For thousands of years, people have practiced yoga in order to support and improve their physical and mental health. You’ve probably heard lots of stories about the health benefits of yoga — whether from your friends, your family, or the media — but most of these anecdotes aren’t backed by science. Therefore, you might be left wondering whether yoga can really help solve all of the health problems people say it can, or whether some of the claims are exaggerated.
If you suffer from chronic lower back pain, a new scientific study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine provides research-backed evidence that gentle yoga really can make a difference. A group of researchers at Boston Medical College found that a back-pain-focused gentle yoga session was just as effective as a physical therapy session when it came to reducing pain, increasing activity level, improving quality of life, and ensuring overall satisfaction.
These findings not only offer relevant insight about the relative benefits of yoga and physical therapy, but they also provide rigorous evidence to support the guidelines of the American College of Physicians, which makes recommendations for the broader public. Regarding everyday lower back pain, this group of physicians recommends that people choose yoga, massage, and tai chi over pain medications.
The Specifics of the Study
The study was conducted by scientists at Boston Medical College, with input from expert yoga teachers, doctors, and physical therapists. They recruited 320 study participants from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and they divided them into three groups. The participants in the first group attended a back-pain-specific yoga class every week for three months. The participants in the second group went to fifteen physical therapy sessions over the course of three months to receive treatment for lower back pain. The participants in the third group received educational materials about combatting lower back pain, such as a self-help book and a regular newsletters. Before the study started, and then again at the end of the three-month study period, the participants were surveyed about their pain, activity levels, and overall quality of life .
As mentioned before, the researchers observed similar levels of improvement for both the yoga group participants and the physical therapy group participants. In the beginning, about 70 percent of the participants were regularly taking pain medications for their back pain, but by the end, that number had fallen by 20 percent for both the yoga group and the physical therapy group. Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that participants in both of these groups were more likely to have reduced pain and increased activity abilities than the participants in the group who only received self-help materials.
Not Just Any Yoga Class
The researchers developed the yoga class in collaboration with trained yoga teachers, developing a guided gentle yoga protocol that focused primarily on simple poses and relaxation techniques. The poses were also chosen specifically to facilitate movements that could reduce lower back pain. Some of the gentle poses in the protocol included cat-cow, triangle pose, and child’s pose. However, they left out the more difficult poses, like inversions and other that require significant balance and flexibility.
So you might find yourself asking — how can regular people benefit from the findings of this research study, given that the participants were being led through a guided training that had been developed by experts, specifically for sufferers of chronic lower back pain? Your local gym probably has gentle yoga classes, but how can you be sure that they will include the right poses at the appropriate level of intensity? Can you really scrap expensive physical therapy sessions in favor of weekly yoga classes and achieve the same results? Can you really give up your medications without being in constant pain? If you’re not in a back-pain-specific yoga class, would it be just as effective to order a self-help book and try to treat the back pain on your own?
Considering Thai Massage
As we mentioned before, the American College of Physicians recommends both yoga and massage as alternatives to pain medication for lower back pain — and Thai massage provides a happy medium between the two. Moreover, it can include many of the same aspects as the yoga protocol developed for the study.
Thai massage is essentially a guided yoga session, in which the therapist moves your body through a series of gentle yoga poses. However, even more than the yoga classes in the research study, Thai massage emphasizes gentleness and relaxation. You are entirely passive throughout the session, allowing the therapist to manipulate your limbs rather than moving them yourself. Also, your therapist can design the session to meet your individual needs — whether it’s lower back pain, another chronic problem, or a combination of multiple conditions.
Therefore, Thai massage enables you to engage in the type of yoga that the recent study has proven to be beneficial. Plus, the Thai massage therapist can further aid in the treatment of your back pain by applying pressure that is similar to deep tissue massage and other traditional massage modalities. As a result, you can reap the benefits of both massage and yoga.