Research summary: does Iyengar yoga help back pain?


Iyengar yoga is known for its accessibility and focus on postural alignment. This study showed that a twice-weekly practice over 6 months resulted in better function, less pain intensity and reduced medication.

Note that participants met very specific criteria: only those who could get up and down from the floor without support, and had no medical “cause” for the back pain were included. The program was then designed specifically for them.

Name of paper Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar Yoga Therapy on lower back pain. Full article here
Authors Williams K1, Abildso C, Steinberg L, Doyle E, Epstein B, Smith D, Hobbs G, Gross R, Kelley G, Cooper L.
Journal Spine (2009)

What the researchers wanted to find out
If Iyengar Yoga reduced pain and medication use, and increased function, in people with back pain.

How they did it

A control group of 43 people was compared to a group of 47 who did yoga twice a week for six months. Measurements were taken half way through the program, at the end, and six months after completing, using the Oswestry disability questionnaire, Visual Analog Scale, Beck Depression Inventory, and pain-medication usage questionnaire.

The program was developed by teachers with experience teaching for back pain, and approved by BKS Iyengar. Home practice was encouraged.

What they found

  • Significant reduction in functional disability, pain intensity and clinical improvements in depression during and at end of course
  • Also an important trend of reduction in pain medication usage


  • Small study with a reliance on self-reporting
  • Level of disability was low

Of note

  • Participants were aged 23 to 66 years; the majority were college-educated females with family incomes of more than $50,000 per year
  • They were recruited through self-referral and health practitioner referral and asked not to get massage, chiropractic or do any other yoga during the program
  • 12 (more than a quarter) didn’t complete the yoga program
  • The practice included resting poses at the beginning of the class, a full range of props, and exclusion of back bending pose

Practical pointers for working with people with pain

  • Suggests yoga is safe and useful for people with back pain
  • This program was tailored to the specific group in question so it makes sense it had a positive effect. Get specific in your yoga course design to yield better results. (As commensurate with traditional yoga that is handed down one-to-one.)
  • Questionnaires used to measure results could be useful for teachers who want to evaluate programs
  • While back bending poses may not inherently be bad for someone with back pain they can be confronting for anyone unfamiliar with the movement. By leaving them out of this training program teachers reduce the risk of extra pain due to fear of the movement

This research summary was produced by Martha Regnault, Yogalates Teacher in Byron Shire, and Rachael West, Yoga for Pain teacher and trainer. It is provided for information and shouldn’t be regarded as medical advice. Please read the full paper in the link above for a full understanding of the topic.

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