Do What You Can: Yoga and Chronic Pain

Many of you may not know that in addition to teaching yoga, I am also a graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling. One of my primary research interests is in determining whether or not yoga and meditation (primarily Yoga Nidra) can promote long-term health and serve as a useful technique for trauma and substance use disorder. Empirical research is limited, though there is a growing body of work supporting that mindfulness is useful for a number of presenting concerns.

Most recently, I have attended workshops about using yoga as a way to treat arthritis and chronic pain. Research has shown that diet, exercise, and sleep are the three most important ways to prevent an arthritis flare-up and ease chronic pain. If you suffer from either of these conditions, though, you probably already recognize the problem. When you are in pain, your body is likely telling you to rest - not exercise. We all reach for comfort foods (such as chocolate) when we are distressed). Further, pain can wrest you from the deepest sleep.

So what is someone to do? You know exercise, such as yoga, will help treat your pain, but your body may be too sore to practice.

I encourage students to do what they can. Maybe you would like to run, but know that a walk is good, too. Perhaps you would like to do a power yoga class, but a chair practice (such as our chair class on YouTube) may be more appropriate for you today. Remember that even something as simple as gentle stretches from the couch (or even bed!) will aid you if you are suffering from chronic pain.

Even if you are not currently suffering from chronic pain or an arthritis flare-up, keep the following pointers in mind to protect your body, particularly your joints. These are especially important if you do have arthritis.

  1. Focus on your body to determine where you feel the most sensation. If sensation is focused at the center of your muscle, you are okay. In a yang class, if you feel the most sensation near the joint, you need to back out of the pose. The exception to this is a yin class. In yin, we are purposefully stressing the joints to strengthen them. Thus, in a pose like dragonfly (a seated, wide-legged forward fold), most of the sensation may be near the upper thighs/groin area, which is okay. At this point, you need to ask yourself...

  2. What do I feel? If you feel a dull ache, this is usually okay. It means that you are strengthening the joint - not straining it. However, if you feel a sharp pain, back out of the pose immediately. Additionally, if you feel any sort of tingle or an electrical sensation (similar to when your leg "falls asleep"), you should back out of the pose, as this may indicate you are compressing a nerve.

Finally, remember the yogic principle of ahimsa - or non-harming. In counseling, doing no harm to our clients is the cornerstone of an ethical practice. However, we all sometimes forget that this principle also applies to our treatment of ourselves. In other words, do not push yourself past your edge.

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