Yoga and Back Pain. Does It Really Help?
We know from personal experience that many students of Yoga first come to the Yoga Shala because of pain, physical pain.
In this regard, it is not uncommon for us to hear our students say how, after a few sessions, their back problems have improved considerably or are magically gone. Indeed, many people with sedentary lifestyles or jobs that require a lot of hours of sitting deal with chronic back pain problems. They first think of Yoga as a way to improve or manage their physical pain.
Certainly, some styles of Yoga are well suited to help students alleviate their back issues, but do we know why? We at ACEBE thought it would be an interesting exercise to condense a few of the actual reasons in a blog entry in case any of our readers is currently struggling with back problems.
Back Pain Be Gone!
In most cases where there is no previous history of physical trauma to the back or back injury, back pain problems stem from a lack of movement. In modern-day societies, the average person spends a great deal of time sitting (roughly 50 hours a week), often in positions that further contribute to back pain problems. To this, we must add the fact that the average person ––aka, most of us!–– also does not exercise as much as needed, or does so in an irregular way. We spend a great deal of our free time in activities that further contribute to our sedentary behavior; and so, all of these things combined explain why back pain problems are so widespread. Indeed, they explain why so many of us have gotten used to living with chronic back pain!
Lack of movement triggers the degeneration of the muscles and structures meant to support our upright position. But styles of Yoga like Tantric Hatha Yoga are very well suited for anyone interested in putting a stop to their back pain problems, since a great deal of its focus rests upon properly aligning, strengthening, and stretching the spine.
Tantric Hatha Yoga and the Spine
For us Tantric Hatha yogis, the spine is an area of the body of the utmost significance. Not only does it support a large number of physical structures, functions, and organs (such as our liver, pancreas, kidneys, lungs, stomach...), but it is an area of our subtle anatomy where a great deal of energy centers (chakras) and channels (nadis) are found. As such, in Tantric Hatha Yoga the focus of practice rests not so much on physical alignment (or on attaining 'postural perfection') but rather on correct spinal alienation.
In Tantric Hatha Yoga, correct spinal posture paired with proper breathing always comes first. We are in fact more than willing to sacrifice 'postural perfection' by slightly bending the knees or loosing some inches of flexibility in a given pose, for instance, in order to maintain our spine solid and upright. The reasons for this are two-fold.
As noted earlier, the spine is one of the most important parts of our gross anatomy, a structure that not only helps us be upright in two legs, but that, with the aid of other nearby structures, houses and protects a great many relevant organs. Ensuring the strength and stability of our spine, then, is investing in our long-term health by making sure that, whatever happens, this physical container of ours can properly hold us into place.
But those familiar with the subtle aspects of Tantra surely know that the spine is also one of Traditional Yoga's most relevant spiritual and esoteric 'channels.' A conduit for spiritual energy, the subtle nature of our spinal canal (with the three main nadis of Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna) is meant to help us direct the energy of our dormant Kundalini Shakti all the way up to the crown of our heads.
This is the reason why so many of Tantric Hatha Yoga's practices begin and end on opposite ends of the spine! We begin first by developing a gross awareness of our spine, its tone and overall condition ––where it feels tight, where it lacks mobility, where it feels light–– in order to strengthen it and all of its adjoined structures. And then, we progressively build our subtle awareness of the energies circulating through it, as well as of the nadis and chakras located alongside it.
An Then... Some!
Hence, Yoga can definitely help with back pain. The tradeoff with this ancient practice, unlike with workouts that only target the physical body, is that Tantric Hatha Yoga can help us work also on the very origin of our pain before it even manifests into a specific part of the physical body.
A great deal of our back pain comes from sustained (or chronic) stress; the kind of stress that many of us learn to cope with by clenching our teeth when we sleep, breathing shallowly while getting work done, seating in a stiff position at our desk for hours, etc. Most of these 'habits' go by unnoticed, developing progressively each day. But by strengthening our spine and learning to breathe adequately we engage also our nervous system; and once that engagement is established we work simultaneously on the body and the mind.