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Yoga Pose Modifications for Back and Neck Pain

Yoga has many therapeutic benefits, including reducing and alleviating pain. However, when the pain is chronic or is a direct result of injury, care needs to be taken when performing certain postures. Yoga Journal lists a number of poses that are considered contraindicated for those with back and neck issues and we will explore some of those poses here. As always, consult with your doctor or health care practitioner before attempting any new exercise program.

Plow pose is a perfect example of posture that is best avoided by those with sciatica or those who have a bulging disc in the lower back. This pose can cause a flattening or even a reversal of the normal inward curve of the lumbar spine. When the curve of the lower back is reversed the front sides of the vertebrae move closer together. This compresses the front side of the spinal disc between the vertebrae, which can cause the disc to bulge backward. If pain is felt or intensifies in this pose, that is a good indication to either not perform the pose or try a modified version.

To get into this pose, lie on your back and bring your knees to your chest. Hug the knees close to the body and gently roll forward and back and/or side to side in order to release and relax the vertebrae. This should actually feel wonderful as it greatly relieves back pain and everyday stress. Once your back is feeling warmer, gradually begin extending your legs straight up towards the ceiling. Flex the feet so that your toes are pointed towards your face. Bringing your hands to your hips, gently push your hips up and off the floor as you elongate your legs and bring your toes to the floor behind your head. Keep your legs as straight as possible as you touch your toes to the floor. You should certainly feel the stretch in the back and possibly the backside of the legs as well, but it should not hurt. Again, if pain is felt, try a modified version.

In order to modify plow pose, bring your feet down onto the seat of a chair rather than bringing the feet all the way to the floor. This takes some of the pressure off the back. Bending the knees also takes pressure off the spine. If you still experience pain with these modifications it’s best to skip this pose altogether.

Camel pose is another posture that can relieve mild back pain, but if the back has been injured or there is severe pain it would be considered a contraindicated posture. For those with neck pain it is often avoided, but modifications can be made in some cases. Camel is performed by kneeling with the knees directly under the hips and the hips perpendicular to the floor. Bring your hands to your lower back, fingers pointed downward and palms against the lower back/buttock area. Allow your hands to support your lower back as you gaze upward and slightly arch backwards. This gives you a slight back bend that is fully supported.

If you feel you can continue with more, slide your right hand down the back of your right thigh and extend the opposite arm up towards the ceiling. Reach and stretch with your left arm, leaning backwards a bit more. Allow your neck to tilt backwards so that you’re looking straight up. After a minute or two come back upright and repeat with the opposite arm.

If you feel you can still do more, you can move into full camel pose by repeating the posture and reaching each hand, one at a time, to the heel of the foot or back of the ankle. Once you have completed this pose, come into child’s pose for several minutes as you relax and breathe.

There are ways to modify this pose. You can incorporate the use of a wall for support if this posture causes pain or stress in the neck. Get close enough to the wall so that you can use it to support your head which will take the strain off your neck. If bending backwards causes back pain, stick with the hands supporting the lower back version or avoid entirely.

A good rule of thumb to always keep in mind is to listen to your body. Yoga poses can be challenging, but they should never cause pain. There is a big difference between feeling muscle fatigue and feeling actual pain that makes you wince. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and never push yourself further than you feel you should.

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