Fitness Magazine

Friday Q&A: Is Yoga Bad for Backs?

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
Q: Once a substitute yoga instructor stated that she didn't do anything every day, and that yoga can be bad for backs. Could you clarify why this opinion might be so? I love doing yoga, and would really like to know what's going on here.
Friday Q&A;: Is Yoga Bad for Backs?A: Yoga isn’t "bad for backs" but not all yoga asanas are appropriate for “bad backs.” As an example, let us look at a very common group of yoga poses, forward bends, which can be thought of as both “good” and “bad” for someone with a back injury. Forward bends can be bad in the sense that if too much force is generated by trying to come into the position at the vulnerable area in the back, this will most likely cause more pain and injury. Not bending from the hips to come forward but using the arms as a lever force to pull into a position is unsafe. However, learning to move from the hip joints and keeping the spine in its neutral curves is a very different way to practice forward bends. This is safe because soft tissue restrictions and lack of flexibility will limit range of motion before injury will occur. But the second variation needs a lot of instruction from the yoga teacher to the student to learn to protect the vulnerable area. Also some physical conditions preclude the practice of the asana no matter what precautions are used. This is why studying with a qualified yoga teacher is so important, especially for the student with injuries.
In general, backs don’t go “bad” but there are many factors that lead to backs not functioning optimally. In yoga, learning the skills of perception and discernment are critical. What makes your back feel better when you practice at home or go to class? What makes it feel worse? If you do forward bends and then your back hurts for two days, is this a good thing or not? Whenever you do backbends, if you get searing, burning pain down your left leg, should you continue to do backbends? YOU must answer these questions for yourself and not be dissuaded by someone who makes such an incorrect blanket statement about yoga being “bad for backs.”
Yes, if the practice of yoga asana is done with aggression and non-attention, it can be damaging to the physical body. If the student and the teacher are careless or ill trained then yes, injuries can occur. But for injury to occur, the practitioner is being misguided by the teacher and/or has a lack of pain perception that makes him or her unable to distinguish between “good” versus “bad” pain. Timothy McCall has addressed this issue in his response to William Broad’s claim that yoga is dangerous for men (see Is Yoga Really Dangerous for Men? and Many Bites Downward-Facing Dog).
You state that you love doing yoga. May I suggest that you ask yourself the question: Why do I like to do yoga? The next question to ask is: How does my make my back feel when I practice yoga and then afterward? You certainly don’t want to be in more pain after a practice than before a practice! So instead of blindly listening and obeying an overarching dictate that “yoga is bad for backs,” listen to your own back and let it be your teacher in how you practice asana.
And perhaps you might want to print out some of our prior posts on back management and yoga asana, and educate your health care providers on the benefits of yoga for many acute and chronic life challenges.
—Shari
NOTE FROM NINA: I’d like to add that in many cases yoga is GOOD for backs. It can help strengthen weak muscles and release overly tight muscles, improving posture and reducing back pain. Both Shari and Baxter teach yoga for back care, and there are back care yoga classes, workshops, and videos that are widely available for good reason. Our blog has quite a bit of information on yoga for back care, including Featured Sequence: Low Back Care and For the Young and Old: Back Care.

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