Yoga is a 5,000-year-old discipline whose popularity has grown dramatically in the last few years, by as much as 50% in the United States according to some estimates. Originally a spiritual practice focused on creating harmony between the mind and body, yoga is now practiced by tens of millions of people drawn by its benefits to health and mindfulness. "Yoga is beneficial for flexibility, strength, stress reduction and general health." says Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang of Atlantic Spine Center. "It can also improve specific conditions, especially an aching lower back, an affliction that affects almost everyone at some point."
Back pain is second only to the common cold as a cause of lost days at work and it is one of the most common reasons to visit a doctor's office. The most common causes are strains and sprains, which occur when the muscles and ligaments that support the spine are stretched or torn, often because of sudden bends or twists in sports, when shoveling snow, or when lifting a heavy object. "Performed properly, yoga is a gentle practice that helps maintain back strength and flexibility and alleviates lower back pain," says Dr. Chang.
Yoga works on the muscles that support the back and spine, including the muscles that help you bend, the muscles that stabilize your vertebrae, and the abdominal muscles, which also help stabilize the spine. When these muscles are tight, they are more prone to injury. Yoga practice teaches you to stretch and strengthen the muscles, which helps reduce muscular tension, builds flexibility and strength, improves mobility, reduces the risk of injury, and soothes an already-strained back.
Proper performance is the key to successful, injury-free yoga. Dr. Chang points out that too many people think of the "gentle" description of yoga and think of it as a benign practice that is good for everyone, a cure-all for whatever ails you. "It's important to remember that yoga is physical activity," he says, "and as with any physical activity or exercise, there are right and wrong ways to do it and real risks for those who don't practice safely." Dr. Chang offers these practical tips for safe yoga practice:
Choose the yoga and instructor that are right for you.
As when considering any new activity or exercise, ask your doctor if yoga is right for you and for guidance specific to your needs. As interest in yoga has exploded, the number of studios and instructors has grown along with it and they differ widely. If you are a beginner or know that you're inflexible, look for the gentler forms of yoga, such as Kripalu, viniyoga, or integral yoga; avoid the more vigorous and demanding forms like bikram (hot), ashtanga and power yoga. Visit and observe several classes to decide which is right for you and whichever type you choose, start with classes targeted to beginners.
Choose an instructor who is qualified, safety-conscious, and open to making the necessary adjustments to accommodate any limitations you may have.
Remember that cold muscles are more prone to injury. Ten minutes of gentle movements before each session will improve your circulation, lubricate your joints, and get your muscles ready to stretch safely. Start with the gentlest poses before moving on to more demanding ones.
Yoga is not a competitive sport. Know your limits.
Don't push yourself beyond what you can do. Don't try to keep up with others in your class; focus on your own progress. If a move doesn't feel right, don't do it; pain is a signal to stop. If you're not sure if you're doing a pose correctly, check with your instructor. Master basic poses first and move on to more difficult ones gently and only when you're confident your body is ready. Talk to your instructor about modifying poses or skipping those that you're not ready for.
Use proper form.
Do not "drop" quickly into a pose; instead, "lengthen" gradually into it. Avoid sudden bends, twists, and jerks. For example, when doing a spinal twist, do not rotate too far or too fast. Before twisting your spine, activate your core muscles and feel as though your spine is lengthening; then rotate slowly, only far enough to feel resistance.
"Bending, twisting, and stretching your back might sound intimidating to someone with lower back pain," says Dr. Chang, "But done properly, it might be just what you need to relieve discomfort and to strengthen your muscles so you won't be a chronic sufferer. Listen to your body, don't push beyond its limits, and you may reap the benefits that millions find in yoga."