Lower Back Pain in Yoga Practice and the Lumbar Spine

By Niki Vetten

The Lumbar spine, unlike the lower thoracic spine, moves very little and should not be used during back extension movements, because the vertebrae or discs can be damaged. Any muscular imbalances between the hips, legs and lower back cause pain and restriction in the lumbar spine, and can ultimately result in injury. Hamstring muscles that are overactive cause the lower back muscles to tighten up, jamming the lumbar facet joints. An overactive Iliopsoas will do the same thing, which is why we are cautioned against sit-up exercises.

When we go to doctors with these injuries, they tell us that back extension is the cause and that it should be avoided. Back extension is a large part of yoga and many people can do it safely, if their spines are healthy to begin with, they use correct technique and, most important, maintain a good balance of strength in their bodies. Although extension is the actual cause of most lumbar injury, underlying factors can be inflexibility of the hips or thoracic spine.

Correct back extension occurs in the lower Thoracic spine. Tightness in the Thoracic spine can occur if abdominal strength is greater than spinal muscle strength and can usually be corrected with Salabhasana. Exercises that are similar to Salabhasana are prescribed in back rehabilitation and are usually safe for a healthy back. Backbending postures like Dhanurasana, Kapotasana and Vrschikasana require great spinal flexibility but if the hips are tight, the Lumbar spine is hyperextended, causing pain or injury. Hip tightness is often a product of an imbalance between leg and core strength. Strong, tight leg muscles inhibit hip muscles, making them weak and inflexible. Forced back extension, using straps and walls as aids is sometimes taught in classes and is extremely risky- the spine does not naturally bend beyond its ability to support itself and forcing it to bend is an invitation to injury. Back flexibility can be acquired with patience, never with the use of force. Hip flexibility and a balance between abdominal and back strength are a sane way to create a flexible back.

Oblique abdominal strength is often overlooked in yoga, a lot of posture sequencing ignores lateral movements and yet including more of these can be the key to unlocking a stiff, sore back. Postures include Parsva Bakasana, Astavakrasana, Vasistasana, Viswamitrasana, Mandalasana, and twisting movements in Sirsasana, Salamba Sarvangasana and Navasana. Strong oblique muscles are the main supporter of backbends in yogic practise.

Reading Sources: De Franca, 1996, Pelvic Locomotor Dysfunction Brunnstrom’s Clinical Kinesiology, 5th edition 1996 Ellenbecker, De Carlo, DeRosa, 2009, Effective Functional Progressions in Sport Rehabilitation

Author: Niki Vetten

View Profile

Visit Niki’s Website: Yoga Anatomy for the Perplexed

Here are some of the other articles posted here by Nikki Vetten:
  • Reciprocal Inhibition and the Hips March 9, 2013 By Niki Vetten Reciprocal Inhibition is a process that the body uses to create movements. All movement is controlled by opposing sets of muscles, called Agonists or prime movers, and Antagonists that create the opposing force which returns the part being moved back to its original position. Movement is also aided by other surrounding muscles, called ...
  • Neck Pain from the Hips March 12, 2013 By Niki Vetten Posture affects our necks negatively when there is anterior or posterior pelvic tilt because the spinal curves are altered and the head is carried in a forward position. The muscle at the front of the neck, the Sternocleidomastoideus (SCM) shortens and the shoulder girdle rounds and shifts forward, exaggerating the curvature of the ...
  • Using hip muscles effectively in yoga practice – part 1: bridging and back bending March 7, 2014 By Niki Vetten Weak Gluteal muscles are very common amongst yoga students and teachers alike and cause Sacroiliac pain and dysfunction, lower back pain and hamstring injury. Causes and symptoms are covered in the article on yoga butt and this post looks at the effects of various hip movement cues taught in yoga. Different instructions are ...
  • Sacroiliac Joints and Yoga March 11, 2013 By Niki Vetten Sacroiliac problems are common in yoga – Chiropractors consider the Sacroiliac joint to be the most common cause of lower back pain, more prevalent than disc problems. The Sacroiliac joint is believed to act as a shock absorber between the legs and the spine and although its movements are very small, restrictions at ...
  • Movement Habits and their Effect on Yoga Practice March 11, 2013 By Niki Vetten There are three particular movement habits in asana practice that either cause or indicate problems with the hips: These will be covered in detail in separate posts, to keep posts shorter 1. Allowing the hip to push out to the side and not maintaining a level pelvis in the horizontal plane – lateral pelvic ...
View more articles by Niki

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Error: Please enter a valid email address

Error: Invalid email

Error: Please enter your first name

Error: Please enter your last name

Error: Please enter a username

Error: Please enter a password

Error: Please confirm your password

Error: Password and password confirmation do not match