For many of us, the thought of doing yoga can be intimidating. “How on earth could I twist my body into those positions?”, you might ask. Even more, if you have chronic pain, you know all too well the challenges of exercise.
However, yoga might just be your secret weapon against pain.
Yoga has many benefits including calming the mind, reducing stress, stretching cramped muscles, reducing joint pain, and improving range of motion and flexibility. All of these benefits mean good things for those who suffer from chronic pain.
Yoga is not just for the crunchy, all-natural type of folks. Anybody can do it with a little bit of practice and the right mindset. You don’t even need to be all that flexible to get started.
Let’s explore how yoga helps chronic pain, how to get started, and a few poses that are targeted to those in pain.
Why yoga for pain?
When thinking about exercise and movement of the body, yoga is more about the mind over the body. I know, sounds a little “new-agey,” but bear with me.
Research suggests that yoga works against chronic pain on a neural level, increasing the amount of gray matter across multiple brain regions. Fun fact: Gray matter is what gives humans our unique information processing power and is one thing that sets us apart from other animal species.
In this study, researchers found that those who practice yoga had more gray matter and tolerated pain twice as long as a matched control group, suggesting that gray matter is uniquely correlated with pain tolerance.
Additionally, yoga uses the idea of the healing breath. People with chronic pain tend to use short, shallow breathing which sets off the body’s sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response and triggers the release of stress hormones.
Breathing deeply and slowly—a key part of yoga—counters stress by stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” system. And this type of deep breathing helps to assuage pain.
Yoga is meant to be practiced mindfully, with stillness and a clear head. This strengthens both the body and the mind. Awareness of proper alignment and good posture are also important for well-being.
Calming the mind, strengthening the body, reducing stress, and regulating the breath are the keys to both relieving pain and learning to deal with it better.
How to get started with yoga for pain
You could certainly get going on your own at home with direction from an app or website such as Down Dog, Daily Yoga, Asana Rebel, or DOYOUYOGA. There are many outlets to choose from.
If you’re a beginner, however, it is best to physically go to a yoga studio and take a class from an instructor. There are different types of yoga and thus different studios and instructors.
Does the studio do hot yoga? Power yoga? Restorative yoga? Keep an eye open for details.
Find an instructor who has greater than 10 years of experience. Also, let the instructor know before class about your condition. He or she can help you with modifications.
Don’t mesh well with a particular instructor? A different one in the same studio might give you a totally different experience. Try a few classes to find what you like.
When practicing yoga, listen to your body and what it needs. Muscle stretch is good, but pain is not. Don’t push yourself. “No pain, no gain” does not apply here.
You will also need a good, sturdy yoga mat. You want one that grips well to the floor, is thick, and won’t make your hands and feet slide around. Check out these recommendations.
There are also other props available like blocks, eye pillows, and supportive wedges. Props are kind of like an extension of yourself to relieve pressure and help better hold positions.
Yoga poses for pain
1. Cat and Cow
Good for: lower back pain, sciatica, menstrual cramps, stretching the hips
Bad for: neck pain or neck injury
How-to: Start on hands and knees, with shoulders over wrists and hips over knees. Inhale and lift the chest and tailbone towards the ceiling, dropping the belly low. Then, while exhaling, arch your back, keeping the belly button pressed to the spine, press through your shoulder blades and drop your head.
Continue with the rhythm of your breath and repeat 6-8 cycles.
2. Downward Dog
Good for: Back and neck pain, headache, fibromyalgia
Bad for: Shoulder pain, bad wrists
How to: Start on hands and knees, tuck the toes under, and exhale as you lift your knees, straighten your legs, and shift your hips up and back to create an A-shape. You can enjoy the stillness here or play around with it by straightening one leg at a time or pedaling your heels right and left.
3. Bridge Pose
Good for: Back pain, stretches the neck and chest, strengthens the buttocks
Bad for: Weak neck
How to: Start on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Walk your legs in closer to your buttocks so that your fingertips can touch your heels. Use your thigh and glute muscles to lift the pelvis into the air, leaving space between the chin and the chest. You can clasp your hands together below your back to better open up the chest.
4. Supine Twist
Good for: Back and neck pain
Bad for: Certain types of back pain or injury, such as a herniated disc
How to: Start on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Keep right knee at your chest and straighten your left leg onto the ground. Place your left hand on the outside of the right thigh. Exhale and gently guide your right leg over to the left side of your body. Extend your right arm out to the side and look towards your right hand. Repeat on the other side.
5. Eagle Pose
Good for: Helps with balance. Reduces sciatica pain and helps stretch the upper back and reduce leg cramping.
Bad for: Some knee, ankle, or shoulder problems
How to: From a standing position, shift weight into right leg and bend your knee. Lift left leg and place left thigh over right thigh. Hook the top of the left foot around the right calf and balance on right leg. Then, raise your arms in front of you and cross your arms by placing the right arm above the left arm. Bend the elbows making the forearms perpendicular to the floor. Keep spine straight and focus gaze 4 feet in front of you. Return to starting position and repeat on other the side.
6. Child’s Pose
Good for: Everyone
Bad for: Pregnancy, vertigo, or herniated disc
How to: Start on hands and knees and widen your knees to the edge of the mat. Sink your hips back towards your heels and reach your arms out in front of you with forearms resting on the mat. Let your forehead touch the mat. Relax, enjoy the stillness, and take deep breaths.
7. Forward Fold
Good for: Back pain, tense muscles
Bad for: Vertigo or injury to back or hips
How to: Start from standing position with feet hip’s width apart. Slightly bend your knees and gently bend down from the hips so that your chest and stomach touches your thighs. Once stable, cross your arms and grab your elbows. Let your head hang heavy and sway slowly from side to side. If you are flexible, you can touch your palms to the floor or grab your heels. To release, roll slowly up to standing position.
8. Savasana or Corpse’s Pose
Good for: Everyone
Bad for: Nobody
How to: In yoga, Savasana is the final resting pose. It allows our body to take in all of the great work we just did. Savasana involves lying on your back with legs stretched out and arms resting at the sides. This pose is meant to ignore outside stimulus and simply be in the moment. This time will allow you to focus on your breath and let the muscles and organs relax.
Yoga has a lot of great benefits for those who experience chronic pain.
Yoga is a form of meditation that quiets the mind and reduces stress which might help us to deal with pain better.
The practice of yoga also promotes good body alignment and strengthens the muscles.
Get out and try a few yoga classes and see what you like. Start slowly and take your time. Pushing yourself into pain is not the goal here. Try some of the poses above to see how they affect your pain.
Meet the Author
Shannon is a nurse practitioner with an array of clinical experience. She is particularly passionate about health promotion and disease prevention. When she's not nurse practitioner-ing or writing, she enjoys reading, cooking, and yoga. You can check out her blog at https://shannonthenp.com.