I was speaking to someone today who mentioned that he had tweaked his lower back. He said that he couldn’t recall having done anything to cause the pain, but had gone to a popular video website a few weeks ago and searched for yoga poses for the back. As a sufferer of chronic pain, he had been looking for relief beyond the typical slew of medications. I asked which poses had been suggested, and learned that some legitimate asanas like Reclining Twist were discussed, but that a particular video had also advised watchers with back pain to try Upward-Facing Dog (urdhva mukha svanasana). In addition, the video hadn’t introduced any poses intended to lengthen the hamstrings or gluteal muscles, which I found very surprising.
I expressed concern that a pose involving as much potential stress as Upward-Facing Dog would be included in a list of poses for back pain. It’s one of those asanas that can easily be performed incorrectly, creating stress in the shoulders, neck, and upper and lower back. As well, most cases of lower-back pain can be linked to tight, weak hamstrings and glutes, and unless there’s a case of acute injury, this is a good place to begin to investigate the source of the discomfort.
My conversation this afternoon is a perfect example of why mixed practice is the best approach. Do some reading, try out a few poses at home, take some classes, invite a friend into your sadhana. There is always something to learn in yoga, no matter what your experience. An unfortunate accusation leveled at yoga is that it injures practitioners, but this is the result of lacking or mis-information. I was pleased to have an opportunity to demonstrate more appropriate techniques and poses today, correcting errors that had been advertised as suitable practice. Yoga, in some ways, is like a form of alternative medicine; it must be tailored to the needs of each individual. While the array of asanas is open for everyone to try, there are many factors – such as experience, skeletal structure, breathing capacity, mental state, muscle tone, and goals – that influence which are best for given person at a given time. Similarly, some asanas are patently not the right ones to be attempting when injury is present.
While I, myself, began to learn about yoga independently, I very quickly realized that participation in classes, under the guidance of a trained instructor, was crucial to dispelling some misconceptions that I had. Even now, several years after having earned my instructorship, I find it indispensable to attend classes, learn from colleagues and students, and benefit from correction. While the producers of online material generally mean well and provide reasonable content, it is still best – even today, in the age of “bright screens” – to consult another (qualified) human being, especially when beginning, or when injury is present.