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Yoga And Your Back

In the early part of the year, the NY Times ran an article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” publishing an excerpt of a book written by William J. Broad entitled ”The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.”

Sadly, the excerpt is written from a negative perspective recounting story after story of injuries incurred during yoga practice, including one by an experience yoga teacher.

The theory here is that a) some postures are not for everyone, b) some are performing postures poorly and c) the extreme movements of yoga create increased wear and tear on the spine.

So, lets tackle each of these points one by one.

First off, all postures are not for all people! When starting yoga, one should begin with the easier poses and really learn to feel their movements and their body as they become more conditioned. Despite our inner competive natures, mirroring the yogi next to you is not in your best interest. Listen to your body. Also, depending on the history of your physical self (previous injuries, physical capacity and inherent flexibility, surgeries, etc.) some postures may simply not be for you, or may require modification. Your yoga instructor can help you with this.

Next is the how  you are posing and the quality of your movement. This is where your Yoga instructor can really help you and how the DVD you bought at the grocery store check-out offers very little. In fact, have you ever participated in a class and heard the instructor say over and over ”lengthen your spine,” or ”avoid rounding your back?” Have you ever had the instructor gently tap your hips to correct your posture….again…and again…. This is because they are seeing your overall positioning, the big picture. How your hips transition force between your lower legs and spine. How your ankles support your weight or even seeing excess motion through your shoulders. When performed properly yoga poses promote flexibility and strength. When performed improperly, they can cause increased joint and muscle strain. This can, and will, lead to injury. Which is why the quality of your pose is key, not the depth with which you settle into it.

Now for extreme movements causing harm. Rather timely, a 2011 study in the European Spine Journal looked at the prevalence of degenerative disc disease in yoga instructors and compared them to a control group. When evaluated through MRI scans, there was a relative absence of disc disease in those practicing yoga. While this was a small study, its findings are still relevant. Based on this peer-reviewed publication, it appears that yoga may actually be protective compared to Mr. Broad’s opinion that the extreme ranges of motion are actually damaging to the spine. Once again however, the caution is in the quality of the movement performed.

How does one ensure this quality of movement? By working with a certified yoga instructor, with proper training and credentials. ”A qualified yoga teacher understands and is able to teach proper form and alignment to maximize benefits and minimize the risk to the student” says Darlene Maclachlan, Registered Yoga Teacher with The Yoga and Wellness Studio in Smiths Falls.

This concept translates into many other areas. My golf swing looks worthy of a spot on TSN in my own mind. Not so much to a golf pro. The same is true with entering a yoga pose, especially for beginners. If the goal is a forward fold, we will all figure out a way get there. Afterall, everybody puts their socks on in the morning. Working with a yoga instructor will help you focus on on the journey, rather than the destination. This will help you get their safely.

Of course, injuries occur in all recreational activities, from lawn bowling to rugby. There are no guarantees in life. But we can reduce the risk with careful planning,  appropriate caution, training and practice. If you have greater concerns regarding yoga and your spinal health, consult your chiropractor for more information.



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