What Am I Studying Right Now?

Yoga and Chronic Low Back Pain.

I’ve done two great webinars this week exploring chronic low back pain and movement. While I’m still integrating much of what I’ve learned, I wanted to jot down a few quick notes to share with you some of what’s new in movement applications for low back pain and some of the updates to research (and myth busting) that I’ve been hearing about.

Why does back pain matter to me?

Roughly 84% of people will suffer from low back pain at some point in their lives. That number guarantees that I have students in my classes who are or have experienced back pain.

Approximately 18% of people live with chronic low back pain, and I’m one of them. I want to learn more about how to manage my own pain with movement and meditation as key tools in my toolbox. And, of course, as a movement teacher I want to learn how to support students who want to use yoga as one of the strategies or modalities in their own pain management toolbox.

Why am I telling you what I’m studying?

I think it’s important to highlight that while I’ve been teaching movement for over 25 years, I’m still very much a student and I’ll never be done learning. Yoga is vast and complex. Humans are vast and complex. And, we are just beginning to understand movement, pain, and the connections between physical health, mental health, and social health (the bio-psycho-social or bio-psycho-social-spiritual model).

Also, I am a movement educator, but not an academic. I have not been trained in interpreting research and my knowledge of movement science is still rudimentary. So, while all this exciting research is happening in the yoga/movement/meditation space, I need help to understand and apply the science of movement research.

It’s been a long journey so far.

I spent years absorbing (and often repeating) the very common bio-medical-miracle claims of yoga, most of which are, if not entirely false, at least not at all evidence-based.

Then, in an effort to become more informed on movement and meditation science, I spent years reading science-ish articles on the benefits of yoga. Many of these media-reported studies concluded that yoga (like basically all movement or exercise) can have a positive impact on health, wellness, and pain. Great! But they have also come to inaccurate conclusions about things like ‘your weak core is the cause of your back pain’ (it’s probably not), and ‘this one pose will heal it’ (it probably won’t).

And, of course throughout the years we all have had the ‘intuitive research’ of anecdote offered to us, often unsolicited, and too often when we are in pain and simplistic anecdotes are kind but unhelpful. I’ve been on both sides of unsolicited advice and it’s a habit I’m determined to break.

For all these reasons I need to regularly take courses to help me make sense of the current research, not just the headlines and conclusions, but the real-world applications so that I can teach an evidence-informed mind body movement practice.

So, with all that being said, over the past few years, what have I learned when it comes to issues like chronic low back pain and yoga?

What Helps?

  • General exercise – which may include yoga if it works for you
  • Improving body awareness
  •  Improving movement confidence
  • Trying different movements, and different pathways to movements
  • Being listened to and believed about your pain or injury

What Doesn’t Help?

  • Anecdotes about how your cousin’s hairdresser’s son healed his back pain with (insert treatment here).
  • Any one particular therapy, movement or modality for all. People are complex, movement is complex, and pain is complex.
  • Being told some movements are ‘dangerous’ for all.
  • Targeting a specific body part (without medical guidance) as your enemy or your saviour. Your back pain is probably not caused just by your weak core, tight hamstrings, or overactive psoas. They may contribute, sure, but doing isolated core exercises or isolated stretches or one magic yoga pose have not shown themselves to be a magic bullet for chronic back pain.
  • Yoga doesn’t fix things. People learning to move comfortably and confidently can help manage chronic pain, that might include yoga.
  • Being listened to, supported, and provided with safe spaces to move can help manage chronic pain.

In Closing:

I still have lots to absorb from my studies this week, and this year, but for now, my biggest takeaways are: be kind, be supportive, listen, and, together, try things.

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