Yoga and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is what drew me to become a yoga teacher. After finding myself in chronic pain as the result of an injury from working as an archaeologist, my resolve became to understand pain and find alternative ways of alleviating it.  Yoga ended up being very therapeutic for me and inspired me to become a yoga therapist.

 

 

What happens in the body when we are in chronic pain?

When we are in pain for an extended period of time, our nerves become sensitized to transmitting and receiving neurotransmitters and hormones that result in us experiencing physical pain.  In other words, our bodies become very accustomed to being in pain.  This can be a hard cycle to break. 

Pain is often accompanied by emotional distress and anxiety due not only to the constant pain, but the changes in our abilities in terms of work, daily activities, and social relationships.  Essentially our bodies are under a constant state of alarm and no longer feel like a safe and comfortable place to be.  Everything seems to result in more pain. 

This short video by physical therapist and pain expert Neil Pearson very eloquently explains this phenomenon. 

Pearson explains that we can change our pain by changing our thoughts and emotions and with physical therapies that help to reduce muscle tension.  Yoga is an excellent tool to help change pain because yoga considers your entire being, not just your pain symptoms.  

Yoga and Chronic Pain

Yoga postures can help correct muscle imbalances, stretch tense areas, and strengthen weak or damaged areas.  The physical practice asks us to observe and feel our bodies.  This helps us to learn what aggravates, and what alleviates our pain.  Most importantly, the physical practice of yoga brings us into the present moment where we begin to train our minds.  It is through this union of mind and body that yoga really impacts pain.

Mind Body Awareness

Yoga cultivates a mind body awareness that asks us to enter the present moment by taking an observer's position of the mind.  As we move in yoga, we first experience the physical sensations of our bodies including our breath.  Yoga also asks us to notice our thoughts and feelings.  Typically, the mind is either engaging in thoughts associated with how the physical body feels as we are doing yoga postures, or it is a thousand miles away.  Yoga asks us to simply observe these thoughts without attaching judgment or emotion.  Physical sensations result in thoughts and emotions, and thoughts and emotions result in physical sensations.  Experiencing this is mind body awareness. 

Changing our minds

When given the option to just watch the thoughts the realization occurs that we are so much more than our mind.  We are not defined by our thoughts.  Our thoughts do not control us.  In fact, we control them.  If our thoughts are mostly to do with pain, then we will feel pain.  We can change this first by witnessing these thoughts. 

By first noticing the mind, we begin to understand it.  Through this understanding we can learn how to make the mind work for us.  We can begin break the cycle of pain and change our experience of the world for the better.    

The combination of mental and physical training in yoga helps people gain a sense of self regulation, which often trickles over into other unexpected areas of life.  Life itself starts to feel like less of a struggle.  We experience calmness amongst a seemingly chaotic life.  Consequently, fewer hormones and neurotransmitters causing us to feel pain are sent and received in our bodies, and our nervous system begins to relax.  There is an increase in the production of hormones associated with happiness, making people's bodies more comfortable and relaxed.  This is empowering for everyone, not just people in chronic pain. 

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