Yoga for Pain Relief: A Q&A with Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University, shares tips for dealing with chronic pain through yoga and meditation.
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Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University, shares tips for dealing with chronic pain through yoga and meditation.
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Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a yoga teacher, health psychologist at Stanford University, editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, once suffered from debilitating headaches that made her wonder what it would be like to live one day without pain. Now, as the author of the new book, Yoga for Pain Relief, McGonigal is sharing her tips for dealing with chronic pain through yoga and meditation. The following interview with McGonigal tells about her struggles and how yoga helped her.

Tell us a little bit about how you became interested in using yoga for chronic pain. How has yoga helped you cope with pain?

I do live with pain, but it is a pale shadow of what it used to be. For many years I had daily
headaches, often debilitating. My doorway into relief came first through mindfulness meditation. I took a class for
people with chronic pain and learned a whole to new way to relate to sensation.
It was something no one had ever said in any of the yoga asana classes I had
taken. I learned how to focus on my breath and feel sensations without
resisting them. I remember the first time I tried breath mindfulness during a
bad pain episode, and it helped. I went back to the next class so excited to
explain to everyone how the pain had been so intense, and yet I had the experience
at the same time that it was OK, that I was OK, and I could handle it. What a
revelation!

I started applying mindfulness acceptance of sensations to my yoga practice. Practicing
mindful yoga extremely useful, because the poses created so many intense
sensations! It was a perfect way to learn a new way of relating to discomfort.

Now, my pain is extremely mild and not daily. I only get a few debilitating headaches a
year. The pain isn't gone, it's just a completely different experience. It has
no hold on me, my emotions, and what I am able to do. And I almost never have
to take pain medication, whereas I used to take it daily. But it's actually
kind of a miracle.

Paying attention to my body in yoga also helped by making me more aware of how other
things, like food and sleep, influence my pain. It's given me more mindful
awareness of cause and effect in my body and mind. This lets me make better
choices about how I take care of myself. People
with pain often feel betrayed by their body, and this was certainly true for me.
Yoga can help you restore trust in your body, and learn how to listen to your
body.

Why is yoga a good idea for people who have chronic
pain as opposed to other treatment options?

Yoga is so helpful because chronic pain doesn't play by the same rules as acute pain from
a recent injury or illness. It is more strongly influenced by stress, thoughts,
and emotions. And the pain doesn't necessarily reflect a single identifiable
"problem" in the body, like a compressed disc or an infection. It usually
reflects a systemic change in how you experience pain that may involve your
muscles, nerves, hormones, and brain. So chronic pain is rarely "fixed" with a
single medical intervention like surgery. It is usually a more gradual process
that requires a holistic approach, including medicine, social support, and
mind-body or psychological approaches.

How is the approach in yoga for chronic pain
different from approaching any other kind of pain?

The biggest difference is you're not looking to fix some part of the body. It's not a
"stretch your back to get rid of your back pain" approach. It involves every
possible tool of yoga, including breathing, relaxation, movement, meditation,
philosophy, and self-reflection. It's recognizing that yoga's healing power
comes from it's ability to change the way your breathe and move, yes, but also how
you feel, think, and relate to yourself and to pain. It's being open to the
possibility that meditation or breathing has a good a chance of reducing your
back pain as a stretch!

How can you use meditation as a tool to help? Can you share an example of a meditation you might advise a chronic pain patient to
use?

One of my personal favorites is mantra meditation--repeating a healing phrase in your
mind. It gives you something to focus on, which shuts down the usual cascade of
thoughts that make pain worse. It provides a rhythm for the breath. This makes
it easier to slow down and deepen your breath, which can calm the stress
response and make the body and brain less reactive to pain. It gives you a
sense of quiet control, the exact opposite experience that typically goes with
pain or stress. I also like the idea that the mantra itself has a healing
power. I use a Buddhist mantra that resonates with me, and it is believed that
the sounds of the mantra spontaneously awaken the heart and mind. When I work
with students who have pain, I help them choose an English phrase or a yogic
mantra that feels meaningful to them.

For more information about how yoga can help people with pain, visit http://yogaforpainrelief.com.