Is Yoga Bad for Your Back? Or can it help?

Yoga poses can be absolutely the best thing you can do for back pain, or the absolute worst thing, depending on how you practise them.

There are also other Yoga practices, besides the physical poses, that are extremely helpful. 

In my early years of practising Yoga after years of chronic back pain, I discovered the hard way, that not all Yoga is great for an injured back.

Regular Yoga classes sometimes left me feeling much better, and at other times left me in so much pain it would take days or weeks to move in a normal way again. My teacher was wonderful in so many ways, but had not experienced back pain and didn’t really know the difference between my back injuries and other back aches and pains.

I loved Yoga for the mental quiet and relaxation it gave me so I persisted, practised, researched, and worked out what worked for me and my body (thankfully my back is now strong and pain-free; you can read more about my journey out of pain here).

Of course, what’s right for me isn’t necessary useful for someone else, so when I became a teacher, I started to learn how information about the reasons for the pain, a sound knowledge of the effects of each Yoga pose, and careful sequencing is essential for anyone coming to Yoga with back pain.

Now I love assisting people out of back pain by blending Yoga and mindfulness techniques with current knowledge & evidence about what works for chronic pain and back pain.

So is Yoga bad for your back? Or will it be useful in bringing relief for back pain? And how can you prepare before going to a class?

Now that so many jobs are sedentary and computer-based, many people are coming to Yoga with postural aches and pains thinking that some “stretching” will help. Increasingly I’m finding that doctors are sending people along to Yoga, which is great. However, Yoga is not about stretching or being flexible, and in fact more flexibility is sometimes the last thing people with back pain need. Mobility, yes, and freedom, ease & grace in movement, but not flexibility just for the sake of being more flexible.

A well-crafted asana (physical) practice should ideally provide a balance of strength, stability, and mobility, according to the individual needs of the practitioner. When practised this way, the asanas can be extremely beneficial in maintaining a healthy back.

Also essential are carefully selected breathing practices and Restorative Yoga Poses. Yoga techniques that train us how to relax deeply and effectively are incredibly useful in dealing with chronic pain.

So if you’re thinking of starting Yoga, and asking the question, “Is Yoga bad for your back?…Or will it be helpful?” … it’s worth taking a moment to go beyond the popular modern view of Yoga as exercise and understand the original intention of Yoga, which is to find peace of mind so that our true, already-whole, already-perfect nature becomes apparent:

“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Then the inherent, true form of the seer is established” – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 -3

There are 8 “limbs” to the Yoga path, and the physical practice, or “asana” is only one of those limbs. Actually, not a lot is said in the Yoga Sutras about posture except that it should be steady, and easeful:

“Posture should be steady and comfortable. By relaxation of effort and meditation on the endless, posture is mastered” – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.46 – 47

The intention of asanas, like the other limbs of the Yoga system, is to bring ease of being and ultimately peace of mind. The poses were not described in the sutras but rather evolved by Yoga practitioners, over thousands of years, and a teacher would give poses to a student based on their appropriateness to the student’s physical, psychological and emotional makeup.

Seen from this perspective, it seems a little strange to think of Yoga as simply a set group of poses, taught in a prescribed way to up to twenty people at once.

Many students turn up to a group Yoga class expecting that it will automatically help solve a back issue, when in actual fact they’re participating in a practice designed to cater for many different bodies, and which may in fact have many other aims, such as opening the lungs, nourishing the digestive system, feeling more uplifted emotionally, finding more mental focus, or bringing more blood flow to the major glands of the body.

Most of these poses will in fact assume a strong and healthy back, and were evolved in a culture where people were accustomed to sitting on the floor, and lived an active, rather than a sedentary lifestyle.

So if you go to a Yoga class with a sore back, keep in mind that Yoga was once a practice tailored to an individual student. It’s not meant to be generic. Keep in perspective the original intention of the Yoga poses, and their place in the path of Yoga as a whole. It’s not necessary to be able to do all the hundreds of asanas to achieve peace of mind.

For example, my own back pain involved severe disc pain, injured facet joints and some nerve damage. Bridge Pose and Sphinx Pose were, and still are, two of the most important poses for me to practice to keep feeling great. But if someone is referred to Yoga with me by a local practitioner because of Retrolisthesis or Spondylolisthesis, I’m highly unlikely to offer those poses as they could do some damage.

Even two people with the same back injury or condition can experience it completely differently, with unique compensations and sensations, so different Yoga practices will be required.

Someone who has developed a back condition sitting with poor posture at a desk or over a musical instrument is going to need a completely different practice from someone who has developed back pain through years of farming or active labouring.

If you do choose to go to a class, choose to practise only what works for you and what makes you feel at ease in your body. If you challenge yourself, it should be to patiently and slowly strengthen and re-balance your body, one small step at a time.

Even better, choose to work individually with a teacher who has experience in tailoring Yoga for individual bodies and for people with back pain.

You can’t rush Yoga if you’ve had a back injury or are suffering from a back condition; it takes regular practice, patience, and time.

If you’re ready and you’d like to work with me to craft a Yoga practice that will nourish your back health & resilience, drop me a line below or find out more about working with me individually here.

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