Whenever I go to social gatherings and people inevitably ask, “what do you do?” And I proudly reply, “I’m a physical therapist.” A frequent response is, “Well, I have ____ going on. I looked it up on the internet and I think it might be ____. Does that sound right?” Another common question is, “I have back pain, it’s really nothing, but it comes and goes. I like yoga. Is it okay to still do yoga or will that hurt my back?”
Most physicians, therapists, and others hate getting these questions in social situations. I love them! My wife has to step in and say, “maybe you could go see him at his office.” She knows if I commit to answering this question, I’ll ask lots of follow-up questions.
Yoga also has many forms: Kundalini, Hatha, Bikram, Iyengar, Ashtanga. The list goes on. Also, the nature, demeanor and knowledge of the instructor can make a difference, not to mention his/her knowledge of you and your situation. I’d also consider: when are you doing yoga? Is it after you’ve done three hours of yard work? Is it after you’ve been sitting in a chair all day? After you’ve gone for a run? How often do you practice?
These are all externals, but then there’s a host of internals: where is your pain? Does it feel different when you do yoga? Does it feel better or worse right afterwards? Do you feel it during certain poses? These are all important questions, but so are: how does yoga make you feel? Is it a mental release and a physical one? Does this decrease your stress? Is this something that makes you feel more like yourself? Are you able to be more present/mindful/engaged/satisfied with life when you practice yoga? Like I said, plenty of follow-up questions. Depending on how you answer these questions, you may require a different conclusion.
Here are some ways to answer this question for yourself:
1. Movement helps reduce pain: ‘motion is lotion’ is a common adage among movement experts. It’s true! When your brain is sensing danger in an area of your body, like your lower back, and you move that area, your brain will dial down that danger-meter and produce less pain. So movement is good.
2. Michael Merzenich, a well-known researcher of neuroplasticity states, “The feelings and thoughts about movement are inseparable from the movement itself.” Movement, emotion, and the pain experience are highly interconnected. I plan to unpack this in future blog posts, but for now, if yoga makes you feel happy about yourself, increases your self-confidence and you feel more satisfaction about life, then do it!
3. Some movements can be problematic depending on your unique anatomy. For example, if your back aches when you lean forward, but maybe not enough to make you stop doing it. Well, this movement can cause injury if it’s repeated enough or sustained past a safe point. In this case, avoid this movement for a short while to allow healing to take place or you might have to change how you perform the movement. Although it’s important not to fear movement which can cause complete avoidance, deconditioning and more pain. Many therapists would scold me and accuse me of inducing fear of movement with a recommendation to avoid a movement, even temporarily.
4. What is your self-audit system? If you’re conscientious about your financial budget, you check on it to make sure you’re on track. How do you do this with your body? You go to the dentist every 6 months. You get an annual physical exam. Who checks your movement? Do you do it yourself? What’s your self-assessment look like? Maybe you use your yoga class as your self-audit system, meaning, if you can do your yoga class, then your body must work okay. If that’s the case, I have to ask: why are different poses and sequences of poses, different holds considered good for your body? Did the inventor of that pose take into account your personal anatomy, your daily activities and habits, your developmental process and how Wolf’s law uniquely shaped your body? While I’m not knocking yoga, I am critical of a statement that you should be able to do _____ pose just for the sake of getting your body in that position unless it’s something that’s demanded of you regularly and has validity outside of its own use.
5. Is your practice heavy on holding certain poses at end-ranges for extended periods of time? If so, it’s not necessarily bad, but it can carry greater risk. This can destabilize your joints and create other problems. Stretch any joint to end range and hold it for 3-4 minutes. Do it every day. Breathe through it. After a month, see how it feels. It probably won’t be good. The point is, not all stretching is beneficial. It has to be intentional, and there should be a purpose behind it.
Crucial to answering the question about engaging in yoga is also the amount. Do you have to do a 60 minute class? What if you just do 15 minutes? Maybe a class can expose you to some areas you are deficient. Then you can work on those areas more intently outside of class?
If yoga is important to you because it brings you fulfillment, peace, social engagement, or confidence, that’s great! Don’t get caught up in feeling like you have to perform every pose like a cirque-du-soleil performer. If you keep up a consistent yoga practice yet your back pain persists week to week without full resolution, then something is amiss. Could be time to look for a different self-audit.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.