If you are one of the many people who live with chronic pain, you know how draining the constant discomfort can be on your strength, energy, and well-being. I would like to introduce you to a more natural solution – yoga. Yoga can decrease pain, medication usage, and help you lead a happier and fuller life. If used properly and consistently, yoga can mean the difference between a life governed by pain and one in which pain plays only a small part in your everyday life. Let me explain why.
All the moving in yoga may seem like last thing you want to do when in pain, but a 2005 study found that “chronic pain and fear of pain can become part of a vicious cycle: Fear leads to avoiding any activity that might trigger pain, and inactivity leads to greater physical disability and pain” (Boersma & Linton 2005). Many recent scientific studies have found that a yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield way to improve one’s overall health, including pain management.
Research Shows that Yoga Helps Pain
In 2008, researchers at the University of Utah did a small, but interesting study on the effects of yoga on stress and pain. It was believed that people who have a strong stress response would be more sensitive to pain. The study consisted of 12 experienced yoga practitioners (yogis), 14 participants with fibromyalgia (thought to be a stress-related disease that creates a hypersensitivity to pain), and 16 healthy individuals.
During the study the three groups of participants were subjected to various levels of painful thumbnail pressure. The results showed that the fibromyalgia participants perceived pain at lower pressure levels than any of the other subjects. Functional MRIs found that those with fibromyalgia had more activity in the areas of the brain associated with the pain response. On the other hand, the yogis had the highest tolerance to pain and the lowest pain-related brain activity during the fMRI. In other words, the study finds that yoga can improve stress regulation and ultimately reduces the pain response.
Other studies also show that regular yoga eases the effects of chronic pain. In 2015, Dr. Catherine Bushnell (scientific director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institute of Health (NIH), studied the brain anatomy of yogis. She found they have more grey matter in several brain regions. Generally, people lose grey matter as they get older, but the grey matter of yogis did not decrease as significantly with age. Pain perception was also monitored during this study, and the results once again demonstrated that those who practice yoga have an increased pain tolerance. Bushnell concluded that “yoga and other mind-body practices can help prevent or even reverse the effects of chronic pain.”
Up until recently most professionals believed that pain could only be caused by damage to the physical body. However, there is indeed a second source of pain that has nothing to do with the body. Pain generally starts from a physical injury or illness, but sometimes (after the body heals), pain can continue. The pain lasts longer than natural healing should, is not in proportion with the actual cause, is accompanied by an overly sensitive nervous system, and really serves no useful purpose. But there is no specific physical injury that can account for the pain. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal this pain, often called chronic pain, comes from “the very real biology of your thoughts, emotions, expectations, and memories.”
Chronic pain is often described as total overall pain, affecting those suffering from it physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. Therefore besides the physical pain, there is a decrease in healthy functions causing anxiety and depression, and difficulties in relationships with family and friends.
You must remember that chronic pain has both physical and psychological causes. This does not mean that you are “faking” it, as the perception of pain is very real and has a biological basis. This statement merely means that the source of the pain is not limited to where you feel it.
The Fundamentals of Yoga
Yoga offers numerous levels and methods to relax, energize, adapt and strengthen the body and the human psyche. Yoga classes can vary from gentle and accommodating to strenuous and challenging; the choice of style is usually based on physical ability and individual preference. Analyses of a wide range of yoga practices suggest they can reduce the influence of the stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression. As mentioned in a Harvard Health Publications article “yoga functions like other self-soothing techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, exercise, or even socializing with friends.”
Yoga focuses on asanas (postures performed during practice), pranayama (breathing techniques) and dhyana (meditation). Its purpose is to balance different energy flows (chakras) within the human body. The postures ease tense muscles, tone up the internal organs, and improve the flexibility of the body’s joints and ligaments. The goal of correct yoga exercise is to increase flexibility and strength, so you do not need to be flexible to do yoga; flexibility is the aim, not a prerequisite.
Each posture is performed slowly and in precise, fluid movements, while following the breath. Intense movements are avoided; as they can produce a build-up of lactic acid, which results in fatigue. Overall, the postures relieve stiffness and tension, help to bring back the inner balance of the spine, renew energy and restore health. Some postures even offer an added advantage of being weight-bearing which helps sustain bone mass, which is particularly important for women. Relaxation and breathing exercises produce stability and reduce stress and connect you to your inner strength. Besides all these amazing benefits, regular practice of hatha yoga can also promote graceful aging.
Relaxation to Heal Your Pain
The best way to correct chronic stress and pain responses is to train the body and mind in healthier responses. In other words, replace the habit. When you replace stress and pain with movement and breathing, this develops your natural coping mechanisms and creates healthy change in all aspects of your life. There are various different yoga styles to try, however these would be the styles I recommend for beginners and people suffering from chronic pain:
Hatha – Poses are straightforward, relatively easy and the pace is leisurely. This is the best style for beginners. Props like blocks and bolsters are frequently used to help you get the right alignment, which is very important in yoga to avoid injury.
Yin Yoga – This style is named for the calm half of yin-and-yang, and involves slow movement into poses (most of them seated or lying down), then staying there for up to five minutes to allow for a deeper stretch and time to just, well, be. It is not surprising that Yin yoga is particularly good at stimulating the part of your nervous system that helps you recover from pain and stress.
Iyengar – Iyengar teachers are qualified in biomechanics, so they understand which positions are most likely to cause injuries—and how to modify them by changing your form and showing you how to use props correctly to make them less intense. According to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Iyengar may even help you recover from injury and a similar style of yoga, Viniyoga, works wonders on people with chronic low back pain in just 12 short weeks.
Restorative Yoga – Restorative yoga activates the healing relaxation responses in your body by combining gentle yoga poses with conscious breathing. During this style of yoga, the body rests while the mind is engaged. The correct breathing techniques are essential while in each pose in order for one to focus the mind on healing thoughts, sensations, and emotions. There are many other options such as Ashtanga yoga, Power yoga, Bikram/Hot yoga, Vinyasa flow yoga, Kundalini yoga or even Aerial yoga. I would suggest starting with the basics and working your way up from there, to a virtually pain free existence.
How to get Started
Walking into a yoga class can be quite intimidating, especially if you are unsure of the ability of your body. I suggest that you try a small class for beginners or one-on-one private sessions if possible. At least in a beginner’s class, most people will be at a similar level as you, and there will be no performance expectations. If you don’t feel comfortable with a class, you could always start a home practice routine. There are tons of videos on YouTube, and even yoga websites that send daily video classes straight to your email inbox. My personal favorite is Do You Yoga, they also have free yoga challenges available that range from 3 days to 30 days.
Try a challenge, they are usually only 10 -20 minutes each (easy enough to fit into a busy lifestyle), and I can assure you by day 30 you will feel lighter, leaner, happier and relatively pain free. The sense of accomplishment will motivate you to yoga every day, long after you complete the challenge.
To get the most out of your yoga practice, be sure your environment is safe. Get yourself a slip-free mat especially for yoga and practice barefoot so your feet stick to the mat as intended. Be sure you have plenty of room to stretch and move without knocking or bumping into anything. Follow the instructions and make use of props where needed to ease into your practice. You can also use relaxation CDs, candles, or incense to enhance your feelings of relaxation and connectedness. Also, never do a pose that worsens your pain, know your limits and don’t push too far. Go slowly, work at your own pace and modify any pose you need for safety and comfort.
Understandably chronic pain can be so debilitating to live with and the prescription medication used to relieve it can cause worrying side effects when used long term. Yoga for chronic pain is a way to relieve this discomfort without causing more harm to your body.
Give yoga a try. You’ll be amazed at how much healthier you feel! A renowned yogi B.K.S. Iyengar once said, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”