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If the Doctor Says You Must Live with Back Pain, Try Yoga Post Date: November 16th, 2012

If the Doctor Says You Must Live with Back Pain, Try Yoga By Brahmi (Beth Gold-Bernstein), Director TriYoga Boston

“To alleviate suffering, you must first understand the root cause of suffering.” The Dalai Lama

Recently I was privileged to attend a dharma talk by the Dalai Lama at MIT. While explaining there are four branches and 18 subdivisions of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama said the heart of all Buddhist teaching is the essential truth that everything comes into being due to cause and effect. This is the true state of reality.  “Only by making changes at the level of the cause can we make changes at the level of effect.”  

A recent article in the Boston Globe entitled “Living with Back Pain” (Deborah Kotz, Boston Globe,  October 29, 2012. indicated that physicians and patients find it very difficult to cure back pain with surgery, drugs and spinal injections (such as the ones that have recently been in the news due to the contamination with fungal meningitis).  The article identified several sources of pain, including bulging or ruptured discs, vertebrae out of position, spinal stenosis, which is progressive narrowing of the spinal canal, and weak, stretched or torn ligaments. 

However, it is important to note that the source of pain is not the same as the root cause of suffering.  As a former back sufferer for over 30 years, and yoga practitioner for 37 years, in my experience chronic back pain is caused by what you do to your spine each day while standing, sitting and walking.  It has a great deal to with posture.  This is why yoga is so successful in alleviating back pain.  Yoga can address the root cause of the suffering. 

The natural alignment of the spine has 4 curves.  Two concave curves (lordosis) in the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back) and two convex curve (kyphosis) in the thoracic spine (rib cage) and sacrum (tail bone).  The curves of the spine provide both stability and flexibility.  When one curve is flattened the other curves are effected. Try this experiement.  Hunch over, rounding your back and shoulders. What is happening in your neck and lower spine?

When a curve is accentuated or flattened, it can put pressure on the vertebrae in the front or back, causing the discs to be compress and they can extrude through the joints in what is termed bulging or ruptured discs, which then place pressure on nerves causing pain.  While the doctors view this as a source of pain, yogics view the root cause as the posture itself which is causing the compression in the first place.

Another root cause of back pain is tightness in muscles. People tend to hold stress and tension particularly in the shoulders and lower back.  Some of that tension is also caused by posture which places extra stress on the muscles. When the spine is in natural alignment, the bones transmit weight and force evenly, without stress on the muscles.

The most important root cause of suffering is the mind.  As the Dalai Lama said, “If there is mental discomfort one can’t appreciate physical comforts.”  But “if the mind is at peace, then even physical pain can be overcome.” 

Admittedly, it is not easy to change ingrained habits, in yoga called Samskaras.  Yoga recognizes that in order to relieve the suffering caused by habitual ways of thinking and moving, you need to create new habits.  The method of cultivating the witness state – watching the thought waves of the mind, becoming aware of how your habitual alignment – is a very powerful practice for expanding moment to moment awareness. This awareness reveals self knowledge. It gives you the opportunity to change habits which no longer serve you and which may be the root cause of your suffering.

In terms of back pain, bringing awareness to standing and sitting posture can relieve compression along the spine. Yoga postures (asanas) and kriyas (flowing movements in and out of asanas) help develop core strength critical for supporting good alignment.  The breathing and stretching systematically release long held stress in the body.  

In TriYoga, founder Yogini Kaliji promotes the Daily Three – a short practice you can do in 5-15 minutes each day.  These three simple practices strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles, stretch the back of the leg and lower spine, release tension through the entire spine, and quiet and focus the mind.  ALL my students who commit to doing at least 10 – 15 minutes a day report decreasing or eliminating lower back pain. 

Chronic pain often has the side effect of producing negative thoughts in the might. When your body hurts all the time, it is difficult to stay positive, and not get angry with the body.  But this suffering is caused by the incorrect identification of the cause of suffering. The body is not the cause of suffering.  It is what we are doing with the body and the thoughts that occupy the mind. 

Kaliji says “We cannot even say that we practice yoga, unless we incorporate ways to increase our life-force. Once it starts to increase, purification take place.”  “Yoga practices ultimately awaken the flow of universal energy ~ known as Kundalini, shakti, mother goddess. We require energy for the journey. Yoga sadhana increases prana ~the refinement of this energy flow expands awareness.”

Doctors have been largely unsuccessful in curing back pain, because they are not addressing the root cause. Yoga practices, including physical postures (asanas and kriya flows), breathing techniques (Pranayama), concentration and meditation to control the thoughts of the mind, provide a holistic approach for removing obstacles to your health and well being. 

But the other side of this coin is that you are responsible for doing the practice, and taking control of your health, rather than making that the sole responsibility of your doctor.  Research shows you will probably have more success using yoga. 

Research Studies on Yoga and back pain:

 Yoga, Stretching May Ease Lower Back Pain, Jennifer Warner, WebMD Health News

 NIH Study Yoga or Stretching Eases Low Back Pain,

 Lower back pain? Yoga therapy can help. Harvard Health Publications,

How Yoga Helps the Back, Fred Busch,

 Evaluation of a Yoga Program for Back Pain,Lynn Hickey Schultz, Sandra Uyterhoeven and Sat Bir S. Khalsa,


How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga

By Brahmi, Director, TriYoga Boston

There has been much discussion in the yoga world and beyond about William Broad’s recent book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards  and the NY Times article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” that helped put the book on the best seller list as soon as it was released.While there is much to argue about with NY Times article, I am finding Broad’s book to be thoroughly researched, and think it’s a must read for both aspiring and serious yogis.  Broad claims that doctors have long warned about serious yoga injuries, including permanent nerve damage and strokes. In the book Broad takes a broad look at the origins of yoga and the science behind all the different claims made about it, with an aim toward separating fact from fiction. While the book itself is a more balanced view of yoga, the NY Times article sensationalized the risks. I had no choice but to take notice as my students started asking me to about the safety of our practice.  One woman who had bought an Amazon voucher said she held off using it because she was afraid of hurting herself. 

As way of background, I am the Director of TriYoga Boston, a non-profit center which focuses on the healing and transformative powers of yoga.  I have been practicing yoga for 36 years, and my practice has helped me heal a bad back, wrist problems, recover from knee and shoulder surgery, and taught me how to improve every aspect of my life through my conscious choices. Last year I left a fairly high profile career in high tech to devote myself full time to a large non-profit center and focus on therapeutic benefits of yoga. Yoga Therapy is an emerging area and Broad accurately portrays both good and the quackery. But there is also a growing body of scientific evidence regarding its therapeutic benefits. Broad discusses this as well.  Our center is interested in furthering the knowledge and practice of therapeutic yoga, as we believe in the therapeutic value of the TriYoga method. 

I discovered TriYoga in 1993, after 17 years of practicing other forms of yoga and knew I had found my path. The source of the TriYoga method is Founder Yogini Kaliji’s experiences with Kriyavati (spontaneous posture flows guided completely by kundalini energy). I found that the energy that guides Kaliji’s flowing yoga has opened my own pathways to inner knowledge and healing. When I started TriYoga I had been in wrist braces for 7 years, had zero arm strength and chronic back pain. TriYoga strengthened my body, healed my wrists, and taught me this body that had been a source of chronic pain most of my adult life could become a vessel for transformation. Yoga did the opposite of wrecking my body. It healed body, mind and spirit.

As yoga has gained in popularity, there is no question that there has been a rise in yoga injuries, especially in large classes where fairly advanced postures are being attempted by inexperienced students. TriYoga emphasizes an inward focus on the breath, and honoring the unique needs of each body. It is a systematized approach. There are practice manuals for Basics, Level 1- Earth;  Level 2 – Water; and Level 3 – Fire.  Each level has 5 primary series, and each primary series has 3 condensed versions to systematically learn all the postures for that series. That’s 65 series for Basics through Level 3. For more variation there is a Flow Manual that teachers can go to for multi-level classes and workshops, and Yoga for Everyone, which includes Chair Yoga, Yoga for Seniors, Pre-Natal Yoga, Kids Yoga, and other specialty classes. There is also a comprehensive Prana Vidya manual that has 7 levels of systematized Pranayama and concentration practices.  Each level progressively develops strength, flexibility, and knowledge of correct alignment. Props including blocks, straps, pillows, and bolsters are used at every level. The emphasis is always on remaining comfortable and focused on the steady even flow of breath throughout the practice. The practice relaxes the body and quiets the mind.    

The most serious injuries cited by Broad include permanent nerve damage from Forward Bends and Natural Seat (Vajrasana) and strokes caused by compression of the neck in Plow, Shoulder Stand, Headstand, Cobra, and Spinal Twists and Wheel. Side Warrior (Side Angle Pose) and Triangle were also cited as dangerous postures resulting in neck injuries.  The Columbia College of Physicians published a survey of more than 1300 respondents who practiced yoga asking about personal experience as well as observations of serious injuries due to yoga.  The largest number of injuries (231) was due to lower back, then shoulder injuries (219), knee (174) and neck (110).  Four cases of strokes were reported.  (See below for detailed explanations of how TriYoga avoids injury in each of these postures). 

In all cases, the injury was caused by compression of the joints, which occurred when the forcing the posture by either holding it too long, or staying in it when the body was uncomfortable. In TriYoga, we have a Meta alignment cue – true for every asana – and that is to expand in all directions. The objective is to create space within the body, removing the obstacles to the flow of subtle, healing energy.  When we create space, we put no pressure or compression on any of the joints.  There are no injuries. Here is what Kaliji has to say about injuries in yoga:   

 “Yoga asana is defined as relaxed, one is able to meditate, transcends pair of opposites….

This is opposite of pushing, holding longer due to ego, not focused on alignment, rushing through the levels, attempting    more than one can do…

none of this is YOGA.

One can go to a yoga class and walk out with a strain muscle or injury;

however, it wasn’t YOGA that caused it.  It is the other reasons listed ~ such as pushing, not following their body wisdom…etc.

therefore, injuries are not in TriYoga or Yoga ~ but rather due to the person’s lack of applying yoga principles.”   Yogini Kaliji

 When a posture is practiced in alignment, with focus on the breath, it becomes comfortable, effortless.  However, as Kaliji says, “effort” is the first part of the word “effortless”.  We first need to put a great deal of effort into learning proper alignment. Often this requires unlearning old patterns – samskaras, which is even harder. It takes focus, discipline and daily practice.

Focus on a steady even flow of breath, witnessing the body, and practicing Ahimsa - non-harming -  ensures a safe practice. If the breath becomes uneven and short it is an indication of struggling and a sure sign it is time to release! Sustaining an asana in incorrect alignment without the requisite strength, flexibility or experience to do it correctly, can cause of injury. 

A posture held in correct alignment becomes effortless, and makes the body becomes a vessel for the unimpeded flow of subtle energy. The systematized method of TriYoga enables anyone at any level to experience the full benefits of opening the subtle energy pathways. The energy has  the power to heal. Many have experienced the healing power of yoga. We now look to science to determine how it works, and Broad to explain it to us.    


The most dangerous postures identified by William Broad and The Columbia College of Physicians survey:

Natural Seat (Vajrasana)

Forward Bends

Spinal Twists




Shoulder Stand


Side Warrior (Side Angle Pose)


8 Responses to “How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga” How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Shoulder Stand | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm [...] blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga. [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Cobra | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm [...] This blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga.   [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Headstand | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm [...] This blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga.   [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Wheel | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm [...]  This blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga.  [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Spinal Twists | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:40 pm [...]  This blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga.  [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Forward Bends | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm [...] This blog post is a follow-on to How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga.  [...]

How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Natural Seat (Vajrasana) | Yoga Waltham, Yoga Teacher Training Boston says: March 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm [...] Map « How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Forward Bends [...]



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