Does Yoga Help Your Back Pain

Yoga and Back Pain

Since I seem to be getting back to my roots a little more lately;

Let’s keep it up, shall we?

Today the folks over at Back Intelligence posted “Is Yoga Good for Back Pain?” and proved just how very smart they are. How did they do that? By agreeing with me, of course.

Somewhere along the way I spilled a pixel or two answering their question with the exact same answer:

Q:           Is yoga good for back pain?

A:            That depends.

Yes, yes, yes, I know, a bit non-committal on both our parts., but being non-committal doesn’t really matter though, because it’s true. Yoga can be awesome for both

  • fixing your back pain, or
  • causing your back pain

Which answer you get depends on a large number of factors.

  • What is the cause of your back pain?
  • What kind of yoga are you doing?
  • How good/knowledgeable/experienced is your teacher?
  • What is your body structure?
  • What is your fitness level?
  • What is your core strength?
  • And many more.

To illustrate these points I will tell you the tale of two yogas; Bikram Yoga and Pranalife Yoga. The difference between them is the difference between a franchise burger, and a gourmet burger.

A franchise burger:

  • Is made according to a standard set out by the corporate leadership
  • Is made to be the same no matter which franchise you buy it in
  • Does not need any particular knowledge of cooking principles, only the ability to follow a script

A gourmet burger:

  • Is made according to the desires of the cook
  • Is tailored to the tastes of both the cook and the consumer
  • Requires an understanding of cooking principles, especially as applied to burgers.

I think I’ll stop the analogy there before it gets too strained. Anyway, the first bit describes Bikram Yoga and its teachers, where the second bit describes Asia Nelson and Pranalife Yoga.

When I began a regular Bikram practice 10 years ago I did what I always do with any new thing; I took it as a challenge and went at it hard. I received a ton of benefits (which I’ve written about at great length) but I also paid a price. A price I didn’t even know I was paying until I encountered Asia.

When I began working with Asia once or twice a week, I knew I had found something unique and special. Over the course of the next couple of years I learned more about the principles of yoga and healthy movement than I had in the entire rest of my life.

Along the way I learned that

  • “Out of the box” yoga postures are designed for a particular body, one which I do not have.
  • There are anatomical limitations on your body’s movement
  • These limitations can be genetic; your body simply may not be able to do them due to the way you were built at birth.
  • These limitations can be due to your life’s story; for example an injury may make a particular movement impossible.

Now, some time ago I wrote a series on modifying Bikram for people with flexion intolerant lower backs. The reason I did this is that Bikram yoga has a script. The teacher recites the script. You follow the script. If you don’t follow the script the teacher “corrects” you so that you’re following the script, even if following the script has the potential to cause you serious injury.

Unfortunately, there are a number of postures in the series that, done the Bikram way, will not only NOT help your back pain and posture (in spite of what the script says) they WILL MAKE IT WORSE. If I hadn’t trained with Asia, eventually doing Bikram by the script would have caused me serious injury.

Don’t believe me? In the last class before the China Flu shutdown the teacher (whose class I thoroughly enjoy, by the way) “corrected” an “error” I was making. I told him, briefly, why I was making a modification and he insisted (futilely, by the way) that I do it the Bikram way. If I did it the Bikram way, long term I would have blown out my lumbar discs.


Insisting I do something because “that’s the way it is” in the script is a waste of your breath. I’m 52 years old, have done more years of Bikram yoga than my studio owner and I’m as stubborn as a mule. Seriously, I’ve got me a major case of highlander pigheadedness.

Anyway, over the course of those first two years with Asia we workshopped every single Bikram posture. We started from the posture’s purpose, then applied my physiological and movement limitations to it to come up with a spine healthy way for me to do the posture to reap the max benefits, for me.

The result?

I still get to do my regular Bikram practice (at least I could until some Chinese bat eater made that temporarily impossible), and I get to do it no only without causing harm to my back and posture, but actually helping same.