Why is it that we hear so many contradictory viewpoints on the effectiveness of yoga as a remedy for back problems? Some practitioners tell stories of having fixed their back problem through yoga, and others claim yoga has messed their back up. As I have studied yoga over the last 35 years I have come to some important realizations.
For me the practice of yoga requires in-depth knowledge surrounding the issues involved in back problems. It is this reason I teach yoga classes that include educational talks on a wide variety of spinal injuries and how they can be avoided and to some extent managed or resolved. Eight out of ten people will endure a back injury in their life, and this stat means if there are not injury-specific considerations for the safety of the spinal column offered in yoga class then the risk of exacerbating an injury is too high.
Dr. Stuart McGill is the leading expert in the field of back injury. He has written a book called ‘Low Back Disorders’ that I’ve used extensively as a resource for ensuring my students are practicing yoga in the safest possible manner. By preparing beginner yoga practitioners with information that stems from Dr. McGill’s research, students here at BIM understand the consequences of ‘rolling up’ from standing forward bends, and instead students learn to use the ‘hip-hinge’ method to protect the back. Students learn that deep backbends are one of the reasons so many gymnasts end up with spondylolisthesis, so backbends are taught to beginner students in shallow ranges of motion with protective measures taken to limit spinal hyperextension and engage core musculature. When I met Dr. McGill at the 2015 Certified Professional Trainers Network Conference I expressed to him how much I appreciated his book, and that it had been extremely helpful in enabling me to offer the safest possible yoga experience for my students.
It is clear that the poor standard of care in mainstream yoga classes today have not convinced Dr. McGill that yoga is inherently safe. In the January/February 2017 edition of ‘Men’s Health’ writer Lou Schuler offers Dr. McGill’s opinion, “…don’t go looking for help from yoga, Pilates, your insurance company, or a surgeon… McGill’s research has busted key myths about what alleviates back pain. For example, he’s discovered that yoga and Pilates are not suited to some backs; too much lying in bed tends to worsen back pain rather than fix it; and back surgery often isn’t necessary to relieve pain. Another big finding is that your back can take 10 years to truly heal from an injury, not the six to 12 weeks your insurance company might claim.” (p. 44)
In Dr. McGill’s latest book ‘Back Mechanic’ he states, “There is no such thing as an exercise program that is beneficial to all back pain sufferers and to broadly prescribe either yoga or Pilates to a patient with undefined back pain is, in my opinion, irresponsible.” (p. 16) I can understand Dr. McGill’s concerns about yoga potentially causing harm. Mainstream yoga classes taught in drop-in, follow-the-leader formats can be disastrous for students suffering from bulging or herniated discs, spondylolisthesis, facet arthropathy, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, etc. There are seldom yoga posture variations offered to work around these medical issues, which each require specific considerations.
For instance, therapeutic yoga exercise for a bulging disc is radically different in comparison to therapeutic yoga exercise for facet arthropathy due to hyperlordosis. If a set of yoga postures that happen to promote spinal flexion through standing forward bends are introduced in a drop-in class the student with a bulging disc is likely to exacerbate their condition, while the student with facet arthropathy due to hyperlordosis may find mild spinal flexion in standing forward bends to relieve pain symptoms. It’s clear from the example above that drop-in, follow-the-leader style classes, which are taught in most yoga studios today, are like ‘Russian Roulette’ for the spine.
At our studio we have enjoyed an excellent record of helping students overcome their back injury through our brand of yoga. The following success stories are a testimony to the unique presentation of yoga in the Breathe Into Motion Yoga System, with its strong emphasis on therapeutic exercise prescription.
“Nineteen years ago, my life changed when I went in for back surgery to remove a ruptured disc in my L5 region of my lower back. All physiotherapy, chiropractic and massage therapy just seemed to make it worse. I have a friend that was a client of Mike Chapman’s at Breathe Into Motion Yoga, and she told me that I needed to visit Mike, and work with him, as he would definitely work with me so that I could achieve my goal of riding a bike across Canada. Between August 2012 and the summer of 2013, I worked very hard with Mike and his classes, going from Level 1 to Level 3, and in September of 2013, I rode my bike across Canada. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not worked with Mike for that year prior to the ride. I can’t say enough, how thankful I am to have found Breathe Into Motion Yoga. Mike did more for my back in 6 weeks than all the therapy I did in more than 10 years.”
(submitted by Andrew Nelson, 2-time Cyclist in the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride)
“At my physiotherapy consultation it was determined that I had two badly herniated lower discs. Extremely frustrated with seeing little improvement during the six months of physiotherapy, I requested an MRI to assist with further treatment. The results came back that I was a candidate for corrective surgery. While weighing the pros and the cons, my mother suggested that I attend an open house with Mike at his yoga studio, Breathe Into Motion, as she had heard of other successful injury recovery stories. Within a year and a half I was experiencing zero back pain without any corrective surgery and was able to enjoy all pre-injury activities once again. There is no doubt in my mind that if it were not for Mike and his guidance, I would still be living my injury rather than living my life.”
(submitted by Rory Campbell)
“As a physician and former physical educator, I am impressed by Mike Chapman’s extensive knowledge of anatomy and bio-mechanics. He is also extremely proficient at applying this knowledge to his yoga student’s individual needs. In doing so he provides an effective and safe exercise environment. I have been personally astounded by how rapidly my chronic back pain and poor flexibility have improved after just a few classes at Breathe Into Motion Yoga Studios. I highly recommend his classes for anyone suffering with injury rehab issues, or any athlete wanting to round out their training.”
(submitted by Dr. Tracy Hughes, BPHE, MD, CCFP, Family Medicine Physician)
“I was in chronic pain after an injury at work. I had been diagnosed with strained SI Joints, sciatica and a possible herniated disc. I was in a lot of pain and, at 26 years old, was uncertain that I would ever be able to return to work as a Paramedic. Someone recommended Mike’s yoga classes and I was willing to drive 40 minutes each way to take his classes based on the hope offered. I was amazed when my injuries began to heal after only a few classes. I wish I had found Mike earlier and would recommend his classes to anyone who needs help recovering from an injury.”
(submitted by Melissa Henderson, Paramedic)
“After just 4 weeks of the Breathe Into Motion Yoga Level 2 program I felt my body slowly repairing to a point where I no longer have back pain, which is the first time in 10 years. I have found for me, an ex-professional hockey player, BIM is exactly what my mind and body needs.”
(submitted by Nathan Gillies, Owner of Fortitude Training & Drop the Puck)
“Mike, prior to 2006, I had been functioning with mild back pain for about five years. However, the pain had become severe by the summer of 2008. During these years, I had been under the care of our family chiropractor who recommended radiographs to help diagnose my worsening back symptoms. The radiographs demonstrated that I had lower-back degenerative disc disease, and had lost virtually all of the disc space in my lower back. Your classes empowered me with the fundamental tools to re-learn how to sit, stand, walk, pick things up off the floor, sleep, and shave in the morning without aggravating my back. Your breadth of knowledge and expertise is exceptional; your passion is profound. You are a gifted teacher. You truly are a ‘biomechanical genius’ and your BIM yoga system is a ‘life-saver!’”
(submitted by Carmelo Domenicucci, BSc, MSc, DDS, PhD, Medical Researcher Bone & Dental)
“I was a wrestler for over 13 years, including 4 years varsity at the University of Western Ontario, training under the direction of Canadian Olympian, Ray Takahashi. During my wrestling tenure I incurred many injuries to my neck, knees, shoulders and finally an L5 stress fracture that held me back from continuing with the sport beyond University. Over time these injuries had also prevented me from living the active lifestyle I wanted and I slowly eliminated most sport activity outside of running. Since beginning the BIM program I have alleviated all back, shoulder and neck pain to the point where I am considering returning to active wrestling in a coaching capacity within the next year. BIM has moved from being purely supplemental to my running activity, to the forefront and core of my training and activity.”
(submitted by Phil Demarte, former member University of Western Ontario Wrestling Team)
“I originally sought out Breathe Into Motion Studio on the advice of three friends from the gym who advised me that, if I wanted to learn real yoga, this was the place to go. I was told that the studio owner and chief instructor, Mike Chapman, was a terrific instructor. I have not been disappointed. I arrived at the studio with two problems – I have hyperlordosis of my lower back as well as lingering difficulties with my right SI joint as a result of an injury incurred in my twenties. I am happy to say that I no longer experience any pain while doing yoga and, in fact, feel that my whole core has been strengthened, something I notice in my daily activities.”
(submitted by Anne Read)
“Mike, I have been a mechanic for 35 years now and have been involved in many different sports thru the years. As if my trade was not hard enough on my body, the sports injuries compounded them. Nothing I did seemed to really help my back, shoulder and knee pain. Then in January of this year I was convinced to try your yoga class. Thanks to you and your BIM yoga my back has not felt this good in over 5 years, my shoulders do not ache, and my knees have never felt this good...in forever. I would recommend BIM yoga to anyone and everyone.”
(submitted by Greg Witmer)
“Being a 16 year old girl with a part time job, school, and a social life can be busy; but stressful too. Not to mention having scoliosis greatly adds to my stress. I have tried many treatments; massage therapy, physiotherapy and pool/water therapy. Nothing helped. I have been practising yoga with Mike at Breathe Into Motion Yoga Studios for six months now, and not only has my stress level decreased significantly, but my back pain has tremendously improved. My doctors have noticed a difference according to x-rays and most importantly, I feel the difference.”
(submitted by Tasia Pejkovic)
“I had taken a bad fall on a set of stairs on Christmas day 2007. During my months of suffering I had visited Chiropractors and Massage Therapists. My doctor had referred me to a variety of specialists. I was ordered to have an MRI and finally ended up at a Neurologist. The Neurologist had told me that my back pains and numbness in my foot would improve with surgery. The doctor did not recommend surgery at this point in my life as it would limit my options in the future if the pain returned. I had met Mike Chapman in April 2009. Mike had seen first-hand the pain and suffering I was experiencing with my back and leg numbness. To my astonishment and delight, I started to feel a ‘tingling’ sensation in my formerly numb right foot immediately after the very first class. My progression continued and I was seeing improvement after each and every class. I am now completely healed. I cannot express how grateful I am to have met Mike.”
(submitted by Marisa Cancellara)
“I first began participation in the BIM yoga program in 2005 and continued for about 3 years. At that time, I was experiencing some ongoing sacroiliac joint pain that started after being stuck as a pedestrian by a motor vehicle. The BIM yoga program reduced the discomfort I felt so dramatically that I used chiropody only infrequently, and my participation in other activities increased. I stopped participating in the BIM yoga program due to some scheduling conflicts and I wish now that I hadn’t. I resumed the BIM yoga program in January 2015 after becoming fed up with feeling aches and pains everywhere. My lower back/SI pain was back; I was starting to feel pain in my right knee; and I had a nagging repetitive strain injury in my right shoulder caused by excessive internal rotation. I resumed the program confident that I would experience improvements, but due to the amount of time I had been away, I expected to wait some time for pain relief. Instead, I felt an immediate improvement in my lower back/SI discomfort and have not felt the need for a chiropractic adjustment since resuming the program. My response was so intense that I started paying attention to Mike’s instructions for shoulder injuries, and my shoulder pain started to decrease after 1 session. Monday was 6 weeks without having any of my usual shoulder pain.”
(submitted by Paula Smyth RN, BScN, MScN, Nursing Professor)
The above dozen testimonials are an example of the hundreds of student that have reported they no longer have back pain after having participated in my classes. I am so thrilled I could help. It is my opinion that yoga can help resolve back injuries when it is presented ethically, with an exercise prescription based on each unique challenge that back problems present.