This may seem totally counterintuitive for a yoga teacher to say but I’ve found the secret for keeping my sometimes-problematic-back from flaring up. And it’s not yoga. In fact it’s less yoga, and more pilates.
Don’t get me wrong, yoga is definitely great for back issues. With a consistent and smart yoga practice you can improve flexibility and strengthen muscles in all the right places. Depending on what your back is like, and how physically active you are, you might find that a gentle restorative practice alleviates pressure and slowly opens you up. Or try hatha or yin to get more stretching and strengthening without overdoing it. I also love a super hot class when I’m just feeling tight (using lots of props and modifications).
But if you’re anything like me, sometimes you push it a little too hard in yoga. Especially in vinyasa or power classes that include creative and dynamic flows and transitions. And I’m not saying all vinyasa or power classes are no good, but you may find yourself transitioning without engaging your core, moving from open hip to closed hip poses, and going too deep into poses, especially backbends (they feel sooo good in the moment, and sooo bad the next morning). All that can wreck havoc on your already sensitive back.
I learned the hard way. During my yoga teacher training I was practicing a ton of vinyasa yoga. I was getting into a lot of advanced variations of poses and loved to push myself. I took a mini retreat in LA with my teacher training class and we took classes with some of the best: Steven Earth, Bryan Kest, and Andrea Marcum. I noticed on the last day that my back wasn’t feeling great - I couldn’t engage my core enough to step from downdog to a low lunge, something normally super easy for me. Two days later I had to call in sick to work because I could barely walk.
I slowly got my mobility back. Heat pads and rest definitely helped. A year later I threw my back into spasm when I was adjusting a student in a backbend. It was worse than the previous year; I literally couldn’t walk for 3 days, straightening my low back and putting weight on my legs shot pain up my spine and caused loud, terrifying sounds to come from my mouth. I had to be carried to the bathroom and crawled around the house until I could get a doctor’s appointment. Western medicine prescribed muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories. Beau Casey of Chiropractique gave me an adjustment, and prescribed ice and pilates when the spasms stopped (thank you, Beau!).
My personal preference is to go as natural as possible when treating an injury or illness, and to find out the root cause so I can avoid or change my habits, so I super appreciated Dr. Casey’s advice. He’s also a former dancer and understood where my flexible back came from, and what core muscle strength was lacking in my body. He practiced pilates and knew that the systematic movements would strengthen my back and core, and help protect me from future injuries. In fact, pilates was first started as rehabilitation for injured patients in hospital beds by Joseph Pilates in England, and became popular with dancers when Pilates moved to New York in the 1920s. So it makes sense.
Since then I’ve tried (sometimes more successfully than others) to go to a pilates class at least once a week. I feel the best when I do pilates 2 – 3 times per week and yoga 2 – 3 times, and then either paddleboard, bike, hike, or swim for a little cardio.
And when I practice yoga, I check my ego at the door and do a more mellow, gentle flow if my back is feeling a bit sketchy.
Below is a 5 minute stretch sequence I like to do condensed into 15 seconds. A few of my favorite back-stretching poses are:
Psoas Release - supine with feet apart and knees together
Happy Baby – Ananda Balasana
Squat - Malasana
Ragdoll – Wide Leg Uttanasana
Pigeon or Reclined Pigeon
Cobbler’s Pose - Baddha Konasana
Child’s Pose (embryo) – Balasana
Bridge Pose Rolls Downs
Seated Rolls Downs and Roll Ups
So my advice is this: do your yoga, but watch your back!
Helen's Adventures as a Traveling Yogi
Follow my adventures on social media!