The word asana means pose in Sanskrit, which is the original language of yoga. Yoga uses dynamic and static asanas to improve strength and flexibility. It is accompanied by many benefits, including decreased pain. When practicing asanas to strengthen the lower back, one of the most reported benefits is significant reduction of low back pain.
Why Asanas to Strengthen the Lower Back?
According to the “Annals of Internal Medicine,” in 2002 an estimated 14 million Americans where practicing yoga, and over a million used it treat their back pain. In a survey of 3000 people practicing yoga, 38% had back pain, and 98% of those with back pain expressed that yoga helped them. In a case study involving patients using yoga asana as rehabilitation for their back pain, 69% reported returning close to, if not completely back to, normal mobility and absence of pain.
Although there are many ways to strengthen the lower back, such as running and targeted exercises, a study comparing yoga, stretching and exercise –published in the “Annals of Internal Medicine”– proved yoga to be extremely effective in reducing chronic low back pain with benefits persisting for several months. According to the “Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain,” low back pain is one of the most reported alignments treated with Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Common Causes of Low Back Pain
There are many causes of low back pain. The most common are incorrect posture, bad body mechanics, repetitive moving exercises like running, skeletal misalignments and muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances are a common cause of back pain. Since they can remain long after the initial accident, if not properly treated, it can easily transition into a chronic, debilitating pain. Regardless of whether the initial injury was to the soft tissue (muscle) or to the skeletal system. In this state, the bones are misaligned causing the muscles to pull at abnormal angles, which results in bad body mechanics.
Repetitive motion exercises –e.g. running and cycling– can also cause chronic pain, as described by the “Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.” This is because there is a constant shortening of the muscle. If stretches or yoga asanas are not performed, the muscle loses full range of motion due to loss of intracellular integrity. In result, muscle imbalances and skeletal misalignments will pull at joints from abnormal angles.
Muscles of the Lower Back
There is a group of muscles that predominately controls the extension of the spine, and therefore are the main muscles worked during the asanas that strengthen the lower back. This group is called erector spinae group and consists of the iliocostalis, longissius, and spinalis muscles. These three muscles work together to extend the spine, which is when the front body lengthens. It is the main action during asanas that strengthen the erector spinae muscle group.
Cobra and Shalabhasana
Cobra is a very effective pose used to strengthen the erector spine group. It is performed by lying on your stomach, face down. The palms are flat on the floor at the base of the rib cage. The elbows are at a 90 degree angle. The tops of the feet are active and pressing into the floor, or you can curl the toes under pressing them into the floor to lift your knee caps off the floor. Lift the chest off the floor. To make sure the pose is lead by the back versus the arm muscles, lift the hands.
In Shalabhasana are arms out to the side, or over the head in line with the ears. To further engage the erector spinae group, lift the legs off the floor.
Another great pose that strengthens the erector spinae group is Virabhadrasana III, or Warrior III. Because the leg and torso are working against gravity to extend the spine, the rector spinae group gets a serious workout.
The hands can either be on the hips or forward in line with the ears. The action is similar to Shalabhasana, as you are lifting the back leg, torso and arms. This pose is performed on one leg, which means balance and agility are also challenged.
Regardless of your intention for doing asanas to strengthen the erector spinae muscle group, the benefits are increased flexibility and strengthen. In addition, if experiencing back pain, Cobra and its variations along with Virabhadrasana III will significantly reduce chronic back pain and increase mobility.