Yoga practitioners have known for centuries that asanas can be extremely helpful for bad backs. Now, mainstream medicine is catching on too. In fact, the American College of Physicians (ACP) most recent treatment guidelines recommend yoga for chronic lower back pain.
The underlying causes of a painful back can range from tight muscles to nerve impingement caused by degenerative disc disease, so it's important both to consult with your doctor and inform your yoga instructor about your condition. Depending on the cause of your back pain, some yoga exercises may be more beneficial than others and some could make it worse. So proceed cautiously and take note of how various exercises affect your condition.
Help for Hamstrings
Tight hamstrings are one of the first things to consider when choosing yoga exercises for a bad back. They cause the pelvis to move out of alignment and also contribute to disc problems. While forward folds are usually the first line of attack on taut hamstrings, they can worsen matters if your problem is a bulging lumbar disc.
Therefore, it's better to take a more passive approach such as the Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe pose in which each leg is stretched individually -- hooking a belt around your foot makes matters easier -- while lying in a supine position. You might try a Wide-Legged Forward Bend because widening your stance avoids putting pressure on the discs. If your hamstrings are super-tight and you want to start very gently, do Corpse pose, but with your legs elevated and your calves resting on a couch or chair.
Backbends for All-Around Relief
Whether sitting at a desk, behind the wheel, or putting groceries in a cart, most people spend far more time bending forwards than bending backwards. That can lead to tight and weakened muscles in the upper and lower back. Backbends help decompress the spine and sooth the body's tendency to be in perpetual fight or flight mode.
Cobra, one of yoga's most basic poses, can help create space in the upper and lower vertebrae, thus relieving pressure in the spine overall. To perform it, lie face-down on the floor with your hands under your shoulders and your elbows at your sides, then press your torso up through the floor from your waist up.
Another yoga staple, Bridge pose, does wonders for opening up the upper and middle back and resets your musculo-skeletal memory for lower body alignment. Lying on your back with your knees up and feet flat on the floor, thrust your pelvis upward and support the position with the pelvic muscles and the erector spinae.
Poses to Soothe the Sciatic Nerve
When it comes to back pain, the sciatic is the nerve root of much evil. Sciatica is literally a pain in the butt that can also radiate down the legs. The large but touchy nerve stretches from the sacrum, passing through heavy buttock muscles and then through the muscles at the back of the thigh. Sciatic pain can be caused by a bulging lumbar disc or muscle spasm that impinges on the nerve.
For sciatica caused by a bulging disc, it's important to improve posture by strengthening the back muscles. It's also crucial to take a line from the Hippocratic oath and "First do no harm." So if something hurts beyond the predictable intensity of making muscles do things they'd rather not, it's best to not do it. Good poses for bulging discs are Mountain pose, a standing pose that's great for aligning posture and the ever-faithful Downward-Facing Dog.
Sciatica can also be caused by a rebelliously tight piriformis, a gnarly pit bull of a muscle that shows no mercy to your sciatic nerve when inflamed. The piriformis must be stretched gently. A good pose for this is the Half Lord of the Fishes pose but foregoing the extra torso twist. Also good is the Revolved Triangle pose.