How To Avoid A Back Injury While Doing Yoga

How To Avoid A Back Injury While Doing Yoga

In 2015 I hurt my back. I experienced a sudden onset of severe low back pain that I could not link to an injury other than a lot of yard work in the week leading up to it. I woke one morning with an aching lower back and by that evening I was immobilized. If I bent over, I could not stand back up. When I stood up, my lower back would spasm and involuntarily pull me to my knees. My chiropracter informed me that I had a "bulging lumbar disc" which shocked me, scared me, and seemed impossible.

The injury forced me into several weeks of almost no activity, laying on ice packs in between trying to do just the bare minimum of my work to keep my business intact. I was going to the chiropracter 3 times a week, living on Aleve and wearing a lower back brace under my clothing. It took close to 6 weeks before I was able to resume activity but my lower back was fragile, and it has never been the same.

In the months leading up to that injury, I had made significant lifestyle changes to improve my health. I had lost 15 pounds, which made the back injury even more baffling. I had joined a gym and was taking yoga classes several times a week. Ashtanga yoga, which in hindsight I had no business even attempting at that stage of my yoga game. I'd never done yoga before and I now know that not only was the yoga teacher not properly trained, I had not been properly trained on the poses and I hurt myself doing Sun Salutations incorrectly, day after day, week after week. I had the flexibility to do the poses, but not the strength, and that was a dangerous combo. I now believe that my back injury came from improper body mechanics in yoga class, namely Forward Fold, a primary, common and seemingly simple pose.

I quit the gym during the time my back was injured and when I was able to resume some normal activity I joined an actual yoga studio that offered gentler classes. I was grateful to be back and to have found a studio that offered a variety of classes. I had fallen into a depression while I was injured and unable to do yoga because I missed the peace and calm that I feel when I do yoga. It had never occured to me that yoga caused my back injury.  No one talks about that truth.

Fast forward to today, I go to the yoga studio 3-4 times a week. Under the leadership of properly trained yoga teachers my practice is light years ahead of where it had been when I started out at our local gym. But my lower back has remained tight and guarded since that episode of injury. It causes me anxiety sometimes in class because I am fearful of my back "going out". 

Yesterday in a Hatha class I had a revelation. The focus of the class was to break down the Forward Fold pose. The teacher demonstrated the pose and then had us watch ourselves in the mirror execute the pose while she circled about checking our form. Up until then, Forward Fold for me was a no-brainer. It was a linking pose to get me onto the floor. I did it quickly and with no thought. My yoga teacher made a correction and adjustment to my Forward Fold and instantly, I felt my low back release.

I had always entered Forward Fold in a swan dive, bending from my naval while keeping my butt tucked and hurrying to the floor. Only my fingertips touched the floor and even that, that was a reach. The teacher had me place my hands in Prayer rather than swan dive and fold starting from my hips, not my navel, focusing on pushing my butt back so that as I folded the tip of my tailbone would be thrust back behind the backs of my knees. I could clearly see the difference in the mirror. At the half-way point into the fold, she had me bend my knees until I felt my belly resting upon my thighs and at that point, place my hands - now flat - upon the floor. She said to make certain my belly always stays connected to my thighs. From there she had me push my heels into the floor which flexed my quads and straightened my spine. I was in Fold and felt no low back pain or tightness.

There I was, in Forward Fold, palms flat on the ground and I heard angels sing because the difference I felt in my lower back was remarkable.

I now know that my improper Forward Fold injured my back. I was compressing my spine, and aggrevating my lower back. The tightness I was feeling was my back muscles flexing to guard my spine. My body knew not to allow me to push it. Our back muscles spasm to guard and protect the discs so we don't herniate them. And the corrected Fold mechanics extends my spine, rather than compressing it. Executing the pose the corrected way, flat back, aligns my spine neck to tailbone, so that I do not put or feel any tension, pull, or strain on my lower back at all.

I shake my head now at myself - an RN - and it never occured to me until I started doing some reading, that I injured myself doing yoga. Make sure you know the credentials of the person teaching your yoga class. There is a difference in a teacher who was "trained" by watching a few You Tube videos and the one who has attended a 500 hours of hands on on-site training and is certified.


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