People ask me a lot, “what pose is good for back pain (or neck pain, or knee pain, or…)?”
I don’t want to be snarky, and yet after 20 years of helping
people out of pain, my honest answer is this:
“the pose doesn’t actually matter.”
So if it’s not the yoga pose – then what matters?
It’s a question I set out to answer in my 20’s when I decided to become a yoga teacher.
Yoga had healed my neck and pain pain almost immediately, and I wanted to know why.
I didn’t want to be the kind of teacher that told people in pain “uh… maybe just don’t do that pose if it hurts” or worse “just try to relax and don’t resist.”
For me, the same pose would sometimes feel great and sometimes bring the pain back.
So… I knew it couldn’t be the pose.
I was on a mission.
My mission to understand
I studied cadavers with pre-meds at UCLA, trying to find something in the muscles and bones that would give me a hint.
I became a Certified Fitness Instructor, and I got my Masters in Exercise Science.
But I still didn’t know what it was about yoga that heals musculoskeletal pain… until I discovered this one concept.
It’s simple, and yet has provided me with two decades of tools to help people out of pain, on and off the mat.
What supports healing is called alignment.
Alignment isn’t about the outer pose – it’s about what we’re doing INSIDE any pose.
On a physical level, alignment is simply moving our muscles and bones in the direction that they naturally go.
For instance, the low back has a natural curve in. If we have low back pain, chances our we’re flattening our curve. Sometimes this is from tight hamstrings, or sitting all day…
But many people have been taught to flatten their low back curve to stabilize it.
And it’s true – it might give some instant relief to flatten it out. But over time, consistently moving AWAY from our spine’s natural curves will create problems that are way worse than aches and instability.
Slipped disks, nerve pain, degenerative disk disease… all are the result of long term misalignment.
When we move our low back (lumbar spine) TOWARD it’s natural curve (lordosis), we feel better right away, plus bonus – we heal over time.
My mission was almost accomplished. But it took more yoga study to fully understand WHY.
Why alignment works
Our brain is constantly communicating with our muscles.
Our blood is delivering oxygen and taking away CO2 and lactic acid.
There are myriad of processes flowing this way and that in the body that support life in every moment.
Yoga’s word for this flow is prana – the invisible force that nourishes the physical body.
When we move TOWARD natural alignment, we support the intelligent, nurturing, healing flow of prana.
Think of prana like a flow of water. When it’s blocked, that area dries up.
When it flows through again, it powerfully brings with it its healing intelligence, washing away debris (like inflammation) and even starting the process of reversing changes in the bone structure (osteocytes) from rubbing.
Alignment is about our freedom
Alignment isn’t another “should” – it’s not “sit up straight” or proper posture.
Alignment isn’t a place that you can finally get to, and then you just get to stay there and enjoy life without pain.
Alignment is the freedom we all have to choose what direction we want to go in each moment.
With each breath, we can ask ourselves:
- Do I want to go toward my natural curves, or away?
- Do I want to move toward fear, or toward possibility?
- Do I want to move toward tightness, or expansion?
- Toward my small self, or my highest Self?
- Toward stress, or groundedness?
- Toward beating myself up, or self-love?
We can align with our highest, most powerful, wise and nurturing Self in any moment – and we can choose not to.
We’re always free to choose.
So what pose should I do then?
If you’re looking for what pose to do or recommend for back pain, take a moment.
Remember: you can be hurting yourself on the mat – and healing while you’re driving.
Ask yourself instead: what direction might this part of body want to go in to return my body to its natural state of balance?
Does it need strength or space?
Play or support?
Understanding alignment on the simplest levels can free us from the feelings that often come with back pain: from fear that it’s something serious, to anger at our selves for doing something wrong, to hopelessness about it going away.
If you know that a simple alignment action will move your spine toward its natural stability and freedom and youfeel better right away – your feelings shift.
When you feel pain, it can feel like a gift.
Your body is telling you clearly that something’s moving in the wrong direction. Thank you body!
It’s inviting you to bring breath and consciousness to the area – another definition of prana.
You can feel curious and empowered.
Exhale fully. Inhale deeply.
What direction do you want to go with THIS breath?
If you ever experience back pain, you can access my free self-paced program “Happy Back in 5” with rescue poses, simple alignment actions and a 5-minute daily practices. Part of the 2-week free trial of Ma Yoga Living Membership.