The benefits of yoga are vast. Students can expect to gain flexibility, strength, and improved balance from continued practice, while those with chronic pain may find the practice improves quality of life.

Although many people aren’t sure how to start practicing, the best way is to attend a live class with a registered yoga teacher (RYT). While there isn’t much government regulation of those teaching yoga, teachers carrying a RYT designation are registered with the Yoga Alliance, the industry’s largest non-profit. To earn the ability to register, teachers must take at least 200 hours of class at a registered school. The training program covers yoga philosophy, alignment, and safety concerns for teaching special populations, including those with chronic pain.

Most teachers at studios, gyms, and other healthcare facilities have earned the RYT designation, although taking a training class isn’t required by law to teach yoga. If you’re not sure, it’s always a good idea to ask.

Why does taking a class with a registered teacher matter?

Many people new to yoga may start by trying out a few poses in their bedroom, or following along with a video or DVD. While this is a fine option for many people, it’s important to take a live class with a registered teacher to learn proper form and breath technique, particularly for those with chronic pain.

Learning the proper form and optimal sequencing is essential to enjoy the most benefits from yoga practice. Consider low back pain, a common problem. Some poses are contraindicated for those with back problems, especially spinal issues like bulging discs. Even a simple forward fold can aggravate back issues. In this example, a modification like bending the knees would be helpful for keeping the lower back safe.

Practicing proper form

Many yoga poses look deceptively simple. When practiced without proper form, they could cause injury. Stay safe and learn from a teacher.

Another risk of practicing yoga outside the scope of a qualified teacher is choosing the wrong type of poses for your health concern. For example, many people with low back pain might gravitate toward poses that stretch the back. However, back pain is best helped by poses that strengthen the back, a common area of weakness for those who sit a lot.

During yoga classes, a knowledgeable teacher will help you by demonstrating modifications to make the poses more accessible and reminding you of proper form throughout the practice. Be sure to let the teacher know ahead of time any areas of pain, and she will let alert you to the poses that could impact the affected area.

While people with chronic pain may have additional concerns, some alignment cues are important for everybody, regardless of age or physical health. Keeping the knee over the ankle in standing poses, for example, helps to protect the knee joint.

Other alignment cues are less important for preventing injury, but important for achieving the full benefit of the pose. In some poses, a person may sacrifice alignment to access what appears to be a deeper expression of the pose, but is in actuality missing the very muscles and connective tissue the pose targets.

When practicing at home alone, it’s hard to see your alignment, even if you practice in front of a mirror and know proper form. A teacher frequently issues gentle reminders about proper form that are important for preventing injuries.

Learning about the spiritual side of yoga 

Beyond the physical practice of yoga, called asana, there is a rich spiritual tradition of yoga that encourages mindfulness and compassion. Many yoga teachers teach breath work, called pranayama, and meditation in addition to the physical postures. These complementary practices do wonders for calming the nervous system, improving a person’s ability to manage stress, and generally creating a joyous sense of peace.

Meditation has been found particularly helpful in reducing the suffering of those living with chronic pain.

To access the full benefit of yoga, it’s important to match the breath to movement, a feature that can easily be lost when novice yogis practice at home. Yoga uses a special type of breath called ujjayi that’s powerful in calming the mind, particularly when linked with body movement. During yoga classes, teachers remind you to return to the breath and can answer questions about ujjayi or other yoga terms.

Teachers over time convey the deeper, spiritual meaning of the practice which many people find enjoyable. Most yoga classes don’t include meditation, but having a relationship with a yoga teacher could be helpful if you’re establishing a practice and need to ask a question. The ancient yogis saw the physical practice as a way to prepare the body for meditation.

Once you have a solid practice, practicing at home is fine and even encouraged. However, establishing a firm foundation is important to practice safely for many years.

I’m on a budget. How can I practice at a studio?

Fortunately, practicing yoga doesn’t have to be expensive. One good option is to join a fitness center that offers yoga along with other cardio classes. You won’t find the variety or the spirituality that many studios offer, but it’s a good option for people wanting to find affordable yoga classes.

Another affordable method is searching coupon sites like Groupon for deals in your area. You might find a large percentage off class packages or a month-long option of unlimited classes. Most studios offer discounts for purchasing packages of five or ten classes as opposed to the drop-in rate for a single class. Some studios offer weekly community yoga that’s free or low-cost. These rates and times change frequently, so contact a studio near you to inquire about a potential class.

If you’re in the Phoenix area, visit the Spirit of Yoga in Tempe. The school trains yoga teachers and offers free classes taught by students in exchange for filling out a feedback form. An experienced instructor supervises the classes, so rest assured your practice will be safe.

Keep an eye on the local events calendar. Fitness apparel stores like Lululemon and Lorna Jane offer free classes. Lululemon holds free yoga classes at its Biltmore and Chandler Fashion Center locations.

Many Lorna Jane stores have an in-store fitness studio where they hold classes. There’s typically a placard outside the store with each week’s schedule, or you can call for times. Valley locations include San Tan Village in Gilbert, Biltmore Fashion Park, Kierland Commons, and Scottsdale Fashion Square.

Have you ever attended a yoga class?

Image by GoToVan via Flickr

Get Free Email Updates!

Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.