Serious back pain can be debilitating. It often stops you from participating in the activities you love, makes you wary of going on long car journeys, play with your children or grandchildren, go to a movie or play, … It can affect your sleep and much of your life. Back pain troubles young and old: whereas for instance a herniated disc tends to manifest among younger people, arthritis mostly creeps up later in life. Back pain can have a wide variety of causes, such as bad posture, an accident, lifting, repeated bending, wear and tear, inactivity.
While a conventional yoga class can help release muscle tightness, it can actually make serious back pain considerably worse. Yoga therapy for back pain, on the other hand, adapts the poses to suit the particular back condition. The first task of a yoga therapist is to avoid movements that exacerbate the pain. This is based on knowledge about the cause of back pain but also depends on the individual. The second task is to teach the beneficial poses, those that can soothe tight muscles and strengthen weaker areas. Finally, a yoga therapist will include yoga techniques that relax the mind.
Yoga therapy for back pain is mostly taught one-to-one: not only are there many different causes of back pain that require different exercises, but every individual comes with more than just the back condition. As a yoga therapist, this is what I love about my work: trying to find the combination of yoga tools that will help a particular individual on that particular day. Because yoga therapy is adapted to the individual, it can be done by everyone, whatever the age, expertise, flexibility or fitness. Like yoga, it gives you inner and outer strength, increased flexibility, coordination, improved mood and calm.
Yoga therapy is not a quick fix: even though the relief can be immediate, it can take quite a few weeks to master the particular way of doing the stretching and strengthening exercises, the breathing and relaxation techniques. It works best for people who are willing to do some exercises at home, to change their posture and adapt the daily movements that may aggravate the pain. The result is that you feel more relaxed and at ease in your body and feel empowered because you know how to manage your back pain.
Yoga therapy can also be good for prevention: you may want to prevent back troubles that result from a sedentary lifestyle and demanding job. Or you may be a sports enthusiast who wants to focus on stretching so you can keep doing your sports without feeling limited by an increasingly tight or painful back.
People often find yoga therapy for back pain because they are looking for a complementary programme to support their recovery or their back health. It helps to improve posture and enhances body awareness, both of which have long-term benefits and are important for pain relief and pain prevention. Yoga therapy can easily be combined with other approaches such as osteopathy or physiotherapy and suits those people who want to heal more than just their back pain. They are also interested in the calming and mindful aspects of yoga and come to love the uplifting effects and supportive tools of yoga.
When I first started teaching yoga, I was already drawn to teaching a careful and gentle form of yoga in smaller groups. I was not a stereotypically flexible and acrobatic yoga teacher myself and used yoga to keep back pain at bay. Many of my students had back pain, and even after my 2-year yoga teacher’s training, I felt unsure about the different back symptoms and the movements that might be contraindicated. So I completed another 2-year course — yoga therapy with Yoga Campus and the Yoga Biomedical Trust — and learnt how to approach each back condition with safe and beneficial yoga. More than 8 years on I know how transformative a tailored yoga programme can be when you have back pain.
My greatest joy is to see how yoga therapy can make people feel more at ease in their body, empowered, calmer and happier.