Practicing Iyengar yoga for back pain relief is beneficial, according to a preliminary study published in Pain (2005; 115, 107–17). Low-back pain affects 70%–85% of North American adults at some point during their lifetime. Of the Americans who practice yoga, 21% do yoga for neck and back pain relief; and most American practitioners do Iyengar yoga, according to market research published in 2000.

Iyengar yoga centers offer a specific yoga program for chronic low-back pain. However, until recently no studies had examined the effectiveness of using yoga for back pain relief. Researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, West Virginia, decided to evaluate whether this method of yoga therapy effectively reduced pain.

In a randomized, controlled study, researchers divided 60 subjects with nonspecific chronic low-back pain into a yoga group and an educational control group. The study lasted 16 weeks. The yoga group performed Iyengar yoga for lower-back pain. They attended a 90-minute class once a week with trained instructors and were asked to practice yoga at home for 30 minutes, 5 days per week.

The Iyengar program included 29 postures: supine, seated and standing poses, forward bends, twists and inversions. Back-bending poses were not included, to reduce the risk of re-injury. The program started with restorative poses to relieve pain and muscle tension. Instructors then introduced lying poses that lengthened muscles connected to the spine and pelvis, followed by standing postures, twists and inversions. Instructors led participants in a gradual progression from simple to more challenging postures and provided individual attention to assist in correcting muscle imbalances that affected postural alignment.

Participants in both the educational control group and the yoga group received 16 weekly newsletters on back care, instructional handouts and two 1-hour lectures regarding chronic low-back pain. The education-only group did not receive any exercise training.

At the end of the program and at a 3-month follow-up assessment, researchers collected and analyzed data related to functional disability, clinical levels of pain, fear of movement, pain attitudes, coping strategies, self-efficacy, range of motion, use of pain medication, and program adherence. Results showed that pain intensity, functional disability, and use of pain medication were significantly lower in the yoga group than in the education-only group.

The researchers concluded that Iyengar yoga for lower back pain relief is an effective treatment and provides more benefits than education alone. (Editor’s Note: For practical help in designing a yoga program for the back, see “Yoga for Back Care” by Elise Browning Miller, MA, on page 103 of this issue.)

It is better to realize mind than body.

When mind is realized, one need not worry about body.

When mind and body become one

The mind is free. Then he desires no praising.

—Ekai, called Mumon, Zen Master, 1228