One common place that students report experiencing back pain is in backbending postures. As with any category of postures, there is variability in what we mean by backbending. And of course, there are multiple reasons why we might experience pain in any category of postures. In this article, I’ll break this down. Let’s take a look at the different types of backbending postures and why back pain might come up in them.
Types of backbends
Before we get specifically into why we might experience pain, let’s look briefly at different types of backbends. There is one category of backbend where we are actively engaging the muscles along the back of our body. This includes poses like shalabhasana and dhanurasana. But, we also have backbends like ustrasana or urdhva dhanurasana, where there is less active engagement along the back of the body and more emphasis on opening the front of the body. One of the most common backbends that we do, upward facing dog, is somewhere in between those two broad categories. The type of backbend that we’re doing influences how we engage our muscles. And that can impact when and why we might feel discomfort or even pain.
Types of back pain in backbending
Now let’s summarize some general types of back pain that sometimes come up in backbending. Low back pain is very common in the general population. And yoga practitioners sometimes report low back pain as well. Within the broader category of low back pain, we have more specific sensations that people might report. And those can sometimes tell us something about what might be causing the pain. People might report feeling generalized achy sensations across the whole lower back. They might also experience pinchy sensations, sharp pain, or nervy sensations. And practitioners could also be feeling pain specifically at one or both of the sacroiliac joints (SI joints). Finally, in addition to various sensations at the low back, practitioners also sometimes experience mid-back soreness in backbending.
So why does back pain sometimes come up in backbending postures?
Overdoing the backbend
One of the most common reasons that students experience pain in backbending is from overworking. If we try too hard to achieve a backbend through efforting, all that squeezing can put too much pressure in the wrong places. If, for example, we have the idea that we are literally just trying to bend the back, we can create too much bend at the more mobile part of the lumbar spine. This is instead of distributing the bend throughout the spine. And that can result in low back pain and tenderness.
Often, tissues in the body still need to open more in order to comfortably access some backbending postures. If that’s true then squeezing things or pushing harder won’t compensate for tissues that simply need time to open. For example, in upward facing dog, sometimes I see students try to overrule what their body can actually do and push too hard to create an idea of a deeper backbend. That tends to put too much bend in the lower back and not enough attention on the less mobile mid- and upper back. Two actions that are also common in upward facing dog are too much squeezing of the glutes and squeezing the shoulder blades together. Both can ultimately create pain from overworking.
Need to change the technique
Another possible reason that discomfort or even pain might come up in backbending is that something about your technique in the particular backbend needs to change to make it work for your body. One example of this that I often help students with is changing the distance from their hands to their feet in upward facing dog. If that distance is too short for the individual person’s flexibility, it can put pressure and potentially cause pain in their low back. Another place I work with students to explore their technique is in how much they are engaging their gluteus maximus in both upward facing dog and urdhva dhanurasana. Strong engagement of the glutes in backbending tends to shorten the lumbar spine. As a result, it can irritate the low back.
It’s also possible that anatomical issues are interacting with a backbending posture to cause discomfort or pain. Some possibilities include a pelvic imbalance between the right and left sides. There could also be an imbalance between the openness of tissues on the front and back of the pelvis. This might especially come up around the balance of tension between the iliopsoas and deep six lateral rotators. Nervy, sharp, super-pinchy pain in a single spot could indicate there is a problem other than simply needing to change how you’re doing a pose to adapt for your body. In that case, back out of the pose and consider consulting a PT, experienced bodyworker, or another professional who can assess back issues.
Addressing back pain issues
In order to address back pain issues in backbending, it’s important to find the source. Often, students will ask if there is something they need to strengthen to avoid back pain in backbends. Most likely the answer is no, probably not. You may however need to open some areas in the body. Hip flexors for example are a common area of tension that restricts backbending. A first step is backing out of the backbend depth a bit. Then try relaxing areas of the body you may be over-squeezing to see if that makes a difference. Then take a look at the technique you’re working with in the backbending posture. Explore changing the technique for your body with the intention of creating more space in the areas where you’re experiencing discomfort or pain. And if you’re experiencing consistent sharp, nervy, pain in the same spot, consider whether it’s something that would warrant a visit to a medical professional for an evaluation, especially if you’re also feeling pain outside of yoga.
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