Can yoga banish back pain?

Over 75% of the women who come to me for yoga get back pain. Sitting for long periods and stress are two of the main causes, and that applies to populations worldwide.

The health of your back, and of your life in general, has many layers. This post explores the complexities of pain and how yoga can help.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli

I believe that the only expert on how you are feeling is you, so the first thing is to be honest with yourself.

TYPES OF PAIN

We all experience pain at some stage. It might be caused by an injury, breastfeeding, or stress, and short-term, it is known as ‘acute’ pain.

If inflammation is present in the body, or you are getting darts of pain, it’s important to pay attention to those signals. Is now the time to see a doctor for a diagnosis? Your GP will arrange an x-ray or scan if necessary.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

CHRONIC PAIN

Chronic pain is different to the acute kind, as it is ongoing and complex. Chronic pain is influenced by physical, psychological, and social factors. It that lasts 3-6 months (or much longer) and it can wear a person down, which in turn may cause depression. Poor quality sleep is also associated with chronic pain.*

Exploring the origins of your discomfort with a medic is a good idea, and so is seeing a therapist. Body and mind are one, so if your physical pain has emotional roots it can be helpful to talk through problems, memories, or fears.

Photo by Shvets production.

YOGA HELPS

Yoga has been around for over 5000 years, so it’s safe to assume that it will continue to ease suffering for as long as humans breathe on this planet. One recent study of 83 people living with chronic pain found that those who added yoga to their treatment programme experienced significantly less depression and better mobility. ^

Whether you see it as a physical activity, a spiritual practice, or both, yoga brings consistency is what matters. Even if you devote 15 minutes a day to establishing a practice, you will be rewarded.

To find ease and comfort in your body takes regular effort. Often people love yoga feels from their first experience, however it is not a magic wand.

Photo by cottonbro

YOGA AND FIBROMYALGIA

I was diagnosed with fibrmyalgia in 2012. Writing this today, I have plenty of energy and a good level of concentration. For many years it was not like that, and I know about the realities of living with long term chronic pain.

Yoga has been my balm on a slow, unusual route to recovery: I turned to yoga instead of taking painkillers for the syndrome. Medicine is something that I respect as having the potential to be miraculous if it is used rarely and when absolutely necessary.

MOVING THE BODY

Sitting still for long periods is causing problems for many people. We are designed to move, and it is heartening to know that we can transform sluggish muscles into a healthier state with yoga. Not only does it limber up the body, it expands the mind and can bring you into a brighter state of awareness.

It is rare to find a yoga study that gives people a voice. One published in 2020 documents how 94 patients who practiced yoga for 10 weeks found the experience to be life-transforming.^^^ They had been in a lot of pain before the programme. Here are a few quotes from those involved:

“I learned how to manage my pain. I try to do my yoga and also the meditation. I am another person… I don’t want to go back like I was. The thing is you have to be willing to train yourself, love yourself, be active. You can do it. You can do it.” Hispanic/multiracial male. Age: 62.

“I think what I try to do is manage it with stretching or trying to rest the area or trying to pay more attention to it rather than just take ibuprofen. Just trying to be more aware of ways that some of my actions could’ve affected it. I try to be more aware rather than cover it up and I just away from it, because some days I do need to just rest it. Maybe I was doing too much.” Female, multi-racial. Age 42.

“When they took away the pain aspect of the thing, it made me really want to live again like, ‘‘Hey, bring it on. Come on, let’s do this.’’ When I couldn’t move or dance and everything, it sent me into a deep, deep, deep depression because I just felt like I was just getting old and I had one foot on a banana peel—one on the grave, another one on a banana peel. Yes, that they made a new man out of me.” African American male. Age: 77.

That last one made me smile.

NEW TO YOGA?

If you are new to yoga, look for a hatha yoga class or a yin style and try one session to see if it is a good fit for you. I would avoid ashtanga, as it is a rigid routine that is very physical (it was used by the indian military back in the day). Find a class where you feel respected and supported, especially if you have limited mobility. Ask questions before class so that you don’t end up in an unsuitable environment.

Last but not least, before you sign up to any yoga, if you are in pain get checked first by a medical professional to rule out anything serious. Be patient with your body.

Yoga alone can’t banish back pain in everyone. Each person has unique reasons for having pain in the first place, so we all need to take a holistic approach.

Some people need to make small (or major) lifestyle changes on the journey to better health. The good news is that by integrating yoga, amazing changes can, and do, happen.

Take care,

-Kathryn.

References

^Schmid AA, Van Puymbroeck M, Fruhauf CA, Bair MJ, Portz JD (2019) ‘Yoga improves occupational performance, depression, and daily activities for people with chronic pain.

^^^ Jyung et al (2022) “The Pain Left, I Was Off and Running’’:
A Qualitative Analysis of yoga in the Journal of Inegrative and Complementary Medicine, Vol.28.

*Haath, Simpson et al (2019) ‘Sleep deficiency and chronic pain: potential underlying mechanisms and clinical implications‘.

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