Strike A Pose


Is yoga part of your pain-relief plan? There’s good reason to think it should be.

When Nancy Clark was diagnosed with fibromyalgia more than 15 years ago, she at last had a name for the pain radiating all over her body and some relief in the drug doxepin. Finally able to move again, she took a friend’s advice and tried yoga for the first time. Now, eight years later, her weekly classes and home practice have become an indispensable part of her life and how she takes care of herself. The stretching is wonderful; it really feels good, says Clark, who lives in Bermuda Dunes, California. After yoga I just feel so relaxed.

While Clark can’t say for certain whether yoga has helped alleviate her pain, she has noticed that typical pain triggers, such as sitting in a car for hours or working on the computer for too long, are no longer as bothersome. Even sitting in a bad chair doesn’t seem to have any lasting effect on me, says the 71-year-old. I just feel more normal now. That’s not unusual, says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of the book Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger, 2010). She believes that yoga can create real and lasting change in pain sufferers. Sometimes that means the pain goes away. Sometimes it means you still have the sensation of pain, but it does not get in your way or affect your mood or enthusiasm for life in the same way.

Yoga is much more than a bunch of exercises: The 5,000-year-old practice combines poses (called asanas in Sanskrit) with intentional breathing (attention to inhales and exhales) and body awareness, says Timothy McCall, M.D., a board-certified internist and the author of Yoga as Medicine (Bantam Books, 2007). Learning to slow the breath and pay attention to it may have particular dividends for pain patients: This awareness helps to calm the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system which revs up when we’re stressed and can actually amplify pain. Studies have found that mindful breathing counters that by kick-starting the parasympathetic system, which is responsible for states of deep calm and relaxation true salvation to a body normally braced against pain.

When we’re in pain we’re more likely to breather shallowly, taking rapid breaths that induce more stress and exacerbate inflammatory conditions like arthritis. If there is a component of inflammation in your pain and you are constantly in fight-or-flight mode, you are fueling that inflammation, explains McCall. Deep breaths can do a lot to short-circuit that vicious cycle.

Then there’s the physical aspect of yoga, which can loosen tight muscles and strengthen underused ones. Think of it as a re-balancing act that can relieve muscular or structural issues that underlie many kinds of pain. In the case of osteoarthritis, for instance, yoga can help correct misalignment of bones and movement patterns that worsen wear and tear on joints, McCall says. Moving in and out of the poses also improves circulation, bringing fresh blood and nutrients to the muscles and joints, and stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals that suppress pain signals and help alleviate anxiety and depression two conditions known to exaggerate the perception of pain.

Perhaps most important, yoga makes it easier to tune in to what’s happening in your body. People learn to reject the body when they are in pain, McGonigal says. They feel betrayed by their body and the fact that the body is getting in the way of their life. When you slow down and tune in, though, McCall says, you’ll begin to notice that the pain changes all the time. It goes up and down with the breath, the time of day. You start to notice that variation. And when you go in and actually feel the pain instead of your emotional response to it you may begin to notice that you can alter it.

McCall thinks that for some, starting and sticking with a regular yoga practice can be nothing short of life-changing. Yoga can inspire a profound shift in attitude for people in pain, he says plainly. People start to realize that this body, which they may have come to not like and not trust, can be a source of joy and peace and calm. And that there may be an alternative to living from the neck up.


Written by: Kelle Welsh, Managing Editor of Yoga Journal Magazine
Originally published in: Pain Solutions Magazine, Fall 2009
Photo Credit: Netris, courtesy of Stock Free Images

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