Creating Space in Your Spine — and Your Mind
Have you ever left a yoga class feeling taller? Maybe you’ve felt a release in your lower back. It’s no secret that yoga strengthens and stretches your spine. But, can it eliminate back pain or discomfort?
Sheri Dewan, MD, is a Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group neurosurgeon with a yoga practice spanning two decades. For spinal health, she’s an advocate for kundalini yoga, which she calls “yoga for the nervous system.”
“The spine can become rigid — almost fused — over time if you don’t move it, causing pain and other complications,” says Dr. Dewan. “Kundalini yoga combats this. It focuses on the spine with a nice blend of meditation, which is key for pain management.”
What is kundalini yoga?
Kundalini yoga is one of 11 major types of yoga. It focuses on meditation, body mechanics, breathing, muscle tension, the spine and the muscles that support the spine.
Some kundalini sequences work up the spine from the base, moving it in all six directions. Others focus on moving energy through your body through meditation. The physical and mental aspects of kundalini work in tandem to mitigate back pain and promote spinal health.
Who benefits from kundalini yoga?
“I recommend kundalini to patients who want to be more holistic about their health,” says Dr. Dewan.
People with spinal fractures or bone fragility should avoid kundalini yoga. People over the age of 70 should consult their physician before starting a yoga practice.
If you have had neurosurgery, or have a preexisting spinal condition, consult your physician before practicing yoga. When you begin or return to practice, work with your yoga instructor to determine modifications to poses as needed.
How can kundalini yoga improve pain?
“So much of chronic pain is psychological,” says Dr. Dewan. “Coupling spine work with breathing exercises to calm the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight stress response, is an effective way for many to manage back pain.”
Sometimes patients will come to Dr. Dewan with back pain concerns, only to have perfectly normal MRIs. They try everything to manage the pain, from dry needling to steroid injections, and nothing seems to work. Often, she suggests kundalini yoga, and within a few months of regular practice, their pain generally improves.
How do you start practicing kundalini yoga?
Start small by searching for kundalini videos online and doing them at home. Dr. Dewan recommends incorporating kundalini postures into your morning routine.
“You’ll notice a difference in how your back feels if you practice kundalini yoga every day when you wake up,” she says. “Studies have shown that relaxing the musculature in the back can help with the psychological component of chronic pain.”
After you feel confident in your at-home practice, search for a guided kundalini class at a yoga studio near you. Classes typically last one hour and can vary in intensity.
Can other types of yoga help with back pain?
From a restorative practice, to a power practice, yoga comes in many forms, all of which can benefit your spine and your mind.
Dr. Dewan recommends kundalini yoga because of its emphasis on introspection, but all types of yoga place an emphasis on spinal health. Finding a type of yoga that you like will ensure the longevity of your practice — and the physical benefits to your spine.
“Kundalini can’t replace surgery in some cases, but it’s a powerful tool you can use to manage pain and take control of your spinal health,” says Dr. Dewan.