How Yoga Can Help Injuries—Especially Low Back Pain

Medically reviewed in December 2021

Injuries can have a big impact on our daily routines and our sense of well-being. They can contribute to the stress we may already be feeling by making us shift our movement patterns and routines to accommodate the pain.

In fact, injury is one of the most common issues that my yoga students discuss with me. At one time or another in our lives, we experience some kind of injury. Types of injuries can range from athletic injuries to injuries from falls, or to the most common: a lower back injury. In some cases, a low back injury can lead to chronic pain.

Yoga and Chronic Pain

When we are injured we have the tendency to try to push through the pain and ignore the symptoms, stop all movement for fear of further injury or something in-between.

For many, and depending on the level of pain, I understand that the idea of moving at all can be scary. It’s often hard to know the best actions to take. A study published in the July 2017 edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that yoga may help alleviate the pain from some injuries. Researchers at Boston Medical Center found that yoga that is specifically designed to meet the needs of those suffering from chronic low back pain by helping increase mobility and significantly reducing symptoms of pain.

What Yoga Poses Work for Lower Back Pain?

Researchers found that practices like cobra pose, locust pose, twist and “knees to chest” pose helped with chronic pain. These familiar poses are also some of the poses we use in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine to help stop and reverse heart disease, along with a low-fat plant-based diet, exercise and group support.

The stress management element of Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is not exactly the same as the yoga program outlined in this study, but many of our participants also report that their chronic low back symptoms start to improve after practicing yoga in the program.

Elements of Yoga That Help Heal Injuries

  1. Yoga increases awareness
    Also known as mindfulness, this awareness can serve to connect us to our relationship with the injury. We may have an unconscious movement pattern that’s adding to the injury, for example. Increasing our awareness to how we are moving can be the first step in changing a pattern that isn’t working anymore.
  2. Yoga relaxes muscle tension
    If we allow the chronically overworked muscles that may be protecting an injury to relax and soften, we are less likely to experience the pain that can go along with the injury. It can also help to prevent further injury if we’re relaxed while moving.

How to Practice Yoga with Injuries

Whether you have a back injury or some other injury, there are ways to modify your yoga practice to help find your way back to health.

  1. Move slow and do less
    With an injury, it’s important to move slowly and do a little less until you can find patterns of movement that don’t aggravate your condition or create more pain. In time, you’ll find ways that you can move and work with (and around) your injuries.
  2. Use imagery
    Before actually moving into a pose, imagine yourself doing it in your mind’s eye. If you can’t imagine doing it, don’t do it. Just work with the imagery practice. Imagery alone can help clear obstacles and create new pathways that can, in time, help with the healing process. You may need to focus more on the internal practices like breathing, relaxation, imagery and meditation until the area is healed.
  3. Use breath
    Allow your breath to lead you. If you find you are holding your breath or your breathing becomes irregular or shallow, try doing less in the poses. See if you can breathe in, around and through the injured area. Use the exhale breath to imagine letting go of any tensions or pain. Use the inhale to bring energy to the affected area and promote healing.
  4. Ask your body
    Take time during your practice to ask your body what it needs and what adjustments you should make. This kind of attunement helps to strengthen your inner healer. It may guide you in healing your injury and allow you to stay tuned in so as not to reinjure the area.

This content originally appeared on Ornish Living.

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