Before sticking to a regular yoga practice, I had suffered from chronic lower back pain for a number of years, so I know how depressing, frustrating and debilitating it can be trying to cope with a long-term injury.
It is easy to feel defeated and hopeless, but what I have learned is that instead of feeling angry and victimised by my limitations, I could choose to be proactive towards my self-care, and try to understand the message that my body was giving to me.
Chronic back pain is often caused by poor posture, lack of exercise and stress and tension, which can then precipitate an acute injury or inflammation. Yoga addresses these core issues and can be beneficial in the following ways:
- Yoga reduces stress.
Stress can be a huge factor in back pain, in fact, many doctors have found that the majority of back pain is not linked to any physical or structural damage to the spine, but is in fact, psychosomatic. (But that doesn’t make it any less painful or real!) The breathing and relaxation in yoga reduces stress and tension in the mind and body, and deep breathing also has the ability to reduce pain levels substantially.
- Yoga enhances flexibility.
Chronic back pain often results in tight, stiff muscles, not just in the back, but in the hips, hamstrings, pelvis and groin as well. This limits your range of movement and is the reason why you end up hobbling around like an old woman (or man!) when your back is playing up. Stretching these muscle groups and the surrounding fascia is vitally important in managing your back problem and helping to restore a full range of movement.
- Yoga improves local blood flow.
When your muscles are tight and stiff, there is reduced blood flow to the area which means less nourishment going into the cells in the area and less removal of toxic waste out of the area, which is not a healthy scenario. When you stretch and open a contracted area, your body can nourish the affected area with ease and improve fluidity and suppleness.
- Yoga improves posture and alignment.
Poor posture is the number one cause of lower back problems. By not holding our body in proper alignment, we put a lot of pressure on one or two vertabrae in our back, which can weaken them over time. This is often due to weak abdominal muscles not doing their fair share of the work in holding our spine upright. Yoga builds core strength and works on the deep abdominal muscles necessary for proper posture and alignment – a very important factor in preventing flare-ups or re-injury.
- Yoga makes us aware of our body and our limitations.
One of the more subtle but important benefits of yoga that occurs over time is the ability to enhance our own self-awareness, both physically and mentally. We become more aware of when we are stressed and tense and are more inclined to do something about it. We also become more aware of the stiffness and pain in our bodies that can vary day to day, and so we can adjust our actions accordingly, and prevent injury. Yoga also teaches us to be more accepting and compassionate towards ourselves, and to respect the limits placed on us by our pain, rather than pushing through them or ignoring them. Yoga helps you to meet yourself where you are, and gently take it from there.
A word of caution:
If you think yoga can help you with your back pain, check with your doctor or physiotherapist first and make sure you have an accurate diagnosis. Also, get some advice from an experienced yoga teacher on specific poses that are tailored to your unique situation. Respect your limits and don’t try to push through any pain you may experience!
If you have any tips or personal experience with back problems, please share in the comments below so that we can all benefit!