This is a question that I am asked so often, it deserves a good thorough answer in its own blog post.
Yoga is an amazing way of calming your mind, exercising your body, and just having a great night's sleep. There are many great benefits to be enjoyed from practicing yoga.
Unfortunately, there has also a lot of controversy that has come up around yoga in recent years. Some of the concerns well founded for some people. So I thought I would try and address some of the questions, dispel some of the myths, and let you know how you can get the most out of your yoga practice in the safest way.
As a pelvic health physical therapy specialist, every week I help people who have pelvic pain, to regain mobility and get back to their active, healthy lifestyles. They could be experiencing pain inside their pelvis, in their genital areas, in their bladder or in their rectum. They don't want to talk to just everybody about it, but they do end up telling me all about it. Since these kinds of conditions often come along with other orthopedic problems, like back pain, or hip problems, the same people are also interested in taking care of those issues at the same time. They presume that addressing these issues will involve some type of exercise, maybe stretching - basically doing something good for their whole body.
As well, these conditions also often come with a lot of stress and have a huge psychological impact on peoples’ lives. Yoga is a well known means of reducing stress and feeling better mentally. This is an important part of reducing pain as well for many people, especially if it is a kind of pain that has persisted for a long time. I'm a big advocate of a mind-body approach to treating pain and improving physical function (and recent research has gone a long way to explaining what is going on in the nervous system that makes this approach so effective).
And as you may know, there can also certainly be some risks involved in doing certain kinds of exercise without the right supervision, without the right approach or preparation. There was a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Movement Therapies and Body Work, reporting that among people who are practicing yoga, 10% were experiencing a new pain as a result of their yoga practice somewhere in their body. The most common area was in the upper extremities - their wrists or shoulders.
And with people who had already existing injuries, a 1 in 5 of these existing problems had gotten worse with yoga. Before we jump to a conclusion that “yoga is dangerous” or that “many people can’t do yoga,” let’s understand, what's going on here? If yoga is such a great thing, why are so many people having new problems or increased pain with it? Well, it starts out with an approach and a mindset, and some of it comes from the issue of how we define yoga.
Yoga is not just exercise. It's not just going to a class, doing what the teacher says and getting into a series of positions and doing a series of movements. Relating to yoga it that way is part of the problem with this practice having become so popular. Yoga an ancient methodology and philosophy that aims to unify the body, breath, and spirit. The use of breathing techniques in a specific way, along with physical movements and postures, come together into a practice that is meant to bring a person certain benefits to mind, body, and spirit.
A common approach that I encounter, is people who get very excited or determined, so they go into a yoga class with a mindset that says, "I'm going do go with this teacher who really knows her stuff, and I’m going to do exactly what she says, go through the postures and positions. I'll go there and I’ll be doing yoga, and that’s going to be something good for myself." The truth is, when you go to a class, that it depends a lot on the experience and “flexibility” of the teacher - and I don’t mean whether she can cross her legs behind her head! What I mean is the teacher’s ability to observe the different people in the class, guide them to honor their body’s needs. The right teacher will help you pay attention to and understand what you are feeling, and will be able to suggest modifications to the postures, in order to keep your body safe, even if a bit uncomfortable! A really good approach would be to arrive early for the class, and talk with the teacher beforehand. Let them know that, "Hey, I have this kind of issue going on. I have a painful hip, or I have an issue with my wrist or my lower back." This will keep the practice beneficial and not harmful. There are always risks and benefits of anything you undertake. Usually when you take a group of people, not everybody is going to be starting at the same place, nor working toward the same goals.
If you have a specific injury that you're trying to treat, step one is really to get it evaluated and treated. Get a good medical team on board to make sure that your specific diagnosis is being addressed properly. Once all of that is in place, and you have the right guidance, or if you don’t have any injuries and you're just trying to address general health, feel good, and have less stress in your life – then certainly go for it! Yoga is wonderful!
Approach your yoga practice with curiosity and a positive, playful, fun and forgiving mindset. Enlist the help of he right teacher for you, and most of all, honor your body’s voice by paying attention and listening to it. Keep these ideas in mind, and yoga can be a fabulous way to improve your quality of life in many ways!
Are you or someone you love experiencing a pelvic health issue that is holding you back from doing the things you enjoy in life? Want to get some advice before starting yoga or any other type of exercise? Request a courtesy in-office Discovery Visit, in order to find out how we can help.
Helping health-oriented people overcome pelvic health problems, and live the life you love!
Deborah S. Cohen
Specialist Pelvic Health Physical Therapist