Before you read this article, pause and check your posture. Like almost all of us today, you’re probably hunched over your phone or laptop, shoulders shrugged close to your ears, leaning with your chest forward in what feels like a comfortable posture but is actually killing your upper back. Without realizing most of us are hunched over for hours in a day. In front of our screens, while driving, and probably even while chopping veggies or cooking. A bad posture is one of the main causes of upper back pain, adding immense stress and pressure on the muscles in the region.
After lower back pain, upper back pain comes a close second in terms of reported body pain among adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, 39.0% of adults had back pain of which 36.5% had lower limb pain, and 30.7% had upper limb pain in the past 3 months. Furthermore, when it comes to how effective is yoga for upper back and neck pain, a review International Journal of Yoga reported that some types of yoga appear to treat back and neck pain as the practices release muscle tension that leads to the symptoms of pain.
Causes of Upper Back Pain
The most common cause of upper back pain is bad posture. Carrying heavy bags (and especially in the wrong way or on one side), a heavy backpack, sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through social media or texting a lot, etc. are common everyday activities that bring out a bad posture in us. Looking downwards while we sit hunched over also causes pain over a period of time. This happens due to the strain caused on the muscles, resulting in tension and tightness. Apart from poor posture, overusing the back muscles or putting pressure on the spinal nerves can also cause a herniated disc. Upper back pain is also caused due to injuries to the soft tissue such as sprains or strains.
A less common cause, that might occur mostly in seniors, is arthritis. Other causes are compression fractures, spinal deformity and a rare condition called Fibromyalgia.
Risk factors for Upper Back Pain
Common risk factors include excess weight which adds a lot of weight on the spine and can strain the soft tissues in the back. Mental stress, anxiety and depression also accumulates in the spine and causes pain over a period of time. A stressful job where one is either sitting in front of a laptop for hours together or has a lot of physical strain (like painting or construction) can also affect the spine.
How can Yoga help you manage Upper Back Pain
Yoga, without a doubt, can help you relieve upper back pain. What’s even better, is that yoga can help you make changes to your lifestyle, eliminating the causes itself. Through breathwork, meditation and relaxation techniques you can relieve stress, inducing harmony and balance in your mind and body.
Yoga Poses for Upper Back Pain
Upper back yoga poses or asanas stretch and strengthen and lengthen the back, giving the muscles and tissues the much needed movement in required directions. Twists, turns and bends are particularly helpful. Strengthening the muscles also makes you less susceptible to pain.
Lack of physical exercise or movement is a part of the problem with upper back pain. When the muscles do not get the required stretches, they tighten, become sore and weak, causing aches, tingling and pain. Upper back stretches yoga will not only stretch the muscles and relieve strain from affected areas, but also act as a preventive therapy. When we coordinate our breath with the movement in each asana, the impact is deeper. A teacher will be able to guide you best on how to sync your breath with each asana. Here are a few yoga poses for upper back pain.
Cat - Cow pose or Marjariasana
Marjariasana gives a gentle massage to the spine and abdomen. It stretches the entire back, providing relief by releasing tightness and stiffness. A few rounds of this movement helps you let go of stress accumulated in the upper back and neck.
How to do Marjariasana
- Come onto all fours with the palms directly under the shoulders and knees underneath your hips. Ensure your weight is equally distributed on all fours.
- Inhale and fill your abdomen with air as you let your belly drop towards the mat. There will be an arch in your back as you do this. Look up towards the ceiling and lengthen your neck and throat.
- As you exhale, pull the naval towards the spine, curve your back and tuck your chin into your chest as you lift up.
- Continue this movement for a few breaths. Let your breath guide you through the movements.
- After a few rounds, release and come into child’s pose.
Puppy pose or Uttana Shishosana
This is a nice deep stretch for the upper back and shoulders. It stretches areas that are generally affected due to bad posture. It’s also extremely relaxing so one can stay still in the stretch for a few deep breaths to experience the release of tension, tightness and pain. It also provides a lengthening effect to the upper back
How to do Uttana Shishosana
- Come onto all fours with the palms directly under the shoulders and knees underneath your hips, like you would for Marjariasana. Equally distributed on all fours.
- Now take your hands ahead of the shoulders and place them towards the end of your mat in front of you.
- Slowly inhale, and as you exhale, keeping your hips in place and thighs in place, lean forward bringing your chest and chin close to the mat.
- Make sure your upper body is getting a nice stretch. You can adjust the position of your arms as required for comfort.
- Stay here and keep taking deep breaths.
- To come out of the posture, raise your upper body, release the hands and come into Vajrasana.
Thread the needle or Urdhva Mukha Pasasana
One of the best postures to stretch the muscles of the upper back, the thread the needle is a restorative pose that also opens up your shoulders and corrects posture. The posture also provides a lengthening effect to the spine and shoulders.
How to do Urdhva Mukha Pasasana
- Come into the thread the puppy posture (Uttana Shishosana) first.
- From here, gently take your right hand to the left side from below your left hand. Bring your right ear close to the mat (or on the mat), and look towards the right palm.
- Your left hand should remain in place.
- Keep breathing here for a few long breaths.
- Now come back to the puppy pose and repeat this with the left hand.
Half lord of the fishes poses or Ardha Matsyendrasana
This asana is an intense spinal twist which strengthens the muscles and spinal nerves. It corrects posture, releases tension and opens up the shoulders and upper back. As you practice more, you can make the stretch deeper and more impactful.
How to practice Ardha Matsyendrasana
- Sit in Dandasana with your feet together and spine straight. Now bend the left leg and place the left foot flat beside the right hip.
- Take the right leg over the left knee and place the left hand on the right knee and the right hand behind you.
- Now slowly twist the waist, shoulders and neck to the right and look over the right shoulder.
- Now look over the right shoulder while taking slow deep breaths. Ensure your spine is straight and chest is open. Do not let the shoulder hunch or lean forward.
- To come out of the posture, slowly release the right hand (the hand that is behind you), release and turn the waist, chest and neck. Repeat this on the other side.
Camel pose or Ustrasana
This posture is a strong backbend that provides a lengthening effect to the back and also corrects posture. It also gives a stretch to the upper back and shoulders, making the muscles stronger.
How to practice Ustrasana
- Come onto your knees in a kneeling position. Make sure the hips and knees are hip-width apart and in one line with the shoulders.
- Now place hands on the sides of the waist and push the thighs and hips forward as you slowly start bending backwards. Now extend the right hand to the right heel and left hand to the left heel. Now slowly drop your head backwards.
- Stay here for a few slow deep breaths.
- To come out of the posture, first release the hands, support your lower back and slowly come up. Rest in child’s pose for a few minutes.
Shoulder stand or Sarvangasana
Sarvangasana stretches and relieves the upper back and neck region. It improves blood flow and relieves tension accumulated in the upper back, leaving you feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
How to do Sarvangasana
- Start by lying down on your back with your arms by the side of the body. Bend your knees and start raising your legs towards your chest. Take the support of your hands to raise the bent legs over your head.
- Now move the hands to the lower back where the rib cage ends. Using this as support, slowly move your hips towards your head and straighten your legs in a controlled manner.
- Keep your palms firmly on the back. The weight of the body should be on the shoulders and not the neck.
- Stay here for a few breaths. To come out of the asana, first bend the legs and lower them towards the head and then bring them back down. Follow it up with a counter pose like the fish pose (Matsyasana).
Gate pose or Parighasana
This is a lateral bend where the entire sides of the spine, shoulders and neck get an intense stretch. It counters the effects of sitting for long hours at a time, improves posture and flexibility of the back. It also relieves tension around the shoulders and strengthens the muscles in the region. The rib cage also gets lifted on the side that is getting stretched, creating more space.
How to do Parighasana
- First kneel with your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Place your hands on your hips.
- Now extend your left leg out to the side. Externally rotate the leg from your hip socket, and keep your big toe close to the mat. Keep your other hip in line with your knee.
- Inhale, lengthen your spine and take your right arm out to the side. Externally rotate again such that your palm is facing the ceiling.
- Exhale bend laterally, to the side, in the direction of your extended leg. Slide your left hand down your left leg.
- Now stay here, breath deeply and keep your gaze under the arm that is raised up.
- Ensure your chest is open towards the ceiling and not falling inwards.
- To come out of the pose, slide the hand back up, bring the shoulders on top of your hips and kneel back down in Vajrasana, the thunderbolt pose.
As discussed earlier in the article, one of the main causes of upper back pain is stress from everyday activities. Yoga practices involve breathwork, meditation and yoga nidra, all of which work towards proving a harmonious, healing effect on the mind and body. When we are relaxed, we are more mindful and aware of our actions. This helps us eliminate certain causes such as excessive screen time, sitting up straight rather than leaning forward or looking down too much, etc. These yoga practices also activate the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve, balancing the nervous system and releasing tension held within which is causing a stress on the back muscles. With regular practice, guided by a teacher, you’ll begin to notice all the wonderful effects and a heightened sense of awareness.
Breathing practices to improve posture
The technique of Yogic breathing involves segmented movement of shoulder (clavicular), chest and abdominal cavity. It is done step by step, by first breathing deeply and fully into the abdomen, then expanding the chest and filling it fully, and then expanding the shoulder and collarbone. Learning to do yogic breaths (in a seated position or the corpse pose, Shavasana) is an excellent way of improving the upper back posture. Along with correcting posture, it also corrects breathing patterns which are often compromised due to stress and poor posture. So regular yogic breaths should be part of practice alongside the above mentioned asanas.
Along with reducing stress and being more mindful comes changes to our lifestyle. Getting the optimum amount of physical exercise, eating right, reducing screen usage, spending some time in silence or meditation are a few examples of the changes you can make. These changes itself will release the strain on your muscles and eliminate aches and pains. The best part is, once you commit to practicing yoga, making these changes will happen easily and will not feel forced. When your lifestyle is balanced, your mind and body is balanced. With that comes better health, a stronger mind and body.
All of these aspects of yoga when done together, little by little, a few times a week and slowly increasing it to everyday, will begin to transform your life. You’ll notice the pain disappear, lightness instead of heaviness or tightness, calm instead of tension. It might seem tough at first, but this holistic approach is the answer to saying goodbye to your upper back pain.