For yoga teachers, teaching students with back pain can be a challenge. We always want our students to feel good during and after taking our yoga class but when someone struggles with back pain thats not always the case. I've been to countless yoga classes that made my back feel worse afterwards. Its a shame, because it can make some students never come back and decide right then and there that yoga must not be for them. While in reality, yoga is for EVERY BODY. We just have to find the right style and teacher!
So, for all you yoga teachers - it’s important to remember that some poses that might seem "basic" or easy to you (like Easy Seat or even Savasana) could be inaccessible for a student with back pain, and certain twists and folds can even be painful. As a yoga teacher, you need to be prepared with plenty of modifications, props, and an inclusive language to make sure your student has a good experience in class. Read on for some more tips on how to teach to students with back pain!
Props, Props, Props!
Make sure you have lots of props (blocks, bolsters, straps) available for your students with back pain so that they can modify the poses and make them work for THEIR body. Ideally you'd help your student get set up with these before class and give them a quick rundown on the basics on what your class will entail. Whenever possible during your class, suggest the props as the first option of the pose—rather than as an afterthought—so that those with back pain don’t feel embarrassed about needing them or like they are choosing something "less than"..
For example, in forward fold offer to to keep the blocks under the hands as option one, and hands on the floor as option two. For sitting on the floor, you can encourage everyone to sit on a yoga block (the students who don't want to won't). For your sun salutations, start off everyone with cobra pose vs up dog and then progress by saying something like "inhale to cobra pose, or updog". Again, the students who want to take Updog will, while the others will still feel like they're doing a good job following your instructions. This will ensure that everyone feels comfortable and included in your classes.
This ties in with the previous point but it still deserves its own bullet: the language you use when teaching is very important when working with students who have back pain, or any other physical limitations. Lets take Camel pose as an example - instead of saying something like “grab your heels, or if you need to modify you can keep your hands on your low back” try opting for more inclusive language such as “keep your hands on your low back, and if you want to intensify you can try reaching for the heels - whatever feels good in your body today”. This type of language allows everyone - including those with back issues - to feel comfortable and included in class vs feeling embarrassed.
Individual Verbal Cues
If your student needs specific adjustments it's sometimes best to offer these one-on-one after class. Sometimes our bodies don't allow us to do certain poses, and having someone call you out in class with something like "Elina, straighten your leg. Straighten your leg! Straighten it! It needs to be straight, Elina!" but you cant actually do it, would make anyone feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and frustrated. Or even worse - injured! And yes, this exact thing has happened to me in class, and let me tell you... its AWFUL. Luckily I had been doing yoga for a while at that time and I just laughed it off, explaining loudly to everyone in class that I couldn't straighten my leg because of my back. But of course I felt embarrassed. Dont be that teacher.
Having private conversations also allows your student to ask questions and try things at their own pace so they don't feel rushed or overwhelmed by being forced into something before their body is ready, especially when dealing with an injury or chronic condition such as lower back pain. In addition, talking with your student after class allows YOU to ask THEM questions which is a great opportunity for you to learn and grow! If some poses were super challenging, ask them in what way and how it felt. If some poses felt really good, ask what felt good! Its a two way conversation and by asking them questions and learning more about back pain, you'll become a better yoga teacher and you'll ultimately be able to help more people!
Working with students who have lower back pain requires extra thoughtfulness on the part of yoga teachers. Fortunately, by providing ample props, using inclusive language whenever possible, and offering individual feedback and pose instruction after class when needed – teachers can create an environment where everyone feels equally supported regardless of physical ability due to chronic conditions such as lower back pain. As always – safety first! If something doesn't feel right then take it slow until your body is ready - never push yourself (or your students) too hard too soon.