February 21, 2014

It’s a Pain in the Back: How to Practice Yoga Safely & Effectively. ~ Emilie Mikulla

Backbend Yoga


Discectomy? Fusion? Spasms? Welcome to the ever-growing club of back pain sufferers.

As a yoga teacher who has had two spine surgeries, I can sympathize with those students dealing with back issues. Whether they are suffering from a herniated disc or chronic lower back pain, many of these students come to class unsure about how they should handle a pose or whether they should even be practicing at all.

Living with a back pain is like a battle of wills. There were times when if felt as if my spine spoke to me. I was not always willing to listen to my body. To deal with the pain, I would spend hours in the pool. It was the only place where I would find relief from the pain. I could finally exhale. I would have done anything to make the pain stop, including standing on my head and praying to the stars. These days the only standing on my head I do is in Headstand and when I look to the stars I know it won’t be followed by back spasms.

Practicing yoga while suffering from back pain is possible but it should be done responsibly.

1. Speak Up:  Always notify the teacher at the start of the class if you are suffering from an injury. I have taught classes where students would not mention that they had an injury until 60 minutes into the class. Teachers can offer modifications to help you move within your range of motion and prevent further injury.

2. Don’t be afraid to use props: Props are your best friends. Sitting on a blanket while in Dandasana will help you lengthen out of your lower back and make the pose more accessible and sustainable. If Paschimottanasana aggravates a disc issue, you can use a belt to keep the spine long. Or forego the traditional pose altogether and lie down on the floor on your back with legs flat or with legs up the wall.

3. Always fold from the hips: Many of us mistakenly believe that when folding over, we must touch our toes. Tight hamstrings cause us to round the spine instead of folding from the hips. You can modify the pose by placing your hands on your shins or bending your knees. Using props such as a belt or a block will help you keep proper form while you work on the pose. With regular practice, your hamstrings and hips will begin to release, allowing you to fold from the hips more comfortably without changing the natural curvature of the spine.

4. Twists: While twisting is an excellent way to explore breathing patterns, hydrate discs and massage organs, it can also exacerbate certain back conditions, such as disc prolapse. Ease into the twist, making sure you are twisting from the ribcage rather than the pelvis. As with all poses, keep hips level.

5. Feel the pose: The ability to feel truly is a gift. The various layers of sensations help us to deepen our inner experience. By really feeling the pose, you will know when you have moved past your edge. You may feel discomfort and that is okay. What is not okay is feeling pain while in a pose. Pain is a sign that you need to back off. If you feel pain in any pose, take yourself out of the pose and ask the teacher for a modification.

6. Work the core: By strengthening the deep abdominal and spinal muscles your spine will be more stable and supported; posture will improve. In addition, you will also reduce risk of injury during your Yoga practice. When done correctly, plank and boat are excellent poses to strengthen the core.

Injuries are a blessing.

They teach us to honor and accept our bodies with compassion and humility. They allow us to look deeply within and feel in a whole new way. The battle of wills between me and my spine is over.

Most of the time, I am pain-free. I acknowledge that there are times when I may have to skip a few days of practice due to my back injury. Half the battle is in our attitude—our bodies will surprise us and our mind is our greatest ally.

Stay positive and believe that you can move past your perceived limitations.

And most importantly, never stop moving.

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Editorial Assistant: Carrie Marzo/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Chris Mare/Pixoto

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Emilie Mikulla