Yoga for back pain

Whether you're in need of prevention or healing, low back pain is the commonest reason people take up yoga for healing.  However, not all yoga is the same, and if you do the wrong type or it's poorly taught, you could end up doing yourself more harm than good.   So, this week, Victory's fab yoga therapist Iris Waller explains how yoga can help you protect your back, and what type of yoga might be best for you.

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Does your GP recommend yoga for people with back pain?  Great!  However, most GPs don't practise yoga themselves, or know enough about it to give more specific advice. So if you don't know what to look out for, that well-meaning suggestion could actually be dangerous. There are countless variations of yoga out there, ranging from being wrapped with blankets in candle-lit rooms, to vigorous exercises in overheated purpose-built gyms. All have their place and avid followers, with one common reason: people feel better when they leave their class, than when they walked in.  However, pick the wrong type, and that happy buzz may be short-lived.

So which option is best for you? Here are a number of tips to make sure that practising yoga will sort out your back pain - or reduce your risk of getting it in the first place!

1) Research your teacher

Yoga is not a regulated profession, and it is entirely possible to go for a 4-week holiday in India and return a "fully qualified" teacher after just 200 hours' experience. It’s shocking, and one of my pet rants (yes, I’ll probably have to write another blog about just that).

A reputable teaching course is spread over 18 months to 3 years with a minimum of 200 hours of contact sessions. In between teaching days, student teachers are sent home to study, write essays, practice and gather experience before taking an exam.

Not all excellent teachers are members of the British Wheel of Yoga as I am (there are many more associations available), but ask to see a certificate of a reputable yoga school.

Also, bear in mind that a newly qualified teacher may not be the wisest choice if you're suffering from back pain (unless they have another qualification as physio or osteopath etc). Although they will be perfectly equipped to lead a general yoga class and keep students safe, if you have an injury, you need someone with specialist knowledge, and this only comes with experience,

2) If you have back pain, wait until it calms down

In the midst of a back flare-up, you are doing well if you can move, walk, sit and sleep as usual. Your first point of contact should be a good physio or osteopath. You may not even able to lie down on the mat - and once you're down you may not be able to get up again! The only yoga posture I would teach at this stage is a supported yoga nidra, a type of deep relaxation which encourages healing.

3) Dodgy back? Group classes are not for you!

This may be tough to hear, but it's time to invest into your health more seriously. Your physio may have helped you to be pain free, your workplace may have arranged for a new chair, and you can move relatively pain free - but you are still a long way away from optimal back health. Regular yoga classes are designed to improve the lives of healthy people. Traditionally yoga was taught one-on-one, and if there are a number of other people to look out for in a class,  your teacher cannot keep you safe.

You are in need of a bespoke practice that deals exactly with your requirements. Back pain can have a variety of causes: For example, I have a client who worked with her computer slightly to the left on her desk for 10 years and then relaxed in a soft armchair in the evening. She had very different needs than the man who, after a complicated break in his leg, had learned to lean hard on the outside of one foot to alleviate the pain, a habit which over the years caused his hip joint to shift, damaging his spinal discs. If you absolutely must find a group class, find one specifically aimed at people with bad backs; or join a class once you have had a few individual sessions with the same teacher.

4) Be willing to commit - this is a long term solution

A few sun salutations once a week won't make a big difference for back pain that may have taken years to manifest. Make daily practice a habit. Your teacher will give you a sequence to work with - stick with it, because....

5) …Yoga is a way of life, not a series of exercises

Now, this particular point may sound a little more than you are willing to sign up for. But I have a point, I promise! Yoga re-aligns and balances mind, body and spirit. In my experience, stressed people have more episodes of severe back injury. If I dig deeper in evaluation sessions, most people with back pain are under a huge amount of pressure, be it financially, from work commitments, or trying to juggle family life. Being able to calm the mind and stay grounded has shown to be incredibly effective and the key to initiate a lasting change. Part of your home sequence will include a breathing exercise (Pranayama) or meditation/mindfulness.

Take charge of your health. After all, you have looked for yoga to stop your back from caving in on a regular basis. It is up to you to live a healthier fuller life – all you need do is begin.

At Victory, Iris offers semi-private yoga sessions (maximum 4 students) at 1pm on Tuesdays and Fridays, and 6pm on Tuesdays; and individual or buddy sessions on Tuesday mornings and Fridays.  Contact us on 0207 175 0150 for more information or click the button below and we'll call you back.

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