Yoga has become a tremendously popular way to relieve stress, improve flexibility, and boost both physical and emotional health. For those with chronic pain, yoga can have a powerful effect on reducing symptoms and improving quality of life. Although it will not necessarily get rid of all the pain, research has repeatedly shown that yoga can lower subjective pain levels and make the pain that remains feel much more tolerable. Here are 4 ways that this can occur.
1. Brain Anatomy Changes
Both the gray matter and the white matter in your brain are fundamentally changed by chronic pain. These changes often lead to depression, anxiety, and the impaired cognitive functioning or “brain fog” that is frequently reported by people with chronic pain. Yet imaging studies of yoga practitioners show nearly polar opposite results. The gray matter and white matter change in ways that improve cognitive functioning, mood, and physical tolerance of pain and discomfort.
If you have chronic pain, regular yoga practice boosts the brain anatomy, undoing the changes that the pain caused. Depending on your medical condition, current pain levels, and existing brain anatomy, the effects can be quite dramatic. Boosting your brain responses can lead you out of the fog, remove the physical impacts of depression and anxiety, and drastically improve your pain tolerance.
2. Replacing Learned Bodily Responses
Pain is ultimately a protective response by your body when faced with a physical threat. It stops you from performing activities that could cause further damage, and encourages you to rest and heal. However, the nervous system also learns from the experience, and begins to process pain in ways that encourage you not to repeat the traumatic event.
When pain becomes chronic, the body’s natural self-protective responses go into hyper drive. Your body begins to overreact to perceived threats, no matter how minor. Desperate to avoid further trauma, your nervous system starts to mount a full-scale protective response at the slightest provocation.
Yoga’s powerful calming and restorative abilities help your body unlearn the endless cycle of pain and protection. Unraveling these automatic responses lets your body rest in a way that simply is not possible when you are caught in the overactive protective cycle. This, in turn, gives you the space to learn new responses that focus on active healing rather than pain. Breath exercises, meditation, and very gentle resting poses are key elements of a restorative yoga practice.
3. Improving Energy Flow Throughout the Body
In Eastern thought, qi is the life force or vitality that is the essence of life. Whether or not you believe in qi as a separate and distinct force, the fact that chronic pain and anxiety causes tension and ongoing tightness in different muscle groups is undeniable. Yoga breath exercises focus on intentionally releasing blockages throughout the body. As you become more familiar with these techniques, you will learn to use guided imagery to direct a flow of energy to any tightness or blockage you feel anywhere in your system. This can help prevent or correct the clenching and muscle tension that can worsen chronic pain.
4. Boosting Natural Healing Responses
Although Western scientists are just beginning to understand how the processes work, yoga has been repeatedly shown to lower cortisol levels, improve lymph flow, and encourage the body’s natural immune responses. For people with chronic pain, this can reduce the severity of the condition, leading to lower pain levels. Interestingly, yoga practice can also help to decrease the functioning of the immune system in people with autoimmune diseases, which cause an overactive immune response.
Of course, the better-known benefits of yoga also help to relieve chronic pain. A strong core, loose flexible muscles, and healthy bones all make your body better able to support the painful region. A relaxed, deeply calm state of mind helps you face your condition with peace and hope rather than fear.
Each person is different, and each case of chronic pain is unique. Speak with your doctor about the ways in which yoga can become part of your fully integrated treatment plan. Pay close attention to any restrictions he or she places on your practice, and seek a yoga teacher who is experienced with chronic pain sufferers.
Authored by Megan Kaplan, Community Coordinator of Centered Yoga
Established in 1999 by Paul Dallaghan,Centered Yoga is fully affiliated with the prestigious Kaivalyadhama, a research institute in India dedicated to studying yoga from both classical and scientific viewpoints. When you feel ready, we invite you to start your journey to becoming part of this distinguished legacy by submitting your application for the 200 hour level residential training.
Are you curious about how to harmonize your health goals and do so by integrating yoga into your lifestyle?
Then you’re going to love what I’m doing in Costa Rica next summer! Join me, Sarah Plummer Taylor MSWc & RYT500, and Lisa Theis, RYT500, for the next Align & Shine rest, restore, and play retreat for women in 2016. This is the 6th retreat I’ve lead, and the third of which Lisa has co-taught. We love holding space for you on your journey. <3