You may have heard that yoga can lower pain levels for lower back pain. But do you know how or why? Yoga has been around for thousands of years and combines physical poses and movements with breathwork and meditation to help you feel stronger, more mobile, and calmer in your daily life. This combination of practices is why yoga excels as a solution for chronic lower back pain and discomfort.
1. Physical poses and Posture
On thing that has a huge influence on how your body feels is your posture. While technology is great for helping us communicate and get work done, it is horrible for the body. Both gravity and devices encourage a “slouchy” type posture, where the head and shoulders are forward, creating strain in the neck and lower back. You can read more about that in the post “Mom Was Right, You Should Stand Up Straight!”
Not only does practicing yoga encourage good posture, it improves your strength and mobility so that you can maintain good posture. When we sit for long periods, some muscles get tighter, and others get weaker, especially when you are not maintaining a vertical spine. Yoga stretches the muscles that are tight, and strengthens the muscles that are weak to help you feel less pain.
2. The Mind’s Relationship to Pain
Pain is subjective. What might be 3 for one person (on a 1-10 scale) might be a 7 to someone else. Also, your ability to tolerate the discomfort will play into how much it hurts. For example, if your pain is a 5, if you feel calm and relaxed, it might become a 3. If you are anxious, however, that same 5 becomes an 8. Our emotional state can affect our experience of the pain.
Yoga calms the mind and heart, putting you into a more relaxed state. Finding ease (Sukha) is one of the principles of practicing yoga. In ever pose, you attempt to find the balance between strength (Sthira) and ease (Sukha). When you have lower back pain (or any pain), being able to relax emotionally can lower your pain levels.
Notice your pain level and give it a number from 0-10. 10 is “I need morphine!” and 0 is no pain. Once you have that number in mind, breathe in as fully as possible, then let it all out. Repeat this a total of 5 times. Notice how you feel afterward. What is your pain level now?
3. Cultivating Awareness
While in Western culture yoga is mostly a physical practice, as I said earlier, it affects the body and the mind. There are yoga poses to strengthen the core and spinal muscles to support your lower back. There are also poses to stretch the hamstrings and hip flexors (common culprits in chronic lower back pain). While you are practicing any poses, however, the most important piece is your awareness. Where is your mental focus (Dharana)? On what are you concentrating?
When you have pain, and that is your main focus, it will take over your life. You might create stories about the pain, catastrophizing and making your experience worse. What if instead, you focused on your breath, or your posture, or your feet on the floor. When you get out of your stories and tune into what is actually happening, it’s a very different experience.
Yoga teaches you to be present, meaning to focus on what is happening right now. This keeps you from “what if,” which encourages anxiety (future), and “I wish I had/hadn’t” which encourages regret (past).
In the present, there is no anxiety or regret, as those thoughts are of the future and past. Right now, you have control and can make changes. You can change how you are sitting or standing. Maybe you can change how you are breathing (if you are breathing). Yoga encourages you to focus on what is actually true. What you do with your mind matters when it comes to managing pain.
*If your lower back pain is sharp and causes pain or sensation that radiates into the legs, please consult a qualified doctor or physical therapist before embarking on any new physical practice.
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