you because it elongates the lower back and takes the pressure off your spine.
Start on your hands and knees and extend your arms until your knees are off the ground. Generally, your feet should be shoulder width apart, but they can be together. This yoga exercise is one of the most poorly executed because of sagging or overarching butts. If done correctly, it is one of the best exercises (not just yoga exercises) to bring back pain relief since it strengthens core back muscles.
Starting on all fours, raise your left arm and right leg (or vice versa) until they are straight and in line with one another. Extend them out as far you can get them. It should seem like you’re trying to shake someone’s hands with your left hand, and your heel should be the furthest point from your body. Hold for three to five seconds and then repeat with the opposite side. Similar to the plank, this is good for your back because it strengthens key lower back muscles.
Warrior 1 & 2
In my opinion, these are two of the most complex yoga poses to master. You’ll definitely want to practice these poses a few times before beginning a workout that incorporates them.
For Warrior 1, starting from Mountain pose, take one large step forward with either foot (lunge form) and angle your heel downward. Your other foot should be at a 75-degree angle. From here, raise your arms above your head and gently bend backward.
Warrior 2 is a slight modification from Warrior 1 and usually follows sequentially. Your feet should be positioned as in Warrior 1 but bring your arms down shoulder width and parallel to the ground at a 90-degree angle. This will open up your hips and give you a nice deep stretch. These yoga poses strengthen the core and lower body, helping to alleviate back pain.
Again, you’ll want to start from your hands and knees. Grip the floor with your hands and push backward until your butt touches the heels of your feet (or gets close). This pose is perfect for your back because it elongates the spine and stretches those all-important back muscles.
Step 4: Find the time and prioritize
The biggest excuse as to why people miss a workout or skip their gym time is because they don’t have the time. To make this a non-issue, integrate yoga into your daily routine in much the same way as so many people have made coffee time a part of theirs. The key is to be consistent and choose around the same time to do yoga each day.
I always do yoga in the morning before work. There are some days where I may not feel like getting up 40–50 minutes earlier than I normally would, but since I have incorporated it into my day, I always make room for it.
Most yoga workouts are fairly short in comparison to traditional workouts, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem to find time throughout the day to complete your workout.
If need be, instead of watching Netflix/television or attending the weekly neighborhood barbecue, make sure your workout is done first. Whatever time you can squeeze out of the day to complete the workout will help you in the long run.
Step 5: Improve nutritional habits
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a step about nutrition. While perhaps not directly related to relieving back pain, proper nutrition plays a significant role in maintaining your physical health and well-being.
It has been said that we are what we eat, and when it comes to health and eliminating chronic pain, this is definitely the case. A study showed that patients with chronic lower back pain were more likely to have constricted blood flow linked to unhealthy eating, with those with higher cholesterol being susceptible to more severe symptoms. Another study showed how you can eliminate back pain by incorporating anti-inflammation ingredients into your diet.
A mostly plant-based diet that’s rich in flax and chia seeds is a good way to fight inflammation. I recommend basing your diet around green smoothies. They are among the most healthy food products on the planet, and I’ve noticed that since regularly incorporating them into my diet, they not only help fight inflammation but provides me with a boost in energy that aids me in my workouts.
Green smoothies generally consist of frozen/fresh fruit, stevia, flax or chia seeds, leafy green vegetables, or almond milk, depending on what the recipe calls. You can either purchase a book with recipes or download them on the internet as they have become very popular in the last five years.
Try having a green smoothie at least twice a day; one for breakfast and the other for a snack. Also, make sure you get plenty of protein, which is important for healing and restoring muscles. Here is a sample of how I now eat:
- Green smoothie
- one hard boiled egg
- Green salad with honey lemon chicken
- slice whole wheat bread
- 1 cup mixed vegetable
- 1 tsp tub margarine
- 1 cup low-fat milk
- Green smoothie
- One pan spaghetti (includes ground beef and tomato sauce)
- 1/2 cup steamed broccoli (frozen)
- 1 white roll
- 1 tsp tub margarine
- Carrot sticks with dip (1/2 cup carrot sticks and 2 Tbsp hummus)
- 6 whole-grain crackers
The best part about this kind of diet (other than back pain relief, of course) is that it doesn’t cause significant disruption to your life. Going to the store to purchase the ingredients is about the most inconvenience that it caused me.
I know despair and I know pain. I was feeling both while sitting in that Mexican restaurant unable to move or shift in my seat without pain radiating throughout my entire body. I couldn’t laugh, joke, smile, or even think clearly. Pain consumed my entire state of being, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had to just learn to live with it.
Lucky for me, pain tends to cloud good judgment. Once my pain subsided long enough for me to regain my senses, I was resolute in my unwillingness to accept this as my new normal, and the rest is history as they say.
My intention here is not to try to understand you or fix you, but to connect you with information that can powerfully change your life for the better. A life without pain is an enjoyable one.