I’ve been asked several times this week about the best kind of yoga specifically for persistent back pain. The short answer is – it depends. We’d need to find out a bit more about you before we confidently recommend something.
If someone asked “What kind of foods should I eat for my tummy pain?” you would probably ask a few questions to understand the problem. Do they know what the cause is? How long has the tummy pain been there? What have they already tried?
It’s the same with yoga.
Briefly, yoga helps people with persistent pain by calming the nervous system through breathing techniques and mindful concentration. This signals to your brain that things are OK, which allows you to be more comfortable with movement. Presuming you have ruled out anything you’re worried about, the kind of yoga to do depends on a number of factors.
Yoga helps with mechanical issues by teaching healthy movement
Research shows that both yoga and stretching help with chronic back pain. If your back pain is mechanical – that is, you move in a way that aggravates your pain or tightens your muscles, slow mindful movement can help you find better ways to use your body. Feldenkrais and other somatic methods are also excellent for developing pain-free movement.
You need a responsive core, not a rock solid strong one
Lots of people with pain say that all their problems would be solved if only they had a stronger core. A ‘middle” that moves well is great, but the abs of steel we aimed for in the 90s won’t actually help pain. What you really need is muscle that turns on the right amount when you need it. Because yoga encourages a steady but relaxed body, you learn to engage muscles at different capacities, rather than simply “on” or “off”.
Persistent back pain tends to be unrelated to injury
One study suggests that 85% of people with back pain don’t have an actual problem that causes the pain. While a scan may show up all sorts of irregularities, other people with those same signs often experience no pain. Persistent pain with no sign of injury tends to result from a sensitised nervous system. The best yoga is then a practice that calms your nervous system, and lets you gradually build confidence in your range of movement.
The best yoga for someone with back pain is yoga that doesn’t aggravate your pain, helps calm your nervous system, and then helps you to be able to do what you want to do in life, comfortably and effortlessly. Generally, this means beginning with a gentle class, attending regularly to get the benefits, and progressing when you are ready.
Read more here about how to enjoy yoga when you experience persistent pain.