Yoga poses, or asanas, can be absolutely the best thing you can do for back pain, or the worst thing, depending on how you practise them. 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. However, yoga is not about just stretching or being flexible, and in fact more flexibility is sometimes the last thing people with back pain need. Mobility, yes, and freedom and grace in movement, but not flexibility just for the sake of being more flexible.
Fortunately, a good asana practice should ideally provide a balance of strength, stability, and mobility, according to the individual needs of the practitioner, and when practised this way, the asanas can be extremely beneficial in maintaining a healthy back.
If you have a back injury, or chronic pain of any kind, then before you attend a public yoga class, it’s worth considering the question:
What are the yoga poses (“asanas”) really, and why are they practised?
The original intention of yoga is self-realisation; finding peace of mind so that our true, prefect 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 is only one of those limbs. Not a lot is said in the yoga sutras about the poses except that they 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
or as translated by BKS Iyengar:
“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit” 2.46
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 come 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 clearing toxins, opening the lungs, nourishing the digestive system 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.
In recent times the field of Yoga Therapy has evolved to meet the needs of people who are working with illness or injury. Many teachers also offer one-on-one sessions tailored to suit individuals who may not yet have the level of fitness required for a beginner yoga class, or who for any reason find a group class is unsuitable for them. Some of us also run courses especially for people with back pain who want to try yoga.
If you do choose to go to a normal group yoga class with a back injury or back pain, it’s important to find a knowledgeable teacher who will be able to adapt the practice for you when necessary. Particularly if you have disc injuries, it’s important to find a teacher who has some experience with this issue.
Iyengar-certified yoga teacher and Stanford-trained scientist Roger Cole, Ph.D., says “Practicing yoga is great for your disks if you do it right, but potentially harmful if you do it wrong. It’s easy to learn how to protect and nourish the disks in yoga.” *
This has certainly been my own experience, and while it’s been quite a journey learning how to practise safely, I know that it’s my daily yoga practice, and the awareness it’s given me, that keeps my back healthy and strong.
So in a yoga class, keep in mind that yoga was once a practice tailored to an individual student. Most of all, 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.
Choose what works for you and what makes you feel at ease in your body, and if you challenge yourself, it should be to patiently and slowly strengthen and re-balance your body, a step at a time.
- 10 Tips for a Resilient Pain Free Back E-Booklet
- 3 Restorative Yoga Poses for Back Pain Relief
- a Breath Mindfulness audio recording, an audio guide to standing with grace & ease in good posture
- short videos of 2 releasing poses that are essential for a healthier, happier back
Check out my Healthy Happy Back E-Course for manageable step-by step techniques that you can choose from and slowly incorporate into your daily life. It’s completely suitable for beginners and anyone willing to slow down and take a gentle, easeful approach to rediscovering a healthier, happier back.
*Practical Ways to Protect the Disks, Roger Cole Ph. D, Yoga Journal