Yoga is a gentle practice that is ideal for maintaining back strength and flexibility. It's also one of the more effective tools for helping reduce lower back pain, the most common source of pain and disability among older adults. Yoga helps strengthen and stretch back muscles that might be tight, which improves mobility. Unfortunately, yoga injuries among older adults are on the rise. A study published in the November 2016 Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that between 2001 and 2014, yoga injury rates increased eightfold among people ages 65 and older, with the most common injuries affecting the back, such as strains and sprains. So, the question is this: how can you protect your already-aching back from a therapy that has the power to soothe it?
What goes wrong?
At its core, yoga is still a form of physical movement, and as with any other type of exercise, injuries can occur, especially involving the back. The main problems often happen when people don't follow proper form and speed, and they quickly "drop" into a yoga pose without gradually "lengthening" into it.
This is similar to jerking your body while lifting a dumbbell and doing fast reps instead of making a slow, controlled movement, or running on a treadmill at top speed without steadily increasing the tempo. The result is a greater chance of injury.
In yoga, you should use your muscles to first create a solid foundation for movement and then follow proper form that slowly lengthens and stretches your body. For example, when you perform a seated spinal twist, which can be quite therapeutic for low back pain, the point is not to rotate as fast and far as possible.
Instead, you should first activate your core muscles and feel as though the spine is lengthening. Then twist slowly until you feel resistance, and hold for as long as it's comfortable.
Tips to protect your back on the mat
Avoid twisting and extending at the same time. This can compress intervertebral joints.
Rely on props like blocks and bolsters for additional support when you need them.
If you can't reach your toes, hold a yoga belt in your hands and loop it around your feet.
Do forward bends while sitting rather than standing, and brace your belly as you return upright.
Always ask for help modifying a pose, and stop any move that is uncomfortable.
Don’t compare your ability with others. Each body has it’s unique range of movement and shouldn’t be forced into doing something based on how it looks.
Make the right moves
Talk to your doctor about whether it's okay to begin a yoga program if you suffer from lower back pain. Once you have the green light, you can protect your back by telling your yoga instructor beforehand about specific pain and limitations. Another option is to look for yoga teachers that specialize in yoga therapy. Remember that the bends and twists and stretches of yoga are often what your lower back needs to get healthier, so don't be afraid to give it a try. By mindfully practicing yoga, people can safely stretch and strengthen tight and aching back muscles.