Yoga for Back Problems

Yoga is an ancient practice developed in India almost 4,000 years ago. In the last decade yoga has become increasingly popular in the west, and currently, about 15 million people in the United Stated do yoga.

Generally in the US, yoga classes consist of a combination of physical exercises, breathing exercises, and meditation. Yoga has been used for thousands of years to promote health and prevent disease, and many people with back problems have found yoga to provide several benefits, including:

  • Relieving pain
  • Increasing strength and flexibility
  • Teaching relaxation and acceptance

In recent years, researchers have become interested in studying the effects of yoga on treating disease, and studies are encouraging that yoga can be a useful part of the treatment plan for many medical conditions as varied as heart disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, epilepsy, asthma, addiction, and many neck and back problems.

Will Yoga Help Back Pain or Neck Pain?

Although no one treatment works for everyone, many aspects of yoga make it ideal for treating back pain and neck pain. For example, studies have shown that those who practice yoga for as little as twice a week for 8 weeks make significant gains in strength, flexibility, and endurance, which is a basic goal of most rehabilitation programs for back pain or neck pain.

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In addition, the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga induce a "relaxation response" that has been found in many studies to assist people in decreasing their pain. Yoga has also been found to be helpful in the treatment of depression and anxiety that often accompany pain problems.

Is Yoga Possible for People Who Aren't Naturally Flexible?

Many times those who are not inherently flexible actually benefit from yoga the most. In addition, most yoga poses can be modified for beginners so that everyone can do a version of the poses. Yoga is more than a set of exercises to increase flexibility, however. Different skills are needed for different yoga poses: some help the practitioner gain strength, others challenge balance, and others train attention and concentration.

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn't do Yoga?

Yoga can be safe for everyone, but depending on the medical condition, certain poses may need to be modified or avoided. A couple of examples of patients who may need to avoid certain yoga poses include:

  • Patients who have been diagnosed with advanced spinal stenosis should avoid extreme extension of the spine such as back bends in yoga.
  • Patients with advanced cervical spine disease should avoid doing headstands and shoulder stands in yoga.

Most of the precautions surrounding the yoga poses can be determined by understanding the specific medical condition, using common sense, and finding a good yoga teacher to assist.

How do I Find a Good Yoga Teacher?

Unfortunately, yoga teacher training and certification are not strictly regulated, so it is important to talk to the instructor. Here are a few suggestions on how to evaluate a yoga teacher:

  • Inquire if the yoga teacher has ever worked with people with spine problems.
  • Ask how the person trained as a yoga teacher, and if they have taken any additional courses on yoga and the spine. Many yoga teachers have undergone advanced training and course work in this area.
  • Some people feel more comfortable observing a yoga class before deciding to participate. This allows one to determine if there are other people in the yoga class at about the same level of fitness level, if the yoga teacher takes the time during class to help individual students, and if the students in the yoga class appear to enjoy it and leave feeling energized yet relaxed.

It is advisable to explain any medical condition to the yoga teacher prior to class, and ask for his or her assistance in modifying yoga poses that are too difficult or painful at first. Many yoga teachers will also set up private lessons for beginners to allow them to learn modifications and receive more personalized instruction, after which it may be easier to transition to a group yoga class.

Once the basic yoga poses have been learned, books and tapes can also be a valuable resource. At first, however, it is best to learn from an instructor who can observe and assist, and then use the tapes and books for home practice and additional study of yoga.

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