Yoga for chronic pain
Gentle movement, breathing techniques and meditation allow us to work with pain and create habits to improve our wellbeing on both good days and bad.
This article is not about how you can heal your pain through yoga. I think one of the worst things we can tell people with chronic pain is, “I have the solution—I can fix you,” because you’ve heard it a million times. You’ve probably tried a million different things, too. Recommendations about diet, exer- cise, doctors and clinics. “My friend’s brother said this,” etc.
What I can share with you is a tool you can use to help deal with pain. Gentle movement patterns for the good days to keep the blood flowing and your joints moving and mindfulness techniques for when the pain takes over and it seems to be all you can think about.
Chronic pain, no matter where it is experienced, is debilitating. The physical is obvious, but what about the other areas of our lives that are impacted? When we are in pain, we struggle to find a comfortable position for sleep and so sleep becomes compromised. We are tired all day, increasing the pain so we crave caffeine and sugar that furthers the inflammation in our body. Then on top of this we become easily irritated by everyday tasks, causing unnecessary arguments and furthering the stress.
Our bodies then become tense, add- ing more pain and we are caught in this vicious cycle where we feel we can’t catch a break. Sound familiar? I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture, but this is the reality for millions of people every day. This is something we need to understand when we look at how we approach and treat those who are suffering.
So where do we start? First, we need to deal with what is happening physi- cally. We have to get to the source of the pain and do what work we can for rehabilitation or at least for it not to get worse. Ignoring this, I promise you, will not make it go away. Then, we can practice yoga.
“How do I do yoga when it hurts to move?” The good news is yoga is so much more then how we perceive it to be. To say “do yoga” usually refers to “get my mat out and do a bunch of poses.” However, yoga is so much more. Yoga teaches us how to reconnect to ourselves, to honour and accept ourselves for who we are today.
Yoga as it’s understood through yoga philosophy is a science of the mind. Yoga teaches us how to calm our mon- key minds so that we can be present, centred and calm. How do we get there? Through the eight limbs of yoga.
These are the yamas and niyamas, which are both how we interact with the world and also how we take care of ourselves. These include non-violence, acceptance, discipline and surrender. The following limb is asana or the poses. We then move to pranayama or breathing techniques—of equal value to the poses. The last four limbs are all connected to meditation: pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses, dharana or concentration, dyana the meditative mind and finally samadhi or bliss body.
When we begin to understand the full expanse of yoga, the power of its benefits becomes more apparent. When we start to practice these different layers, this experience is felt. Next, are different exercises to try—some easier than others. Remember, we call it yoga practice not yoga perfect.
Breathing is the only function we have that crosses both our somatic nervous system (movements we control, like typing or scratching our nose) and our autonomic nervous system (movements we don’t control: heartbeat, digestion).
Our breath is always present as we require oxygen to stay alive, but we generally use only 10% to 20% of our lung capacity. On top of this, in times of pain, both physical and emotional, our breath becomes even more shallow, or we may even hold our breath. By focussing on deep and full diaphragmatic breathing, we feed our body oxygen-rich blood giving it more sustenance and thereby energy.
By somatically controlling our breath, we are also able to cross over into our parasympathetic nervous system, an autonomic function responsible for calming us. Parasympathetic is also known as “rest or digest,” the only place that healing can occur. In addition, the simple act of following our breath in and out is a meditation on its own, allowing us to step away from pain, or breathe through it, if only for a moment.
Breathing practices for chronic pain should include:
Three-part breath: with one hand on belly and one hand on chest, feel the breath move from belly through the rib cage to chest and back again with each inhale and exhale.
Alternate nostril breathing: covering the right nostril, inhale through the left nostril. Then covering the left nostril, exhale through the right. From here, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this six to eight times.
Equal ration breathing: using three-part breath, count inhales to exhales so they match in duration. Practice this for three to five minutes.
Tips for yoga poses
- *Move the spine in all directions. Stay pain-free and do what you can.
- Practice modifications. If you aren’t sure what modifications to use, ask your yoga teacher.
- Chair yoga provides many options for those recovering from surgery, with unstable balance or needing a cane walker or wheelchair.
- Remember, movement that is pain-free is good for you. If you are experiencing shoulder pain, standing poses with hands on hips are a great option. If you are experiencing knee pain, using a chair and stretching and flowing through your spine and arms will help the rest of you feel good.
- Yoga as exercise has been proven to help with arthritis and fibromyalgia. Move on days with less pain, rest on the days where there’s more. Always stay within a pain-free range of movement! Gentle stretching in the morning and evening can go such a long way in daily pain management.
This one is huge! Mind over matter is super important. A regular meditation practice will give you clarity of mind. It will reduce stress, thereby reducing tension and pain. It will also increase your ability to be present.Presence is an interesting concept when dealing with pain, as we spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid the current pain. We want to work with the ability to sit with the pain and be okay with it. To notice the other areas of our body that aren’t in pain and to sit in that space. Gratitude meditations are very powerful here.
Through meditation we can also begin to follow the pain and if needed isolate its source. It also allows us to contem- plate what might be feeding the pain. Is the stress we are carrying from a toxic work environment or negative relationship feeding the tension in our back and intensifying an old injury? Are there opportunities for more self-care or better sleep habits?
Just examine what is preventing you from simply sitting and quietly follow- ing your breath? If the answer is, “I can’t sit still” then ask why? Write in a journal about this. Chairs and props can be used to meditate in a position that is comfortable. Soft music or guided meditations can provide a focus for a wandering mind. Start with five minutes and slowly build up to 10 or even 20 minutes a day. Try to practice at the same time each day. It won’t be long until you begin to crave this time of stillness and reflection.
Yoga nidra, also known as yoga of sleep, is a guided meditation practice centred around the body. It is extremely helpful with insomnia as it keeps the mind focussed, gently drawing you down into an alpha brain wave state where rest can occur. It is said that 30 minutes of yoga nidra is equal to two hours of sleep. Yoga nidra can be practiced anytime and virtually anywhere. There are many free resources online available. Richard Miller is my go-to source, though there are many. Try a few until you find the one that suits you best.
There are so many layers to chronic pain. It can quickly become a spider web of frustration. Though there may not be a solution to your pain, daily self-care involving yoga will help. Mood management and better sleep go a long way in our overall outlook and quality of life. You might not be able to change what happened, or the daily reminders, but you can change your perspective.
Yoga inspires us to change what we can and be okay with what we can’t.
It teaches us to reconnect to ourselves and most importantly to accept our- selves as we are. A powerful message indeed. Namaste.
Author: Lisa Greenbaum, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, YACEP, is a YogaFit senior master trainer, international presenter and avid writer. She is the director of YogaFit Canada, the leader in mind-body education and she currently teaches yoga in Toronto, specializing in trauma-informed yoga practices. She is a regular contributor to Optimyz Magazine.