The ancient practice of yoga is good for the mind and spirit. It's also good for the body—and, for back pain in particular, according to two studies, among the largest randomized controlled trials on yoga ever done.
In the first study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 228 Americans with chronic back pain of unknown cause were split into three groups. One group attended weekly 75-minute yoga classes that included poses adapted to the physical needs and conditions of each person (a practice called viniyoga), along with breathing exercises and guided deep relaxation. A second group was assigned to intense weekly stretching classes, which included 15 stretches along with some strengthening exercises. In addition, both groups were given CDs or DVDs and asked to practice on their own for 20 minutes a day the rest of the week. A third group received a self-care handbook on back pain but did neither yoga nor stretching.
After 12 weeks, both the yoga and stretching groups had greater reductions in back pain and other symptoms and more improvement in function than the self-care group. They also needed less pain medication. Moreover, the benefits lasted through the study's three-month follow-up.
The researchers were surprised, actually, that the stretching group fared as well as the yoga group. But as they pointed out, the two classes had much in common; with the results suggesting that "yoga's benefits were largely attributable to the physical benefits of stretching and strengthening the muscles and not to its mental components."
Either of these practices is a reasonable treatment option, they concluded. In fact, many types of exercise or movement therapy may help back pain.The second study, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, followed more than 300 people in England with chronic or recurrent low back pain. Similarly, it found that yoga (12 weekly classes) led to greater improvements in back function—for up to 12 months—compared to usual care. At least eight previous small studies, using different yoga protocols, have also had favorable results.
Additional Yoga Benefits
Yoga can promote relaxation and reduce stress. It can improve balance, posture and coordination. Some postures, such as the Bridge and Warrior, can build strength. Faster-paced forms of yoga (as in "power yoga") burn more calories and boost heart rate more, but not as much as true aerobic workouts.
Some studies have found that yoga can reduce weight, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and cholesterol, according to a 2007 review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, though the optimal duration and intensity still need to be determined.
Safe Yoga Practices
But yoga can also cause injuries, especially if you're a beginner.
- If you have any kind of musculoskeletal problem or previous injury, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist first. Even gentler forms of yoga can strain joints and other body parts.
- Begin with a small, basic-level class (or private/semi-private lessons) where you can get more individualized attention—not with home DVDs or videos.
- If you are not fit, avoid strenuous classes, such as Ashtanga, "power yoga" or "yogarobics."
- Stop if you feel pain or get dizzy.
- Don't compare yourself to others in your class. Don't force yourself beyond your normal range of motion.
- Be aware that there's no licensing for yoga instructors; those at gyms may have little training. Ask about the type of yoga they teach and their experience. Instructors and schools registered with the Yoga Alliance must meet at least minimal educational standards.
Adapted from The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (February 2012)