Escape from the YouTube Yoga Jungle
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | March 10, 2023
A few months ago I received an email from a yoga teacher offering a class called, “Yoga for Low Back Pain.” I clicked on the link and it took me to a YouTube video which had been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Now, the first thing I’d like to say is that I’m sure this teacher has good intentions and is a nice person. Nevertheless, the video was…let’s say problematic. In fact, after watching a few minutes I couldn’t help but reflect on the irony of the title. Maybe it was a class for low back pain. As in, this class will surely give you it.
The class included Bow pose, Wheel, a couple of strong seated twists and seated forward bends. These are poses that, for many people, could very well initiate or exacerbate low back pain. (Oh, and it was also described as “yoga for beginners.”) Yup.
I decided to see how far down the YouTube low back pain yoga rabbit hole goes and so I searched for and then watched several more videos which had titles like “5 Easy Yoga Poses for Fast Low Back Pain Relief,” “7 Asanas to Relieve Back Pain Instantly,” and my personal fave, “10 Yoga Postures to Relieve Back Pain in 10 Minutes.” Yup.
Some of these videos featured people in full backbends or extreme lunges. At this point I realized that things were worse than I’d imagined.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot people.
Now, I realize that some folks benefit from these videos. I am also well aware that there’s some good yoga content on YouTube. And YouTube is a great way to make yoga accessible to people who otherwise would not be able to get any kind of instruction. It’s also a useful resource for folks who don’t have insurance or can’t afford PT or yoga therapy.
But the problem with YouTube yoga videos, therapeutically oriented or otherwise is that, let’s be frank here, YouTube is a yoga jungle – if you don’t have an experienced guide to help you navigate it, you can easily get yourself into trouble. You may machete through that jungle, but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up more lost than when you started. How are people with no yoga, biomechanical, or medical training supposed to find solid advice on YouTube? We are living in times of excessive, often inaccurate information about yoga (and just about everything else). This can breed tremendous confusion. I don’t think it’s outrageous to assert that it’s essential to have guidance about any topic with which we are unfamiliar.
According to a recent Harris Poll, 3 out of 10 Americans live with chronic low back pain and the low back pain industry rakes in more than $100 billion a year. So yeah, there’s a lot of interest in the topic. Ka-ching.
But I think it’s important for the general public as well as every health and wellness professional to understand that being trained and experienced in teaching yoga means something. And it is a different skill than being able to do impressive yoga postures. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say their doctor told them to do yoga, but said nothing about how, where, or with whom.
People with low back pain need to be evaluated by a licensed health care provider and get good advice about what movements will help and which will not. Some people will need to limit twists or forward bends, others may need to limit back bends or lateral bends. Some people need to target strengthening or mobilizing specific areas. Again, I realize the cost may be prohibitive to some, but we’re talking about the back here – it’s a health priority. YouTube is fun for podcasts and entertainment, but would you trust your teeth or your eyesight care to social media?
While the wrong yoga practice can create or exacerbate low back pain, the right yoga practice (for you) may be excellent for reducing low back pain – the trouble is finding that practice.
I’d like to offer some guidelines. These are incredibly basic, but I hope they can at least serve as landmarks pointing the way out of the most treacherous parts of the YouTube yoga jungle.
Start small – Small, mindful movements give the neuromuscular system a chance to readjust its signaling. When you start small you allow the nervous system to remain in a parasympathetic (relaxation) state. This supports the development of a kinder relationships with your back. It helps you discover what feels good and what doesn’t. Less is more. By the way, when you decide you are ready to do something about your low back pain, it can take days, weeks, months, or even years to fully understand what works and what doesn’t. There are rarely instant fixes for back pain. All good relationships require time – your relationship to your back is no different.
Start supine – For many people with low back pain (but not all) supine is the most comfortable position for movement. When you are lying flat on your back, your spine is less loaded. That means there is less compressive force pushing down into the lumbar structures. In general, less load means that movement from this position carries less risk and may be more useful. (And, as an aside, seated poses convey the most force, particularly seated and leaning forward – hence seated forwards bends and deep twists are very often contraindicated.)
Symmetry is Good – For many people with low back pain (but not all) symmetrical movements should be explored first. So simple forward bends, like Apanasana, and simple back bends like Cobra (bent elbows) and low Bridge are often safer than twists or side bends.
Find ease and comfort – When your back is uncomfortable, the most important thing is to find a position that feels stable and limits discomfort. From that position, you can begin to mindfully explore movements. There is no magic bullet yoga pose that’s going to make your back pain evaporate. Rather, the method is the mind. Pay attention to the signals from your body. Move slowly and mindfully and find what feels comfortable. Gradually, over time, expand your movements. Be consistent, practice regularly. Comfortable movement can help damp down pain signaling. Be patient. It can take time to rewire pain signaling. This learning process can transfer to your awareness of daily life movements off the mat, so that you continue the process of understanding what makes your back feel worse and what makes it feel better.
Build strength mindfully – Most people with low back pain can benefit from building muscular support. This can be a key element of reducing back pain. Working prone (on your stomach) and lifting the chest and legs in various ways to various heights can be excellent for strengthening back muscles. Also lifting the hips from supine (Bridge pose above) can be beneficial as well. Again, slow and mindful is the ticket.
Social media is here to stay and no one can police the YouTube yoga jungle. What we can do, however, is continue to educate ourselves so that we can point people out of the jungle and towards accurate information.
Next week I’ll be writing about other factors which may be involved in low back pain – hint: they are not all structural!