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Yoga for Healthy Aging: 3 Different Ways Yoga Helps with Pain
Have you ever used your yoga practice to help with pain? If not, you might be surprised at how effective it can be. Yoga provides several pain-reduction techniques. And in some cases you can even eliminate the cause of pain. For example, reducing stress could help you eliminate stress headaches and improving your musculoskeletal health could eliminate back pain.
For acute pain, yoga provides techniques, such as breath work and relaxation that can reduce your pain. And stress management practices can also reduce the emotional suffering associated with the pain. For chronic pain, yoga is beneficial both for reducing the pain and for changing your relationship to it, improving your quality of life.
There are three different ways you can use yoga to reduce pain:
2. Breath work
Since everyone is dealing with different conditions, and has different needs and preferences, you should choose the techniques or combination of techniques below that work best for you and your limitations.
Even though people with chronic pain are often reluctant to move, research shows that both static and dynamic asana can reduce pain, improve physical functioning, and reduce pain medication usage for a range of conditions, including low back pain and arthritis, in people who are otherwise reluctant to move.
This is because mild to moderate exercise actually decreases physical pain. Yoga asanas release muscle tension and increase joint movement, both of which reduce the intensity of the pain. Asana practice improves your strength and overall physical state, which depending on what’s causing your pain, may help resolve the underlying condition.
The increased flow of oxygen to your brain and muscle tissues improves your energy levels and sense of well-being. Exercising releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers, and improves your mood. Finally, the regular exercise can improve your sleep, which improves pain tolerance.
For people with certain joint problems such as arthritis, moving your joints through their range of motion and stretching your muscles can decrease the intensity of your pain or relieve your pain completely. And practicing yoga asanas mindfully improves your awareness of your physical sensations and responses to it, allowing you to improve your self-care.
Research has demonstrated that even on days when you don’t feel up to moving, if you use your imagination to “exercise”— such as imagining you are doing an asana—it prepares your body to move with greater ease and comfort when you are actually ready to move again.
Moving in and out of gentle poses with your breath releases physical tension, which can reduce pain. Reducing physical tension could also help improve your ability to breath with ease when doing breath work for pain. Examples are as Marjarasana (Cat/Cow Pose) and Sukhasana (Easy Sitting Pose) with a side bend. When you are ready for strength building, practicing standing poses, such as Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2 Pose), dynamically will allow you to gradually regain strength.
Holding gentle stretches for longer periods may allow you to release even more physical tension from the muscles than the dynamic poses. So you may find even more pain relief. And regular long holds of stretching poses can improve joint movement over time. Examples of gentle static stretches that could help are Supta Padangusthasana (Reclined Leg Stretch) and supported backbends such as Supported Bridge Pose. And when you’re ready for more serious strength building, especially for your bones, working up to holds of 30 seconds in your strength building poses will help you regain even more strength.
These poses create deep physical relaxation for your muscles as well as for your nervous system. Relaxing your muscles at the same time you quiet your nervous system reduces both the pain and your emotional response to it.
2. Breathing Practices
The way you are breathing is a good barometer of both your pain and your stress. Typically your breath is fast and shallow when you’re in pain and/or stressed, while it’s slower and deeper when there is no pain or pain is milder, and you’re more relaxed. So at the very least, pay attention to your breath for clues about when you should change what you are doing (or keep on doing what you’re doing). And even the simple practice of paying attention to your breath can actually interrupt pain and stress responses. So you can use simple breath awareness for flares of acute pain or for chronic, persistent pain.
And breathing practices where you slow your breath, such as equal lengthening or lengthening the exhalation, will calm your nervous system, which may provide even more pain relief.
Finally, using the breath observation techniques will help you identify breathing patterns that were initially a legitimate response to acute pain, but are not serving you well for chronic pain. You can then work with an expert on changing your breath patterns, which may help relieve your pain.
Chronic pain is often associated with negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness. These emotions could be the result of your pain, could be causing an increase in pain, or both. So if you’re experiencing any of these negative emotions—and it wouldn’t be surprising if you were—doing breathing practices to calm your nervous system is especially worthwhile, as it may help change your mood or at least reduce some of your negative feelings.
Many studies have confirmed that relaxation practices can reduce pain and improve the quality of life for many chronic pain conditions, such as migraine headaches, back pain and fibromyalgia. And because conscious relaxation practices take effect in a matter of minutes, turning off the stress response to pain and turning on immune, digestive, and repair and growth functions, these are great first-line practices for acute flares of pain. So we highly recommend practicing conscious relaxation for both acute and chronic pain. Try out the various techniques to see which ones work best for you and your particular condition.
All yoga stress management practices can reduce your pain, but focused relaxation may be particularly helpful. Focused relaxation, which can be practiced in a variety of restorative poses, shifts your attention from your pain to your breath or other physical sensations or to peaceful imagery. Guided relaxations, in which you follow the instructions of a recorded voice, are particularly helpful for pain because you don’t have to concentrate so hard to focus. This is especially helpful for people who are new to these practices.
Like all yoga stress management practices, meditation can improve pain as you start to relax. But research shows that several meditation techniques (breath awareness, mantra repetition, and visualization) can actually improve your pain tolerance.
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This article originally appeared on yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com. Reprinted with permission.
Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional wellbeing, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author, with Rodney Yee, of two books on yoga: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance, both of which are widely available, and is currently writing a book with Baxter Bell on Yoga for Healthy Aging for publication in 2017.