Should I be doing yoga?

Brief History of Yoga

Yoga originated in ancient India circa 3,000 BC and offers an excellent blend of meditation, respiratory training, and movement. Practitioners of yoga enjoy the relaxing benefits of a class, most commonly performed in a heated room. Anyone who has taken a yoga class understands the mental focus and physical resiliency required to successfully complete a practice. In fact, the breathing practice utilized in yoga called ‘pranayama’ is very similar to the diaphragmatic breathing exercises we teach our patients in the clinic.

Should I be doing yoga?

Yoga has gained immense popularity in this country over the last decade. As a result, many patients ask for advice on whether or not they should be practicing yoga. My overwhelming answer is yes! Any physical practice that promotes movement, whether it is yoga, pilates, weightlifting, or running – is beneficial to the human body and should always be encouraged.  However, the main caveat I give my patients when it comes to yoga is they need to understand which movements are healthy for their body’s and which movements are potentially damaging. Certain injuries or movement deficiencies can put the body at risk if you don’t know when to modify the yoga pose or to avoid it all together.

Low back pain and yoga

Let’s look at some examples.  Chiropractors treat many patients with low back pain.  Many patients experience increased back pain with sitting, picking items up off the floor, and bending forward to tie their shoes.  The common theme is rounding postures of the low back, termed ‘flexion’ is provocative for these patient’s low backs. We term this type of back pain ‘flexion intolerant low back pain’. A patient with flexion intolerant low back pain should avoid flexion based activities while their low back is in the healing stages. Very often, these patients respond well to exercises or static positions that place the low back in extension – adhering to the natural lordotic curve of the lumbar spine.

If after assessment in the clinic the Chiropractor decides the patient will benefit from extension based exercises or static positions,  the patient will be counseled to avoid all flexion based activities or postures for the low back (bending forward, prolonged sitting, etc.) during the initial stages of rehabilitation.  If you have taken a yoga class, you are familiar with the numerous forward folds and sustained toe touches that are done during the class to stretch out the calves and hamstrings. If a patient is experiencing flexion intolerant low back pain, performing 20-30 forward folds in an hour practice is harmful to the body.  In a patient prone to back pain, persistent forward bending places stress on the discs, nerves, ligaments, and muscles of the low back. Even Child’s pose position places the low back in end ranges of flexion and should be avoided for most acute back pain patients. Instead of forward folding, perform the downward dog position which will give similar benefits of stretching the calves and hamstrings while keeping a neutral spine.

Shoulder/ neck pain and yoga

Inversion pose requiring extreme amounts of neck, shoulder, and scapular stability.

Another example is a patient with shoulder and/or neck pain.  Handstands, headstands, and other inversion based poses are very popular in yoga. Teachers cite the benefit of reversing the gravitational flow of blood in the body for improvements in circulation.  While I agree with this notion, patients with shoulder and neck pain should not be putting this amount of stress on their muscles and joints. Performing a proper head or hand stand requires extreme levels of shoulder and scapular stability – something many beginning yogis do not possess.  If you have shoulder or neck pain and are new to yoga, do not try and impress the rest of the class by forcing yourself into an inversion pose. Instead, ask your teacher to show you a regressed version that does not place as much stress on your neck and shoulders.

Knee pain and yoga

Standing tree pose. Notice how the knee is in end ranges of flexion and is also placed under rotational stress.

Last, the athlete with knee pain needs to be careful with certain yoga postures. Patient’s with current knee pain or a history of knee pain and surgery need to be cautious with certain yoga poses.  Popular poses that impose large amounts of stress on the knee joint include the full squat (frog pose), hero pose (sitting on heels and laying backwards), pigeon pose (lying body weight on top of figure 4 pose), and standing tree pose.  The common theme with these positions is they add load to the knee joint in extreme ranges of flexion and rotation. When the knee is forced into end ranges of flexion and rotation, the muscles and ligaments of the knee are placed under stress, which is amplified if previous or current injury exists. Instead of fighting through the pain to complete the class, work on poses like the lunge, warrior 1 and 2, bridge pose, and chair pose.  These poses will strengthen the muscles and ligaments of the knee in less extreme ranges of motion.

Pigeon pose places high amounts of rotational stress on the knee.
Warrior 2 pose. Notice how the knee is not in extreme end ranges of motion. This position builds strength and stability in the front knee.

Your Yoga Practice

Practicing yoga should be challenging but pain free and relaxing at the same time.  If you are constantly fighting through pain in yoga, you are missing out on the many benefits of a successful practice. Do not feel bad about modifying your practice to work around injuries.  Always remember it is YOUR practice, and not everyone else in the room. Make sure to communicate all injuries to teachers before the class starts so they can help you with modifications to make sure you get the same benefits as everyone else.  As always, if you have a lingering injury that does not seem to be getting better, make sure to consult a health care professional who can diagnose and correct your specific issue.

Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC.  Check out his bio here.

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