Ask the Teacher is an advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at email@example.com.
I suffer from chronic pain. Can I use yoga for pain relief? I don’t want to make my situation worse.
Absolutely, according to Kelly McGonigal, PhD, the author of Yoga for Pain Relief. She is a noted yoga and movement teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University. She has not only researched and written about pain, but she has known it firsthand: For many years McGonigal experienced daily, debilitating headaches. Nothing seemed to help.
“My doorway into relief came first through mindfulness meditation,” she says in a YJ interview. “I took a class for people with chronic pain and learned a whole new way to relate to sensation.”
What are different types of pain?
Although each person may experience pain differently, we all know pain when we feel it. But all pain is not the same, either. Acute pain can result from an injury or illness, but it generally resolves after the condition is treated—with medication, surgery, or some other intervention—or when it runs its course. Even when you’re in a great deal of acute pain, you can expect that there’s an end in sight.
Chronic pain settles in and is reluctant to ease its grip. It’s more complex and it doesn’t respond to treatment in the same way, McGonigal says. “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,” she says. It may involve your whole body—muscles, nerves, hormones, and brain.
Pain research supports the idea that pain is a mind-body condition. For this reason, healing chronic pain “is usually a more gradual process that requires a holistic approach, including medicine, social support, and mind-body or psychological approaches,” she says.
Yoga for pain relief
As research on the relationship between yoga and pain continues, studies indicate that you can access pain relief through breathing, relaxation, meditation, or movement. Research has shown that yoga asana practice has an impact on low back pain, neck pain, and arthritis. Although yoga postures could help ease muscle tension in your back or tightness in your shoulders, for example, its true power may be in its impact on your neurobiology.
Some research suggests that people who practice yoga have more gray matter in brain regions associated with pain tolerance. The longer your yoga sessions, the greater the benefit. According to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, the brain responds to meditation differently to yoga than it does to other forms of pain relief—suggesting that using both mindfulness practices and medical treatments may work together for more effective pain management.
“Treatment often involves an individualized approach that may include both pharmacologic therapies (prescription drugs, analgesics, and NSAIDs) and nonpharmacologic interventions such as exercise, muscle-strength training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, movement/body awareness practices, massage, acupuncture, and balneotherapy,” according to a report from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Relating to the sensation of pain
Taking a specifically mindful approach taught McGonigal to engage the pain rather than fight it.
“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,” McGonigal says. “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.”
She started applying “mindfulness acceptance of sensations” to her yoga practice. This means paying close attention to what you’re feeling in each pose, not just what shape your body is making. Rather than focus on what the body is doing, or what shape you are making, you focus on noticing how you feel in the pose.
“Practicing mindful yoga was extremely useful, because the poses created so many intense sensations. It was a perfect way to learn a new way of relating to discomfort,” she says. After incorporating these techniques into her practice, her pain lessened in frequency and severity.
“The pain isn’t gone; it has been just a completely different experience. It has no hold on me, my emotions, and what I am able to do,” she says.
Using all your tools for pain relief
Addressing pain “involves every possible tool of yoga, including breathing, relaxation, movement, meditation, philosophy, and self-reflection,” McGonigal says.
“It’s recognizing that yoga’s healing power comes from its ability to change the way you breathe and move, yes, but also how you feel, think, and relate to yourself and to pain,” she says. “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.”
Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may answer it in an upcoming column.