With all of the new and emerging information on pain science, yoga students and teachers have the opportunity to apply modern research to their practices and help alleviate and prevent pain.
Preliminary research suggests that gentle movement of your nerves is vital to both managing pain and supporting the general health of your nervous system. The idea is that healthy nerves should be able to gently slide, elongate, and angulate within neural tissues (some nerves can move as much as ¾ inch) in order to adapt to different loads and minimize pressure that can worsen existing pain, alter sensation, or lead to new pain patterns. Sometimes, tone and tension around neural tissues can be a problem. These tissues are bloodthirsty and rely on an important pressure gradient around them to maintain adequate blood flow. So even small changes in tissue tension around a nerve can be enough to block nerve mobility and lead to compression that disrupts blood flow and nerve signaling back to the brain, contributing to pain.
To help you keep your nerves adaptable and protected, try the asana technique on the following pages based on an understanding of neurodynamics (the study of nerve movement through its surrounding tissues) and nerve pathways. We have the ability to alternately put tension on different ends of the nerve to create a movement of the nerve through the tissues, often referred to as nerve gliding. As you floss the nerve, you potentially allow it to move more freely so that it can communicate more efficiently with your brain. For example, the sciatic nerve runs through the back of your leg, so in Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) if you bend your knee (raised leg) and flex your foot, you’ll put tension on one end of the nerve (by your foot) and slack the other end (by your knee). This action draws the sciatic nerve and its branches toward your foot. Then, as you extend your knee and point your toes, you’ll reverse the areas of tension and slack. This action draws the branches of the sciatic nerve toward your knee. When you put these movements together you can encourage the sciatic nerve to move back and forth through its tissues more effortlessly. You also may down-regulate local inflammatory responses, restore healthy blood flow to the hard-working nerve, and encourage more efficient communication between your brain and body. Optimal signaling is crucial if you want your immune and nervous systems to function at their best, which is another reason to add nerve gliding to your repertoire.
The key to nerve gliding is to move gently within an easy range of motion. Since your target is the pain-free movement of your nerves, not of your muscles and fascia, you want very little sensation or stretch. It’s a great reminder that even in the physical body there’s clearly more to what we do than just sensations or the feel-good endorphins associated with them. Another thing I love about this approach is that, in addition to being a safe way to work with pain, it’s very accessible since it’s about simple, gentle movements.
Sequence - Neurodynamic Movement
To begin, pick a nerve you want to focus on and find a range of motion that’s accessible, pain-free, and with very little (if any) stretching sensation. Do 5–10 repetitions of the pose or this sequence once or twice a day. If you’re using these moves more preventatively, try rotating a few of them into your regular practice a couple times a week, and remember that in group classes there’s more than just stretch and sensation affecting the tissues. Happy flossing!
Join Tiffany Cruikshank at Yoga Journal's upcoming event in January at 1440 Multiversity. Learn more at yogajournal.com/thepractice.
About our author
Teacher Tiffany Cruikshank is the founder of Yoga Medicine, a community of teachers focused on fusing anatomy and Western medicine with traditional yoga. For more information, go to yogamedicine.com.
Model Jenna Nishimura is the general manager of Yoga Medicine and a teacher of gentle, yin, and restorative yoga in Denver, Colorado.