Yoga and back pain.
February 24, 2016 5:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm a yoga newbie, with a grand total of four classes under my belt. I've been experiencing muscle soreness and tightness, similar to the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) of weightlifting, with pain in the quads, glutes and lower back muscles. Cause for concern?

All in all, the guad and glute soreness doesn't bother me--I actually enjoy it, because it seems to indicate a job well done. However, the lower back soreness--which kicks in, for example, when I bend slightly to pick up my phone from my desk--is somewhat concerning, because I'm afraid of damage to the lower vertibrae. Thinking back to class, I'm guessing that flexing the back inwards and outwards when moving between downward dog to cobra (apologies if the terminology is wrong) may be the culprit.

Is lower back pain common among yoga newbies? Is it a harbinger of possible damage to the spine, however minor, or am I overthinking this?

Should I modify my movements during class, especially with regard to the above poses? Conversely, should I do exercises to limber up the lower back before class begins?
posted by Gordion Knott to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The cool thing about yoga is that it can be adjusted to meet most people's needs. The lower back pain is concerning. I injured myself doing yoga from a videotape, so injury is possible. There is no substitute for advice from a qualified teacher. Talk to your teacher before or after class about possible adjustments. And if a yoga pose hurts your lower back while you're doing it, stop and let your teacher know.
posted by FencingGal at 5:59 AM on February 24, 2016

Everyone's body is different, and only you know what it actually feels like, this feeling you are describing. I've been doing all sorts of yoga going on 20 years now, and as a general rule: muscle soreness = OK, pain = bad. The pain could be coming from using a part of your body that was previously un-stressed and the yoga is highlighting an old injury or a spot of arthritis that is now being poked at. I'd be surprised if the yoga itself caused an injury (though not impossible). It's more likely that the yoga is awaking something you didn't know you injured. Our bodies carry arthritis that we don't know about until we use those parts of the body. I have chronic back pain, and sometimes I think the yoga is the only thing keeping me from a wheelchair. But I always feel sore in the back after classes (I do Bikram right now).

There are certainly bad yoga teachers out there, but the good ones know that pain = bad, especially during a class. If you are getting pain in poses, stop immediately and alert the teacher. Every yoga pose has multiple adjustments that can be made specific to your body and it's limitations, and only a bad instructor will refuse to show you a pose modification. If this is your teacher, get a new one immediately.

I would err on the side of caution for now and ask the teacher for modifications. Once you do more, you will learn your body better and know how far you can push yourself in the poses. Form is more important than depth in the poses.

How old are you? Have you ever had a back injury, even decades ago? These things will matter.
posted by archimago at 6:02 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Go a bit early to your next class and ask the teacher. If they're a good teacher they'll be able to help you figure out whether it's spine pain or muscle pain, and what to do about it. They should watch you do the transitions and see if your form is off too.
posted by hyperion at 6:05 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm also a newbie but I've done a ton of reading on how to avoid back injury while doing yoga (I have a bad back). IME lower back pain can happen when I sort of push myself into poses, instead of supporting my lower back by engaging through my core (abs and obliques). So in downward dog, I try not to sink into my hands and arch my back, but lift my hips up while keeping my back in a neutral position. I hardly do cobra at all because I just don't have the front body flexibility yet - just however far I can lift my upper body with just my core strength while lifting my heart and keeping my shoulders down. I float my hands off the ground to avoid the temptation to push myself up.

Yoga is a deceptively tricky practice, because each pose has a purpose (cobra is traditionally thought of as a chest opener, for example) but if your not strong enough in one area, it's really easy to overcompensate in another. If your chest, shoulders, and groin are too tight, trying to force a big cobra will force the stretch into where you're looser - your lower back. And I'm just using cobra as an example since you mentioned it - there are certainly other poses that can injure the lower back as well.

It would be a good idea to talk to your yoga instructor before the next class and let them know you're new to the practice and are having a lower back soreness or pain. They will likely be able to keep an eye on you and help you adjust your poses to be safer.

Yoga can absolutely cause injury, both in beginners and in long-time practitioners.
posted by muddgirl at 6:13 AM on February 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Is it DOMS or is it pain? DOMS can usually be felt with massage in addition to movement. I've been practicing yoga for years and have been teaching it for the last two and even I occasionally get DOMS if I do something I haven't worked on for a few months or take a particularly tough class. If it is DOMS it's totally normal, and I would say in the lower back it would be common for someone who doesn't normally work those muscles a lot in their daily life.

If it's pinching or any other type of pain, then you need to be careful. That indicates something beyond merely sore muscles. As FencingGal says, the cool thing about yoga is you can just not do a pose if it doesn't work for you, or do a different pose.
posted by Brittanie at 6:15 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

yoga teacher here :) I suspect that what you were doing was dumping your weight into your lower back instead of engaging your core muscles. Eventually, doing so becomes second nature-and you will be engaging your core during nearly every pose. I think that for many people new to the practice it can be a lot to keep track of-remembering that engagement while listening to the million puzzling cues being thrown at you and trying to keep up with al of it. Part of ensuring that your core is engaged effectively is the use of deep breathing. I often tell my students to imagine that as they exhale they are trying to put on a very tight pair of jeans with a high waist, ehich generally lets them visualize drawing in their belly from all directions. Doing so activates the transversus abdominis-the most important core stabilizer, which acts almost as an internal corset and therefore helps protect your back.

Staying mindful of this, and only moving as far as your breathing supports, will allow your practice to stay safe for your back. What I mean is, if anything is so difficult that it causes you to hold your breath or fee like you can't fully inhale or exhale, back off. You should never feel pain in a yoga class, or related to one-that being said, do expect DOMS! Yoga is hard work. And it only becomes harder the more you learn and the more you can activate the many muscles that contribute to each posture.
posted by sparringnarwhal at 6:58 AM on February 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is lower back pain common among yoga newbies? Is it a harbinger of possible damage to the spine, however minor, or am I overthinking this?

I'm just about where you are in picking up yoga again and my yoga teacher is ... somewhat aggressive in making sure we aren't doing the poses in a "let's lay this all on your lower back" way because I guess it's an easy failure mode for potatoes like myself. She gives us a bunch of microdirection about pulling our pelvis in in a certain way or making sure our hips are like *this* (obviously varies according to pose) and I've noticed a huge difference for me just between first class and fifth class. So I concur...mention it to your teacher who can spend a little time making sure you've got the angles and efforts right and you should be able to minimize lower back strain even if you are new at yoga.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 AM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Like everyone else said, if it's pinch-y pain that's not good. However, yoga can make me very sore in my lower back, and it's the same DOMS as I get in my legs. "Back pain" is such a fear and common problem in our culture now, so it's easy to freak out if you have sore muscles in your back from exercise since "back pain"=bad.

I've also found that doing yoga if I'm not in yoga shape makes me among the most sore of any activity. Much more sore the day after yoga if I haven't been keeping up than I am after some more intense-seeming boot camp stuff or weightlifting.
posted by sometamegazelle at 7:21 AM on February 24, 2016

Another yoga teacher and long time practitioner. Yoga is not inherently safe. You use a lot of muscles in ways that you normally do not and it can put strain on your body when you are starting out. Ask your teacher to modify the poses for your back. Blocks, cushions, or the new wheels can be your friend while you work on gaining more strength.
posted by Marinara at 7:50 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

>Is lower back pain common among yoga newbies?

I have a lot of friends that absolutely swear by yoga, but a supposedly gentle class caused me so much back pain that I didn't even complete my set of prepaid classes. I don't know how common it is but I definitely experienced it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:59 AM on February 24, 2016

My wife would likely tell you to roll. She works in conjunction with a yoga studio, and when folks come in to train with her that have been doing yoga but not training, one of the big things she notes is that despite having flexibility they still have muscle fibers that aren't in good shape... and after they start breaking up some of the muscle fibers with rolling, they not only get better at training, but also at yoga.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:55 AM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

IANAyogateacher, but I love yoga!

I personally love Yoga with Adriene (free videos on YouTube). She has one on Yoga for Lower Back Pain, which is essentially lovely, gentle low back stretches for a day when you're feeling DOMS-y (I did it the other day and it was lovely). Her similar one on Yoga for Upper Back Pain has done wonders for my formerly chronic shoulder/neck issues.

She also has one more generally on Yoga for Back Pain which might be worth a view as well.

Definitely, definitely learn how to modify poses for your comfort and safety, whether that's using online videos or an in-person instructor or just a ton of mindfulness. As others have mentioned, nearly any pose can be modified, and it's especially helpful to do so when you're just starting out and building strength/flexibility. As an example, with my shoulder/neck issues, it took me a really long time to be comfortable in down dog, so I often dropped to tabletop (hands and knees) for down dog, especially if we were going to hold it for awhile or do nose-to-knee/three-legged dog, etc. I still got a core workout, but not one that stressed my shoulders. And now I can do down dog!

Also, I found that at the beginning, it was easy to overstretch because I wasn't used to paying attention to my body. I thought "Oh, I should really crank into this till I feel a super strong sensation," which is definitely not true. (I think this can be especially true in the more "active" or power yoga classes where the focus is on athleticism.) The mindfulness will come in time, but try to be aware that you may just not be aware (ha) enough to gauge your comfort right now, and therefore consider erring on the side of more conservative stretches, movements, etc.

For you, you might need to modify with a smaller cobra, as muddgirl suggested above, among other things. One way you might be able to figure it out/build some mindfulness in spinal flexes is to spend some time at home doing some very slow, gentle cat/cow. You can both focus on your alignment (important!) and listen to your body to see if there's a spot during the flex where you go "Ouch!" That's then data you can take to your instructor or use yourself to modify so you're not hitting that spot during your flexes (ie, flexing less than that), or to investigate if there's a bigger back issue going on that you could address with PT/yoga therapy/etc.
posted by bananacabana at 7:09 PM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

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