Restorative yoga is an effective way to help manage back pain. Although sometimes grouped in with the popular yin yoga, restorative yoga is completely different from yin. Yin yoga focuses on releasing fascia through long holds. Restorative yoga focuses on switching on the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows the body to use its natural healing mechanisms to let go of muscle tension and mend the tissues of the body.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The human nervous system has two main divisions—or settings—that it works with. The first is the sympathetic nervous system. This initiates “fight or flight” responses in the body. It switches on to help you respond to danger, whether real or perceived. This stress response is healthy in small quantities. It keeps the body and mind sharp and you safe. However, long term activation of the sympathetic nervous system can have lasting, negative effects on your health. When your body is in survival mode, it tries to conserve energy by slowing down or switching off any unnecessary functions. This includes repair work and basic processing tasks such as digestion. Unless the body has time to recover from the wear and tear of everyday life, constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system keeps the body in a state of compromised health.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The second division of the nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” setting. When your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your body goes about repairing itself. It signals to the body that you are safe and thus able to take care of all non-survival related tasks. Your parasympathetic nervous system is vital in maintaining health, healing injuries and wounds and integrating nutrients into your body. When your body does not spend enough time with the parasympathetic nervous system activated, health complications occur.
Chronic stress occurs when your sympathetic nervous system is constantly switched on or becomes overly active. As mentioned before, your nervous system does not differentiate between real or perceived danger. So even if you are not running for your life, the stress of a modern Western lifestyle can keep the sympathetic nervous system activated. Chronic stress makes it difficult for the sympathetic nervous system to switch off and for the parasympathetic nervous system to switch on. In order for the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and start to repair the body, you need to feel safe. This is where restorative yoga becomes a very useful and healing practice.
Restorative Yoga and Back Pain
Restorative yoga is a slow and gentle practice that uses different props to support the body. Unlike many other styles of yoga, the point of Restorative yoga is not to get the deepest stretch possible. The purpose of the practice is to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can heal itself. By using bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps to cradle the body a perceived sense of safety is created. This, in turn, allows the mind and body to relax. If your back pain is being caused or aggravated by stress you will probably benefit from a regular restorative yoga practice. Over time, a consistent restorative yoga practice will help your back to heal and train your sympathetic nervous system to activate only when appropriate.
Restorative Yoga Sequence for Back Pain
A note about props: traditionally, bolsters, blankets, blocks and straps are used to support the body in a restorative yoga practice. If you are doing a home practice, you can use pillows, rolled up clothing, towels, blankets and books in place of blocks. The idea is to nest the body in a comfortable position using whatever props you have available to you.
Supported Back Bend
This places the spine in gentle extension. When working to relieve tension and create balance in the back, it is important to move the spine in all directions.
- Start by placing a bolster or stack of blankets lengthwise across the upper third of your mat. When you lower yourself down you will rest your shoulder blades on.
- Place a blanket or small pillow at the top of your mat to cushion your head.
- Sit upright facing away from these props with your legs extended. Place a bolster rolled up blanket underneath your thighs. This will take pressure off your low back.
- Slowly lower yourself back so you are lying over the bolster or blankets behind you. Adjust them until you feel comfortable.
- Set a timer and hold for 5 to 10 minutes.
- To exit the pose, roll to one side and slowly press back up to seated.
This will create space in the spine and gently stretch out back muscles.
- Start seated with your legs stretch out in front of you. If you have tight hips and cannot bring your spine to an upright, neutral position, sit on a folded blanket.
- Place a bolster and/or folded blankets on top of your thighs. Drape your body forward over you props.
- If you feel strained in this shape, add more blankets so you do not need to fold forward as far.
- You can hug your bolster/blankets, place your hands on top of your props or let your arms hang heavy beside you.
- Either rest your forehead in the center of your bolsters/blanket or place one cheek down. If you are looking to the side be sure to swap sides halfway through the pose.
- Set a timer and hold for 5 to 10 minutes.
- To exit the pose, use your arms to press back up to seated.
Savasana or Corpse Pose
This is the ultimate pose for relaxation. When done with props it creates an enhanced feeling of calm.
- Just like the supported back bend, place props under your upper thighs to take pressure off your low back.
- Place two folded blankets where your arms will go and a pillow for your head. Keep an extra blanket and eye pillow/covering nearby.
- Lie down and cover yourself with the spare blanket. Cover your eyes.
- Set a timer and hold for 5 to 10 minutes, or longer.
- To exit the pose, draw your knees into your chest and roll to one side into the fetal position. Use your arms to press up to seated.
If you want to add extra benefits and another level of relaxation to your restorative yoga practice, check out our post Meditation for Back Pain. Back pain relief is not only possible, it is can be found without the use of pain medication and/or invasive surgery.