Back Pain, Yoga and Ahimsa – first do no harm

As an Osteopath and Yoga Teacher I am often asked about back pain and Yoga.

Yoga can be a great tool for managing back pain, it can also potentially be the cause of back pain or can sometimes make it worse.

As a newly qualified Yoga Teacher I was often terrified of people injuring themselves in a class or turning up and saying they had back pain. I did a very thorough teacher training course with Friends of Yoga. However most 200 hour teacher training syllabuses qualify teachers to instruct fit, healthy people. Not someone with a diagnosed back condition. They may provide some instruction on adaptations. But they do not have the tools to use Yoga as a prescription. You need to train as Yoga Therapist for this which is a very different qualification.

The problem for teachers is that back pain is so common and it covers a real spectrum of issues that people end up in general classes anyway. Sometimes through no fault of the teacher people do hurt themselves in a class. It is really important then that these teachers have to know how to manage back issues safely in a class with lots of other people.

This was the the reason I became an Osteopath in the first place; I wanted to be able to understand why people have back pain and be able to help them using Yoga instead of worrying that I could making them worse. It is also the reason that I now run training days for teachers to give them the confidence and knowledge to be able to respond appropriately when a student turns round and says “I have disc herniation at L4/5…”

The foundation of these training days is the principle of AHIMSA (non-harming); this is an ethical principle that forms one part of the foundation of Hatha Yoga. It should be applied to yourself when practicing yoga and to teachers in their execution of their classes.

YOGA SHOULD NOT CAUSE HARM

If someone is in pain during a Yoga class they should stop, the posture should be adjusted safely or swapped for a different movement before continuing. If the pain persists after some appropriate exercise or movement practice then it is advisable to get help from either your GP or privately from an Osteopath or Physiotherapist.

What you should NOT do is google what postures are best for back pain and follow some generic advice on the internet. This is one of my pet hates. At best its irresponsible, at worst its dangerous. You cannot prescribe Yoga postures for back pain (or any pain for that matter) without first assessing that person and understanding what is the cause of their pain.

The internet is littered with articles titled ‘Top 10 poses for Sciatica’ or ‘5 poses to help with your sore back’. Whilst in some cases they may help, in others they could make things much worse. The poses may be appropriate in some cases but its how that individual approaches the movement in relation to the current experience of their pain that makes the difference and there is not a one size fits all answer.

So in regards to these articles, please stop writing them and please do not share them.

You cannot guarantee that you are not causing someone harm, so why take the risk?

And please if you are in pain be VERY carefully about blindly following these generic articles as some magic cure. Show them to your healthcare professional to ask their opinion before doing them.

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Aimee Newton

Aimee Newton

Aimee Newton is a Tutor and Assessor for Friends of Yoga and has been teaching for 16 years. She is also a Registered Osteopath and runs popular CPD days for Yoga Teachers on Anatomy and Physiology both face to face and online.