Lessons from Yin Yoga for Managing Chronic Pain
Yin yoga works the connective tissue that wraps around our muscles and carries messages from the brain. By practicing yin yoga, we may be able to reprogram some of the physical patterns causing chronic pain.
Yin is a style of yoga that involves staying in supported postures for around five minutes, sometimes longer. It might sound uncomfortable—and it can be. But the practice is also generally slow, quiet, and still, and includes many elements to help calm the nervous system. This is a fantastic combination of factors for helping to manage chronic pain.
Chronic pain is quite different from everyday acute pain. It can last a long time, usually far beyond any doctor’s diagnosis that anything is wrong. The pain signal is essentially stuck in the nervous system.
First of all, of course, some stretching may help chronic pain because it’s good for the body in general, as long as we stay within a safe range for our bodies. Yin stretches in particular, however, are held long enough to stimulate the connective tissue as opposed to simply stretching the muscles. We have connective tissue all over our bodies, wrapping around the muscles, and part of its job is to send the message from the brain or the nervous system to tell the muscles to contract. Muscles live in the present—they either contract or they don’t. The connective tissue connects, which means it has a direct line to our past, our emotions, and our reactions. Yin yoga is notoriously emotional—many people find that sitting in a hip opener for a few minutes can cause them to sprout a few tears!
Chronic pain isn’t about the muscles. It’s a complex reaction between the nervous system and the body, resulting in a pain signal. If we can exercise the nervous system by practicing calm, relaxed discomfort, we can stretch our pain tolerance gently, and possibly repattern the system away from the pain signal.
In order to do this practice effectively, we must practice mindfulness with our discomfort. Rather than distracting ourselves, we try to breathe right into the discomfort. We relax, softening our bodies into the sensations we feel. We can get curious about a sensation: does it have a color, a tempo, a texture? When we really stay with the sensations we feel, whether physical or emotional, we are often surprised to notice that they shift, change, and move over the course of a few minutes and even over the course of a few breaths.
Pain naturally causes a stress reaction. It will trigger a release of stress hormones, including adrenaline. Pain is stressful, and stress triggers chronic pain. Part of the work of yin yoga is to discern the difference between pain—which is a warning signal that we’ve gone too far—and the natural discomfort of a stretch. Discomfort doesn’t have to cause a stress reaction.
As we learn the subtleties of the sensations we feel in the body, we can also get better at noticing what levels of discomfort are tolerable. People with chronic pain must be especially gentle with themselves in a practice like this, because a bit of discomfort might flare a pain signal if the body is not used to it. But if we can practice with a lot of gentleness and ease, we can learn how to rest and soften with our discomfort, and that, in turn, may help turn down the dial on the pain register.
In some ways, all yoga practice is stress practice. We learn to move and feel while paying attention to what’s happening in our bodies. Part of the reason yoga is so often prescribed for stress relief isn’t because it magically erases stress from our lives (though it can help!). Rather, it teaches us stress management, to find ease within an experience of stress. That practice could be invaluable for the experience of chronic pain.