Yoga for Chronic Pain: Part 1
Yoga as an embodied mindfulness practice has the potential to change your brain. You can become aware of samskaras, habits or patterns, and discover tools to change them. Chronic pain, researchers are discovering, may work very much like a habit that’s been created between the body and the brain, sometimes long after the initial injury or trauma has been healed.
Pain is incredibly useful: it tells us that something is wrong. Sometimes, however, pain receptors collect around an area of trauma and start acting like overprotective mama bears: they ring the pain alarm bells both for mild external stimulus and internal triggers like stress and exhaustion.
Ideally, we flow in a balanced way between our sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” state which helps us manage various forms of stress, and the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” state where we heal, repair, and process our experiences. In a world where the standard response to “How are you?” is evolving from “Fine” to “Busy!” we rarely enter completely into the rest state. Stress sticks around when we don’t need it, which can reinforce our pain patterns.
A calming yoga practice encourages the brain to create a new samskara: the more you relax, the easier it is to access relaxation. As yoga teacher Pattabhi Jois famously said, “Practice, and all is coming!”
These four restorative yoga postures, if possible paired with a warm, dark, and quiet environment, will trigger your relaxation response. Allow yourself to fully experience any moment of softness, rest, quiet, and ease, even if there is also some pain. Stay in the poses as long as you like (at least five minutes) and skip any that don’t feel comfortable. The intention here is to feel good!
Constructive Rest Pose
Lie on your back with your knees bent and resting on each other, feet on the floor, hands on your belly. Relax your belly so that the breath feels invited there; It will come if it’s invited. This relaxed breath indicates to your body that you are safe.
The Massage Table
Lie with your chest and hips on a long bolster. Support your forehead on a soft block or blanket so there is space to breathe. The gentle bow of your head is calming for the mind. Prop your ankles with a blanket.
Sit with a bolster or long pillow extending out from your right hip. Knees can stay stacked, or slide your left knee back in line with your right foot (deer pose). Lay your belly down on the bolster and turn your head in whichever direction feels better. Arms can rest in a cactus shape. Switch sides at some point.
In general, flexion helps trigger the relaxation response, and this pose creates a gentle inward bend for your elbows, knees, and spine. Twists are also generally calming and grounding.
The Beach Chair
Set up two blocks in an L shape and lean your bolster or pillow on them (you can also elevate the top of the bolster with extra pillows). Lay back on your makeshift beach chair, and support under your knees with a rolled blanket or pillow. This gentle chest opening can elevate your mood, and create more space for a deep belly breath.
As you move through the sequence, pay attention to what feels good, calm, easeful, and pain free. Paying attention to these experiences encourages your brain to rewire towards them. Next time, we will explore some poses that can gently invite the sympathetic nervous system back into the practice without, ideally, triggering a pain response.