A number of people with lower back problems can benefit immensely from practising yoga but are often put off by the fear of further injury or irritation. I have proved the benefits for myself as I have had two degenerative lumbar discs for years. Also men can be put off yoga thinking that it is a soft option.
On the latter note first, if they were to practice yoga regularly for some years and become aware of some of the more advanced postures then they would realise that yoga is anything but a soft option. Some of the advanced core strength postures for example can be so demanding as to be impossible for many of us. Having said this progression to “advanced” postures is not essential. In fact as your practice matures you often want to do less posturing and work more with your mind.
For those suffering from back ache or back strains or injuries they would still do well to start their yoga practice with a softer approach until they become stronger and more aware of their bodies.
So how can yoga help with back issues? Well, one thing that I have discovered in all the years I have been teaching yoga is that no two backs are the same! Two people with strain or degeneration of L3 and L4 for example may respond differently to the same set of yoga postures, while one will say they feel more comfortable when forward bending and the other when backward bending.
What’s important I think is that they begin to work with a number of postures with a view to discovering which ones benefit them.
A maxim I discovered years ago and one I repeatedly tell my students is:
Use the posture to get into your body NOT your body to get into the posture.
In other words the posture is your tool, your servant and is a means to find out more about yourself. The posture is not something to admire and aspire to and worship for its form and beauty as you may have seen in photos in yoga books. Okay, you can have the challenge of working towards achieving the correct alignment but while you are gently making your way there always leave room for your body as it is today!
It is also advisable not to simply practice yoga for one part of your anatomy…so while you may start yoga to help your back be open to working with your whole body. Yes, you may think it best to spend a bit more time with your back but don’t neglect the rest of your body. Yoga is a holistic practice and working with the whole body can only help the back.
One of the good things for someone with back trouble is that a lot of yoga focuses on the spine anyway so you will get plenty of posture practice for the back.
Some people ask me if it’s sensible to attend a regular class as a beginner especially when you are having trouble with their back and I would say discuss this with the teacher first. They may suggest a beginners or a more gentle type of class. You may not feel so at ease attending a stimulating Vinyasa flow as a first class.
Once you start to settle into regular classes you will begin to realise that it doesn’t really matter what other people are doing on their mat. You just follow the teachers instructions and practice at a pace and intensity that you can manage and if a posture doesn’t feel right, is beyond you or is off putting sit it out in a relaxing pose and wait for the next posture…an understanding teacher will appreciate this. If it is a posture you would like to master ask the teacher what preparatory postures you mighjt do for a while to build up. Remember you are practicing yoga to get to know your back and body better. To understand those muscle groups in and around the problem area that you want to tone and strengthen so they become almost like scaffolding to support you.
Your yoga practice should also include breathing techniques and this will also bring you benefits. Linked to this is the use of what we call bandhas in yoga. These are yoga body locks and important but must be learnt with the guidance of an experienced teacher as they have to be applied with care and safely. They can help to strengthen and tone the core area which in turn may help the back.
In addition it is important to get the right amount of rest and while you will benefit from practice on a daily basis (even if only 30 minutes a day) take a couple of days off each week. Also mix gentle yoga practice with some aerobic exercise such as a brisk walk for 15-30 minutes several times a week. It is important not to get too enthusiastic and attack your back with hard intense posturing thinking it will do the trick….this can just lead to pain and irritation. So always be moving towards your working edge looking for a suitable depth of stretch for you…this can change from day to day depending on a number of variables with our lives…so if one day you discover that you cannot get as deeply into a pose as you did the day before don’t get downhearted, accept this. You may reach a point with some postures where you cannot go deeper and this can simply be because your anatomy won’t allow it. Don’t judge yourself adversely because of this.
Furthermore, check out your diet and make sure you include plenty of fresh produce and foods that will provide your body with good levels of nutrients and minerals that will feed the muscles and soft connective tissue….vital to help bring more strength to the back.
I sometimes ask my students at the start of a class when they are relaxing in a horizontal position to think of what they would like to gain from the session. What outcome would they like. This is even when they don’t know what the postures are going to be, This resolve makes them think about each posture in turn and makes them try and practice with their outcome in mind. It doesn’t matter if they wanted to finish feeling relaxed and chilled or stimulated and revitalised…they can get either of these outcomes from the same set of postures most of the time if they practice with their resolve in mind. Yoga can be a personal practice even in a group.
Above all, make sure you enjoy your yoga practice. Look forward to your class and your own personal private practice and try and have a positive feeling about the time you spend and cultivate a nourishing feeling of physical awareness.