Who knew that being a poser could be so good for your back pain?
Now I know what you may be thinking at the mention of yoga...
"Yoga? Isn’t that just for hippies, vegans and women in lycra?"
"I’d have nothing in common with anyone there"
"If any of my mates found out I was doing yoga I’d be laughed out of town"
"And anyway, don’t you need superhuman flexibility to be able to do it?"
"I can’t even touch my toes! I’d look ridiculous at a yoga class"
"It’d be embarrassing"
"I’d feel too self-conscious"
"Everyone would laugh at me when I couldn’t do it as well as them"
And so on….
These thoughts can all block you from giving yoga a try.
However these preconceptions are usually way off the mark.
What if I told you the benefits of regular yoga practice could improve your health, happiness and activity levels?
Would it be worth a try then?
Also what if I also told you it helped to reduce your pain levels?
And gave you increased confidence in your body and it's capabilities which will make it easier to manage and live with chronic pain.
Whilst also leaving you feeling less stressed, more relaxed and less prone to depression.
Surely it would be worth getting over our hang ups and giving it a go then right?
Read on and I’ll explain just how big a help yoga can be for for people with chronic lower back pain.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga originated in India and is a form of exercise that has been used for managing persistent pain for over 4000 years (3).
And it's more than just stretching.
It is a physical, mental and spiritual practice which aims to harmonise and develop mind, body and spirit to maximise your health.
This is acheived through combining physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation.
However, despite it's ancient origins, yoga has been through a few transitions since being introduced to the western world.
In the 1960s it was adopted by the new-age community and seen as a form of spiritual enlightenment alongside meditation.
However by the 1980s it became more popular as a form of exercise.
Postures and movements were adapted to suit western exercise routines, and the spiritual angle was cast to one side.
The problem with this is that by viewing yoga solely as exercise you lose many of its great benefits.
Fortunately for us, in more recent times yoga has seen a definite trend to bring back the spiritual and meditative side of the practice alongside the physical postures.
Which is great news.
As only through combining the body, mind and spirit during yoga practice can you reap the full benefits of what yoga has to offer.
Now don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to engage in deep, inner soul-searching or anything like that.
It just means that by listening to your body and mind and getting into tune with them, you can become more aware and confident within yourself when it comes to dealing with your pain.
So yoga can be great for people with chronic pain.
However despite the potential benefits of yoga there is still a reluctance by men to try it, especially in blue collar professions.
Do Men Do Yoga?
When you look at most yoga classes you will see that more often than not the women outnumber the men.
Sometimes massively so.
Which is quite ironic when you consider that yoga developed in India thousands of years ago as a predominantly male practice!
But since its rise in popularity in the western world, yoga has been thought of as a feminine exercise.
This has put men off from giving it a go, either through lack of interest in trying an ‘activity for girls’ or through perceived embarrassment at being seen to try ‘an activity for girls’.
I have experience of this personally.
I got into yoga in my early twenties when I could still play football.
Not only did it keep me flexible and supple, it really cleared my mind.
It made me feel great.
But did I recommend it to any of my team-mates?
Not a chance!
In fact I kept it a secret, as I was expecting a barrage of mickey-taking if they ever found out.
Pretty ridiculous, eh?
I was embarrassed to be seen doing something that I was enjoying and was feeling the benefit from.
Nowadays I’m a bit older and have no qualms about recommending yoga to everyone.
But the same stigma that I felt in the football dressing room is still there in factories, on building sites and in many male-dominated environments today.
And on top of the stigma, there is also a perception that yoga doesn’t fit with the male stereotype sports that society says men ‘should’ be doing.
- It's not macho like football, rugby, boxing or lifting weights at the gym.
- It's not competitive.
- It's not 'real' exercise.
- You can't build muscle from it.
- If you can't get a proper workout, then isn't it just a waste of time?
And so on…….
These perceptions can be hard to overcome.
Yet they are mostly not true!
For instance, certain yoga poses require you to hold your full body weight, and are great for muscle strengthening.
Also some yoga styles work at moving through a flow of postures, which resembles much more of an aerobic workout than the common perception of yoga would suggest.
Plus I defy anyone to take a 90-minute hot Bikram yoga class and not work up a sweat!
The one perception above that is true is that yoga is not competitive.
But is that such a bad thing?
While us men have a primal urge to compete, life is full of competition already.
So your yoga practice can actually provide a pleasant diversion from the constant competition that surrounds you.
Therefore as men we need to get past this stigma and these preconceptions.
Overcoming The Male Stigma Towards Yoga
I love that video.
I think it highlights perfectly all the issues I talked about regarding the male stigma towards yoga, and it's great to hear how those guys overcame that and went on to really enjoy yoga and feel the health benefits.
And thankfully these stories are becoming more commonplace.
Social acceptance of the benefits of yoga for men is gradually catching on.
For instance, professional sports clubs are starting to incorporate yoga into their player’s routines as it has multiple benefits for them, such as increased muscle strength and flexibility, plus it also lowers the likelihood of injury.
In fact, Ryan Giggs credits regular yoga practice with allowing him to continue to play Premier League football for Manchester United until the age of 40 years-old (Read the full article here).
Endorsements such as this will encourage more men to try yoga.
However while this stigma can (and has) been challenged, it can be tough to overturn completely.
One example of this came from the story of a long-time construction worker turned yoga teacher in San Francisco called Allan Nett (Read the full article here).
Now as I'm sure you are aware, construction workers suffer a high prevalence of back, shoulder, knee and muscle pain because of the physical demands their work places on them (1).
Allan had felt the benefits that yoga had for him in limiting these problems during his time working in construction, and came up with a tailored program to help his fellow construction workers achieve the same benefits.
However he also knew full well the stigma attached to yoga amongst the men working in the construction industry, so he changed a couple of aspects to try and help the workers get past this.
Firstly, he changed the names of the yoga poses from their traditional Indian sanskrit names, and re-named them after the names of construction tools such as the plumb-bob and the bevel-square.
By doing this he was aiming to make the yoga terms seem more familiar and accessible to the men on site.
And secondly, he developed the program in such a way that the workers could do the yoga class on site in their boots and overalls, rather than changing into gym clothes.
Pretty cool idea right?
But did it work?
He found that despite his attempts to remove the ‘yoga stigma’, the male workers were still reluctant to give it a try.
Maybe some fancied it, but the peer pressure of the majority who didn't was a deciding factor.
So I guess the moral of the story is that if you want to try yoga but feel a bit uneasy about doing so, you may need to work through this stigma yourself.
And how can I convince you to do that?
Well let’s start by looking at the health benefits that regular yoga practice can bring.
10 Awesome Health Benefits You Will Gain From Practising Yoga
So what do you stand to gain by getting into yoga?
Increased strength - By holding yoga poses your body is supporting various degrees of your own body weight. This works to strengthen muscles across your whole body, including your core muscles, abdominal muscles and back muscles.
Increased flexibility - Stretching out your muscles causes them to lengthen. This will give you an increased range of motion meaning you will be capable of doing more with your body. Handy at work, home and play!
Also increased flexibility in the hamstrings reduces the load on your lower back. So great for those of us with low back pain.
Reduced muscle tension - Stretching out your muscles will also increase the blood flow to them. This means they will receive more nutrients and be able to handle more of a workload without becoming strained, making you more physically able at work.
Improved posture - Tight muscles cause your body to hunch up into bad positions which can make you even more tense. By releasing and lengthening these muscles through yoga stretches your body can settle into a more healthy and comfortable posture. This also helps with your spinal alignment.
Boosted immune system - Yoga stretches massage your internal organs which helps to keep them healthy, functioning well, and better able to ward off diseases and illness.
Greater awareness of your body - By working through different areas of your body you'll get to know where your body is feeling tense and where it's uncomfortable.
You'll learn to anticipate these problems and employ the techniques to release and relax these areas of the body when you need to.
You'll also learn how to deal with the pain that you experience through the day.
Increased energy - Unlike other forms of exercise that leave you tired and aching after a workout, yoga will leave you feeling energised and refreshed.
Improved mood - Yoga will leave you feeling more relaxed, refreshed and energised within yourself, leading to a happy and content feeling. It has also been shown to be a good counter for medical conditions such as depression and anxiety amongst others (2).
Calmness of mind - By coordinating stretching with controlled breathing, practising yoga helps to slow down the heart rate, relaxing the body and mind.
Relaxation techniques and meditation add to this effect, leaving you feeling blissfully relaxed and content at the end of your yoga session.
In fact sometimes this effect can be so strong that people are warned to take extra care when driving home afterwards!
A great night's sleep - As yoga works to relax your body and mind in tandem, it often leads to a very deep and refreshing sleep. Some of my best ever sleeps have come after an evening yoga class!
So as you can see, yoga is great for our overall health.
There are many more overall health benefits that you can gain from yoga, and if you want a more thorough list click here (there are 77 of them listed there!).
Why is Yoga Good For Back Pain?
Many scientific studies have been carried out on the effects yoga has on people with chronic lower back pain.
And the results have been mainly positive.
And all of these factors are vital in being able to manage chronic pain in a positive and healthy way.
So why does yoga bring us these benefits?
Firstly, holding yoga postures strengthens muscles across your whole body, including your core muscles, abs and back muscles which help to support the spine.
Secondly, stretching out your muscles causes them to lengthen which increases your flexibility, improving your posture and giving you an increased range of motion.
In particular, lengthening the hips and hamstrings is great for our keeping our backs healthy and aligned as it will reduce the load on your lower back.
Thirdly, stretching out your muscles will lower muscle tension by increasing the blood flow to them, meaning they will receive more oxygen and nutrients, which allows them to repair and heal better.
Fourthly, the improved mood you gain from yoga will make you feel happier, healthier, energised and more positive which will help you to handle and manage your chronic pain better throughout the day.
And finally by calming the mind, the body can relax and release any tension it is holding due to stress.
It can even ward off serious mental disorders too.
Studies have shown that yoga makes people with chronic pain less prone to depression (44).
Which is great news, as depression and anxiety have been shown to be a big problem for people with chronic pain.
So as you can see yoga is a great activity for managing your chronic lower back pain and improving your quality of life.
Which on top of the general benefits of yoga are all great reasons to give it a try.
Which Is The Best Type Of Yoga For Your Back Pain?
Hopefully now you can see the benefits of yoga and may be leaning towards giving it go.
However before you begin you need to be aware that there are many different types of yoga, all catering to slightly different needs.
So read through the following to list to see which one suits you the best:
Hatha yoga - This is a common type of yoga and is good for novices as it has a gentle, slow and relaxed style. The emphasise is to combine controlled breathing with gentle body movements and postures.
Postures are held for longer in this form of yoga than most and the aim is to bring peace to the mind and the body. A good starting point.
Viniyoga - This is a form of yoga that is customised by combining various styles to benefit certain conditions. Try and find a class that has been designed to help people with low back pain.
Bikram yoga - Also known as 'hot yoga', these classes always follow the same sequence.
Classes take place in a studio set to a temperature of 105 degrees fahrenheit, last for 90 minutes and involve 26 postures and two breathing techniques.
The idea behind this is that the sweat you produce from the heat will flush out toxins from your body.
Plus it will help your muscles to relax more and enable you to stretch further into the postures.
This one is definitely a workout!
Vinyasa yoga - This type of yoga involves more of a flow of movement, rather than holding postures for long periods. In this way it can be more akin to an aerobic workout, but still carries the other benefits of yoga poses.
However because of the intensity of this form of yoga it may not be for everyone with chronic low back pain, and probably not one for beginners.
Iyengar yoga - This involves holding postures for the longest period of time. Apparatus such as blocks, belts and chairs are used to help people to perform the correct posture and minimise the risk of injury.
However personally I found that holding the posture for longer actually increased my pain, so be aware that this may not be for everyone.
So as you can see there is no one-size fits all here.
Everyone's back pain will be slightly different, so you will need to experiment to see which form of yoga suits you the best.
How to Get Started With Yoga
So once you have decided which type of yoga you'd like to try, where do you go from there?
There are a couple of options open to you.
You could find a local yoga class and sign up for a few sessions.
Or you could subscribe to an online yoga service and practice yoga at home.
In the next section I'll go through both of these options in detail, and I'll also highlight a few important things you need to be aware of before starting yoga.
I'll start off with how to find a yoga class.
Finding A Yoga Class
Luckily yoga is everywhere nowadays, so you should have no trouble finding a class.
Just doing a quick google search for yoga in your local area should give you a plenty of options ranging from private yoga classes, gym yoga classes and classes in dedicated yoga studios.
The problem is that some of these classes can be pretty expensive.
However, there are ways to find cheaper options.
For example, most local gyms will include yoga classes as part of their membership, which can be a cost-effective way to get started.
So if you are already a member of a gym you may be able to access yoga classes for free.
Also you can come across more informal (and cheaper!) yoga classes on sites like MeetUp.
Yoga classes on there are usually informal and donation based, so you give what you can afford.
And finally, some yoga teachers run small, private group classes out of their own homes that can be inexpensive and good if you find the one with a good teacher.
However you may need to try a few before you find one that suits you, as the teaching quality will vary.
Practice Yoga at Home
Yoga classes are not going to be for everyone.
If going to a yoga class really doesn't appeal to you, don't fear as you do have alternatives.
There are online resources that allow you to practice yoga in the comfort of your own home, such as YouTube videos, yoga subscription services and mobile yoga apps.
For an example of the kinds of free videos available on YouTube, check out the one below for a good example of a beginners yoga session.
This is a class designed especially to help people with back pain.
However, while these free videos are good, being limited to doing the same routines over and over can get very monotonous.
So if you want more variety, then an online yoga monthly subscription service could be a good option.
These are really great, as for roughly the same price as two yoga classes you get unlimited access to hundreds of online video and audio yoga classes.
And these classes cover everything.
There are ones for complete novices right through to ones for advanced yogis.
And you can find classes for every mood and situation too.
My favourite service is YogaDownload, which you can check out (and get 50% off your first month) by clicking here.
They offer a massive selection of yoga classes that are continually updated and cover all of the different yoga styles, ranging from classes for total beginners to advanced sessions.
Each of these video classes also comes with a printable, easy-to-follow guide of the poses so you'll know exactly how to do each one.
They even have a huge selection of classes designed specifically to ease back pain (take a look at the list here to get an idea).
So I think this is a great option for you if you want to try yoga at home.
Another great option is the Down Dog Yoga app for mobiles and tablets.
This app is great as it generates a new yoga session for you every time you open it, so you'll never do the same sequence twice.
And even better, it's free!
So as you can see, there is no excuse not to give yoga a try even if you don't fancy the idea of taking a class.
And practising yoga at home can also be useful for people that enjoy going to the classes.
For one, the more you practise the better you get, so the classes themselves will become more enjoyable as you improve.
Also we all have jobs and busy lives to lead, and that means that at certain times you might not be able to attend your regular yoga class that week.
So an online class at home can solve that problem and means you don't have to go without yoga for the whole week.
You're also not dependent on the weather if you can practise at home.
During the winter it can be hard to drag yourself out of a cosy, warm home into hail, wind, rain and snow to get to a yoga class.
So give yourself an excellent excuse to stay home instead!
However don't write off going to an actual yoga class too quickly, as not only will you get expert instruction from a qualified teacher, they can also be fun and social.
I've found this through my own personal experience.
The photo above is from a class I went to in London that was run by a great guy called Richard Brook (check out his site here).
This class had a great social atmosphere and was somewhere I looked forward to going to each week.
I've been to a variety of Richard's events now, from regular classes, yoga retreats and even yoga raves! (Yes, yoga raves exist and they're brilliant!) and they always leave me feeling happy, relaxed and connected.
The point I'm making here is if you find the right class, yoga can be great fun and a good social experience too.
So have a search in your local area and see if any yoga places are offering creative and fun sounding classes nearby.
After all, if it's fun there's more chance of you keeping it up.
Important: Things To Remember
I hope that I've inspired you to try yoga.
However, before you decide to go ahead and find a yoga class, please consider the following:
- First things first I need to point out the obvious; I'm not a doctor or a physiotherapist! While yoga should be a safe activity for people with chronic low back pain it may not be for everyone. So always consult your doctor before starting a new form of exercise and stop if it causes more pain and discomfort.
- Remember that yoga isn't competitive. Overstretching and pushing yourself too far will only result in injury. Listen to your body and only go as far as feels comfortable. Don't worry if that's not as far as others can go. However far you get to is perfectly fine.
- Find a good teacher. Not all yoga instructors are the same and you may have to try a few different classes before you find one that suits you. How can you tell if you have a bad teacher? If they try and push you further than you are comfortable with, don't help you to perform the postures correctly, or don't show any concern for your well-being then it's time to find a new one.
- Always make sure you tell the teacher about your pain and any injuries prior to beginning the class. This is really important. They will then be able to give you postures that will help and not aggravate your problem. A good teacher will warn people beforehand if a posture carries a risk for hurting your back and will provide you with an alternative pose to do instead.
However, having said all that don't be afraid!
As long as you address these issues you can be reaping the many benefits of regular yoga practice for years to come.
As we all know, living with chronic pain is tough.
However sometimes it can help if we try new things to combat it.
And yoga is one of those activities that can really help.
Not only does it bring us a wealth of health benefits, it is also great for our back pain.
However there is still a stigma among men in society that stops them from giving yoga a try.
I hope from reading through this article I have managed to show you why it is worth getting over this stigma.
Not only will it help you physically by improving your flexibility, mobility and lowering your pain levels.
It will also help you mentally and emotionally by relaxing your mind, reducing stress, preventing symptoms of depression and improving your mood.
And these physical, mental and emotional benefits all combine to increase your ability to cope with a life with chronic pain.
So what are you waiting for? Join a yoga class and enjoy the stretch today!