Its fans claim it helps the body fight aches and pains through a range of stretches.
But it would seem that the ancient practice of yoga really does work – and it could be even better than going to the doctor.
Patients with a common form of lower back pain who did three months of classes in the therapeutic discipline were able to do daily chores they previously would have found impossible, say scientists.
And some claimed the effects continued for a year after they had finished the sessions.
The extent to which yoga helps the body and mind remains highly contested however and only last week researchers from the U.S. claimed it brought no improvement to well-being.
But a team from the University of York have looked at its effects on around 300 patients with chronic lower back pain, a common condition which affects one in five adults in any given year.
Half followed a 12-week course of yoga, with specific exercises focusing on their back. The remainder carried on visiting their GP and were given painkillers, exercises to follow and in some cases physiotherapy.
The findings, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, show that after three months patients who had been to the yoga classes were able to do 30 per cent more daily activities than those who had carried on seeing their family doctor.
However, yoga did not seem to relieve patients’ pain. It only enabled them to carry out more household chores, such as gardening.
And 12 patients who had completed the yoga reported suffering episodes of severe pain, which may have been caused by their stretches.
Nonetheless the researchers claimed yoga helped patients feel more confident in carrying out chores despite their pain.
Chief investigator Professor David Torgerson said: ‘Back pain is an extremely common and costly condition. Exercise treatment, although widely used and recommended, has only a small effect on back pain.
‘We therefore set out to investigate an alternative approach using a specially-developed weekly yoga programme for back pain sufferers to see if this allowed them to manage their back pain more successfully.’
Professor Alan Silman, Medical Director of Arthritis Research UK, which funded the study said: ‘We’re delighted that our trial has shown that yoga provides such positive benefits for people with chronic low back pain.
‘This extremely common condition cannot be managed with painkillers alone and there is an urgent need to have non-drug therapies that sufferers can utilise in their own home.’
Around 80 per cent of Britons will suffer chronic lower back pain at some point in their lives.
Painkillers are often ineffective and many patients try alternative forms of therapy such as acupuncture, exercise or massages to relieve symptoms.
2 how-to yoga videos: Moves to relieve back pain3 yoga tips for back pain
YOGA FOR BACK PAIN PART 1 OF 1
YOGA FOR BACK PAIN PART 2 OF 2
Here are three yoga tips to help you unlock your tight back and return to your strong, supple and stable self:
1. Back off to move forward
If you rush into a stretch too quickly, you could trigger the stretch reflex, which can cause the muscle to contract defensively and get tighter or even strain.
Instead, to target back muscles in, say, a seated or standing forward bend, bend the knees so your spine can lengthen into its natural curves. Then, maintain a long spine as you begin to stretch the legs back. When you first meet the edge of a stretch, stop, breathe and soften there. Then go a little farther into your next edge.
Easing off the extreme stretch and instead seducing the body to open by going on a gentle, yet insistent journey through layers of flexibility will help you circumvent your body’s protective reflexes and allow it to release.
2. Vive la resistance!
To signal your central nervous system to release tension in the lower back, or anywhere, you can try the PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) technique, or in simpler terms, resist and release.
It’s used by physical and sports therapists, and by modifying your back-stretching poses to include it, you’ll also gain the benefits of increased muscle flexibility. To make PNF work for you, you’ll need to maintain a balance of three things: muscle action, muscle stretch and proper alignment. These are not passive stretches only.
In my video, you’ll be both using a muscle at the same time you’re stretching it, a technique called resistance stretching, and alternating resistance and release. These moves are part of the reason my students get more flexible, fast, while remaining pain-free. It tells your central nervous system that you’re protected, and it seems to cause a greater release than just passive stretching alone.
Whenever you’re trying to move past chronically tight areas, maintaining proper alignment means that every move you make should serve one area to remain open, strong and free: the spine. If students jam the legs straight but compromise the spine, the pose has crossed the line into unhealthy territory.
Instead, as we resist and release, resist and stretch, back off, gain traction or anything else we do to increase our range of motion, we should only go as far as we’re able while preserving the integrity of the all-important spine. The stretch will come from there, in time.
3. Gain traction
Once you’re warmed up, you’ve done your yoga and you’re ready to rest, try a restorative pose first that will gently pull your lower back spine into traction or a slight opening.
When you’re in a supported pose, like the sacral reset with a block you’ll see in the video, you can release muscular action and allow gravity to take over. As your body rests, your muscles also cool down and reset into new alignment. So the position you’re in while you re-form the mold of your body is very important. First rest in a back traction pose like this one, and then take full savasana to allow your legs to retain their optimal length.
All in all, remember that it took a while to get your back to this point, and it’s a journey back out again. As you move through the stages of your flexibility and re-strengthening, instead of hitting your edge and letting your inner voice say “I’m soooo tight,” try this perspective: “I’m really opening up here — little by little, but it’s going to make a huge difference.”