Research suggests that integrating yoga practice into your daily life can help alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, change your perception of it, and build up defenses to prevent it from getting worse. By improving range of motion, reducing the stiffness of joints and muscles, and strengthening the body, we can start to target the specific locations of pain and work to treat them. Brain scans of yogis also show higher activation in the parasympathetic nervous system: a “tend and befriend” mechanism that attunes us with problem areas.
How Your Body Remembers Pain
Western medicine uses the word “neuroplasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to establish, reestablish, recognize, and utilize synaptic connections, especially in response to injury. In yoga, the word for this concept is “samskara”, and its connotations are more balanced between the pain-response and the relaxation-responses of the body.
The biology of memory is considered by researchers to be a cornerstone of chronic pain. Pain sustains itself from its roots in a severe physical injury or illness and its consequences, as well as the change the initial trauma inflicts on the relationship with the mind. Threat signals from specialized nerves transform to pain signals in the brain after an injury is sustained. Simultaneously, the emotion-processing centers in the brain receive the message and react in anger, fear, or sadness. The experience of pain is both the neural response and the emotional response, resulting in the feeling of suffering.
Your body then coordinates a reflexive response, utilizing the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems to energize and protect you from the perceived threat. These physiological changes are the basis for the remembered protective response the body mounts the next time it senses the same kind of pain. As physical ailments persist, the body becomes more efficient at mounting it, blurring the neural and emotional responses, and distorting sensation to make you more sensitive to the same kind of pain.
Yoga’s Impact on Chronic Pain
Entering a state of relaxation has proven to be helpful for chronic pain. A calm body turns off heightened nervous system responses and redirects energy towards immune function, digestion, and growth. This is where yoga comes in. Yoga’s mutual emphasis on mental strength and wellbeing in tandem with physical strength and wellbeing can provide a way to re-pave the paths of our brain, and steer them away from an overprotective nervous system response.
Some of the most common asanas, or poses, can help with a wide range of issues. Yoga has been shown to provide great relief to people suffering from chronic lower back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and migraine, as well as to improve mood and psychosocial wellbeing in people struggling with depression or feelings of loneliness. A consistent practice of integrating mind and body movements with our breath can achieve a state of heightened relaxation that extends beyond the moment and utilize our samskara to encourage our body to nurture itself, alleviating some of our chronic pain responses.
Yoga Poses for Pain Management
One critical element of any yoga practice is the breath. Try some of the following poses for pain management, and focus on the way your breath fuels your movement.
Often the end of traditional vinyasa classes, Savasana is simple, but performing it at the beginning can highlight areas to work out throughout the practice. Lie on your back, with your palms facing the sky. Slow your breathing and imagine a light, slowing entering the top of your head, traversing down throughout your body, muscle by muscle. Scan to pay attention to areas of tension or tightness, and how each point of contact feels.
Use the Standing Side Stretch to improve balance, and find length in the arms, core, and obliques. Stand in Tadasana or Mountain Pose, and bring hands upward with the palms together. Push your hips to one side, and bring your hands toward the opposite, stretching the whole side body. Alternate sides.
The Supine Twist is a great movement to strengthen the back and neck. Start off lying on your back with your knees into your chest. Stretch one leg out, and guide the bent knee to the opposite side, extending your arm. Gaze upward and out over your extended hand.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) activates the core, quads, and chest, and provides relief for lower back pain, bloating, and menstrual cramps. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and arms extended along the floor with your palms flat. Press feet and arms into the floor, and exhale as you lift your hips towards the ceiling. Roll shoulders back and underneath the body, and keep your thighs and feet parallel for an even distribution of weight.
Baddha Konasana (Butterfly Pose) stretches the knees and hips, and helps cultivate mindfulness and focus. Sit down with the soles of the feet together. Adjust the angle of the lower leg as necessary to feel a stretch.
For any and all poses, use blocks, blankets, or other props as needed to make space if something feels tight or inflexible. Use mindfulness, and direct attention to your breath.
Breathwork, movement, and meditation are not new. These are ancient practices that can be tailored to fit the needs of anyone suffering from chronic physical or mental pain, or who just wants to feel better. Yoga can be practiced for 10 minutes or 90, at home or in a group, at any age. There are guided meditation apps for breathwork, and local studios with diversified classes to meet different goals.
We love to hear from you; tell us about your experiences with yoga for pain management.