Pain Management with Yoga

Written by Panorama resident and Yoga Instructor, Charles Kasler – April 2020

We greeted the year with a silent meditation + tea on New Year’s Eve, and a free class on New Year’s Day. We held our spring meditation retreat in the lovely chapel. Connie focused on new scientific research in meditation in her dharma talk. Charles began working with interested yoga students individually outside of class.

We have temporarily discontinued all classes while we shelter in place until the virus threat passes. Likewise we cancelled our spring equinox gathering, the first time we have missed a gathering since we began. Needless to say, we are all looking forward to practicing together again. In the meantime, there are audio and video classes for students to follow at home.

The original purpose of yoga was for inner peace. That’s still true today but there are also many side benefits, among them pain management. One of our students said that her yoga practice is like medicine. So true! Regular practice can lower stress and can have a feedback effect to improve chronic pain. 

“Yoga can teach you how to focus your mind to change your experience of physical pain. It can teach you how to listen to your body and take care of your needs so that you can participate in the activities that matter to you. It can give you back the sense of safety, control, and courage that you need to move past your experience of chronic pain.” – Kelly McConnogal, Stanford University

Practicing yoga on a regular basis can affect your response to pain, decreasing your level of perceived suffering. The increased flow of oxygen to the brain and muscle tissues improves energy level and sense of well being. Combining breath awareness with the physical movement of yoga helps release muscle tension in your body. For people with arthritis, moving joints through their range of motion and stretching muscles can decrease the intensity of pain, or relieve it completely. 

You can manage pain in two ways: 

Symptom Improvement – reduce pain for conditions that cause acute or chronic pain, such as low back pain, or recovery from surgery.

Adjunct to Western Medicine – aid in treatment of conditions that have pain as the main feature, such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, chronic headaches, and cancer treatments.

The level of pain you feel is influenced by how your brain perceives the experience. Several factors can influence pain perception, including: 

Age – As brain areas degenerate with age so does brain circuitry, so older people have lower pain tolerance and it may be harder to deal with pain.

Memory – Our past experience dealing with pain can influence our neural responses to it, causing us to be more sensitive to pain.

Acute vs. Chronic Pain

Chronic pain differs from acute pain in three ways: 

  1. Your body can become more sensitive to the threat of pain, leading to fear and anxiety.
  2. Your brain can become more likely to interpret situations as threatening, and sensations as painful.
  3. With the experience of repeated reactions to pain, your ability to differentiate between the many aspects of the pain response may become blurred.

Chronic pain is challenging because it goes beyond the physical presence of pain, and affects your mind-body connection. Chronic pain can affect your daily functioning due to changes in: 

  • Breathing. Your breath can become more shallow and shaky, making exercise and even normal physical activities more challenging. 
  • Muscle Tension. Because your body is in a constant state of alert, muscle tension can increase. This will limit your range of motion, which in turn can worsen stiffness. 
  • Movement Patterns. As you try to protect the area of pain, your movement patterns can change dramatically. Some people stop all nonessential movement, limiting what they can do in the short term and causing stiffness and weakness in the long term. Other people grit and bear the pain, only stopping when the pain is so intense that they can’t continue, but they may be creating unhealthy movement patterns that result in uneven physical wear and tear. 
  • Body Image. How you view yourself can change from physically capable to weak and incapable, which makes you less willing to take on physical challenges or even to keep exercising. 
  • Thought Patterns. Chronic pain can cause you to become less optimistic about pain and your life in general.
  • Emotions. Your emotions may become more volatile, leading you to become angry, frustrated, tearful, and overwhelmed. 

Although chronic pain can cause each of these issues, they are all problems that you can treat with yoga. And as you consciously address your chronic pain, you can improve or reverse the physical, mental, and emotional damage it has caused. 

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