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Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D.:
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September 27, 2021  


Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D.: Healing Back Pain with Yoga

September 28, 2010

Written for Back1 by Michelle Alford

Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D., has been practicing medicine for over forty years. She received her bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University and her medical degree from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Dr. Schatz has published numerous articles and run workshops for back and neck care basics. She is the author of Back Care Basics, Relaxation Basics, and the creator/producer of YogaMD ComputerRx iPhone app.

Dr. Schatz’s childhood experiences with her father encouraged her to become a doctor. Dr. Schatz’s father entered med school when she was in first grade. “He would show me the amazing glass-front cases of specimen jars,” Dr. Schatz

Dr. Schatz’s Advice for Finding the Right Yoga Teacher for Your Needs

  • Ask your friends for their recommendations, but remember that your needs may be different from theirs.

  • Do an internet search for yoga teachers in your area. Look for teachers who have classes specifically for students with back problems.


  • You should have a teacher who is experienced in adjusting yoga poses for your particular situation. Teachers in the Iyengar method are more likely to have these skills due to their rigorous teacher-training and certification process. Look on to find Iyengar-certified teachers.

  • Ask a potential teacher for training credentials and whether she or he is experienced in working with students with back problems.

  • Observe a class. The class should be small enough and/or have enough assistants to give students individual attention. Props (such as blankets, blocks, benches, and chairs) should be available to adjust poses to individual students’ flexibility and limitations. The atmosphere should be pleasant and supportive.

reminisces. “He drew mazes for me to solve with a pencil, but instead of straight lines, the maze would be in the form of coils of intestines! Later, when he was a country doctor in Clinton, LA, he would take me on house calls, and one of my summer jobs was to help him in his office.”

Dr. Schatz’s own back problems led her to combine medicine and yoga. Early in her career, she began to have neck and back pain due to long hours spent working at the microscope. A friend suggested that she try B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga. “I tried to do some of the poses and realized that even though I was very stiff and could not do very much, my back seemed a bit better after trying yoga for a few weeks. When I began to take yoga classes, I realized that much of my back pain was related to my poor posture and the rest was due to physical inactivity. Over time, my posture improved so much that I gained 1½ inches in height!”

She became convinced that yoga was an effective therapeutic system that could be of value to the western world. She decided to learn as much as she could about how yoga works. “I used all of my vacation time to take yoga workshops and to go to India to study with B.K.S. Iyengar. I began to combine yoga and western medicine by teaching yoga to patients, health care practitioners, and yoga teachers. My knowledge of western medicine was the foundation for understanding and explaining yoga’s therapeutic efficacy.”

Dr. Schatz believes that the main causes of back pain are poor posture, poor body mechanics/poor ergonomics, too much weight, and an inactive lifestyle. “Our bodies work best when our posture is well-aligned with the head over the shoulders and the shoulders over the hips,” she explains. “This proper alignment allows the spinal column to bear weight most efficiently. When we slump into posture that places the head forward of the shoulders, the chest collapses and the upper back becomes rounded. This position makes the muscles work at a disadvantage as they try to hold the head up against the pull of gravity. The result is often back and neck pain.”

Diet and exercise will also improve back and neck pain. Being overweight places additional stress on a person’s lower back. “For every pound of abdominal fat, nearly 10 pounds of pressure are placed on the lumbar spine,” explains Dr. Schatz. “With time, this extra load can cause deterioration of the intervertebral discs and the joints of the spine. Inactivity allows our muscles to weaken and become inflexible. Exercise is important to keep the muscles that support the spine strong and flexible.”

Yoga can be used on its own or in tandem with medication and surgery. For those already taking medication for back pain, a regular yoga program may help to reduce their necessary dosage. In addition, appropriately designed yoga programs, prepared in consultation with a physician, can be used as preparation for surgery or as part of post-surgical rehabilitation exercises. “Occasionally a pre-surgical yoga program can be sufficiently successful to allow for delaying or even avoiding surgery,” adds Dr. Schatz.

The best way to

Useful Resources



Audio CD

iPhone Applications

  • Loseit iPhone Application is helpful in setting up an appropriate weight loss goal, keeping track of calories, and charting your results.


  • Articles on therapeutic yoga by Dr. Schatz, tips on posture, other features.

  • Website for information about certified Iyengar yoga teachers

take care of your back as you age is vertebra are crushed into wedge-shapes (higher toward the back and narrow at the to get active and stay active. “Find an exercise that you love to do and look forward to doing,” says Dr. Schatz. “Don’t depend on ‘discipline’ to make you do something that you don’t enjoy: you won’t stick with it. Doing exercise that you hate is counterproductive and stressful.”

Take steps to avoid Osteoporosis. Have your bone density checked, make sure your exercise regime includes a weight-bearing component, and remember that men can get osteoporosis too. “I insisted that my husband have a bone density test after he fractured a rib from minimal trauma. I remembered that his mother had died from complications of severe osteoporosis. Sure enough, he had osteopenia, the early stage of osteoporosis. He has been on bone-strengthening medication since then and now has normal bone density.”

Yoga can help those suffering from Osteoporosis. As osteoporosis develops, postural deterioration occurs when the front) instead of their normal spool-shapes. As the chest collapses forward causing the well-known “dowager’s hump,” the lungs and the abdominal contents are compressed creating breathing and digestive problems. “Postural deterioration and its effects can be lessened by bringing constant awareness to posture during daily activities, and by strengthening the upper back and abdominal muscles,” says Dr. Schatz. “Working with a yoga teacher experienced in therapeutic yoga can provide valuable lessons in learning to support your spine in the best alignment possible.”

Women should take special considerations to preserve their backs during menopause and hormone therapy. “So often perimenopausal mood swings discourage and hinder us from doing some of the things that can actually help us to thrive,” says Dr. Schatz. “Practicing yoga, relaxation techniques, and aerobic exercise can help lift your spirits and minimize discouragement caused by hormonal changes.” It’s also important to find an enjoyable exercise program that strengthens your muscles and improves your postural awareness, flexibility, and balance. Yoga can help you accomplish these goals.

Yoga and tai chi are perfect for patients who have had a spinal fusion. Reduced movement in the fused segment results in increased motion and stresses above and below the fusion. Exercise must be adjusted to avoid stresses in these areas when bending forward, bending backward, and twisting the spine. This requires that movements be deliberate, meditative, and easily observable and controllable, such as those found in yoga and tai chi. “The choice of poses should be based on improving strength of the back and abdominal muscles as well as on improving posture and flexibility. The easy modified yoga poses in Back Care Basics are a good place to start.” Any exercise program following spinal fusion should be designed in close consultation with one’s physician.

Last updated: 28-Sep-10

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