Yoga to help back pain

This week there was news that research by York University found a 12-week yoga programme did more to help people manage their back pain than the conventional care offered by their GP. This resonates very much with my own experience of teaching yoga – and also having suffered back pain.

Lots of my students turn up to class with varying kinds of back pain. Stiffness in the upper back, neck and shoulders is common. It’s where lots of us hold our tension – and working at a computer doesn’t help.

Lower back pain, sometimes involving sacro-iliac pain and sciatica also show up quite frequently. But time and again I’ve seen a course of gentle yoga help people reduce their pain, improve their range of movement and find greater ease.

But, I also offer a loud shout of warning: SOME YOGA CAN HURT YOU!

Yoga is a fantastic system, developed and tested over thousands of years, but the truth is many of our modern, rich-world bodies with their stiff hips, tight hamstrings and tense shoulders, are not physically capable of some of the classical yoga asanas (or postures).

I think it’s wreckless to take a bad back to some of the more dynamic yoga classes, such as Vinyasa flow, some Astanga, Kundalini, and hot Bikram yoga. For a bad back you need a gentle, therapeutic approach to the ancient wisdom of yoga.

You also need a teacher who encourages and helps you to listen to your own body. Pain is a message your body wants you to hear. But it takes practice and experience to tune in and hear it. Ignore its whispers, and it will start to scream!

While the energy of a dynamic group class can be very invigorating, if you have back pain you need to be careful that a competitive atmosphere doesn’t prevent you from hearing your body’s whispers – or even its screams.

So the kind of yoga I would suggest to someone with back ache is the kind that has worked for me. Twice in the last 18 months I’ve twisted awkwardly whilst unloading the dishwasher (you’d think I’d learn!) and found myself unable to move. On both occasions I got myself pain-free within 7-10 days by “treating” myself with yoga. This is what I did.

Initially after injuring myself, I lay flat on the floor, with my knees bent, to allow my back to relax completely. Then over the following week or so I went through a gentle yoga routine each day focusing on:

  • developing core stability
  • gradually moving hips and shoulders
  • breathing well
  • always moving within a pain-free range of movement
  • being very “aware” of my body and letting go of excess tension

This is the kind of yoga I teach in private sessions and at my weekly classes in Brixton and Streatham Hill. But there are other teachers around – not just me – who offer this gentle approach. At Brockwell Lido in south London Antonia Pollock offers an excellent healthy back class on Sunday afternoons. Others who, like me have trained with therapeutic yoga teacher Susi Hately, and Scaravelli-inspired teachers, such as Ed Fellowes, Kathleen Beegan, Tracy Bickley, and Marc Woolford also have this approach.

What these teachers offer is a holistic approach that gradually enables us to find the freedom to move with grace and ease – and no pain.

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