by Sandra Helpsmeet
Many of the students that I work with in classes, and even more so in private lessons, come to yoga wanting to know if it will help with their pain. Sometimes their pain has a specific origin, a condition or injury. In this case, understanding that condition will guide the yoga that may be appropriate for them and may help the associated pain. But that is not what this article is about. The pain we are looking at here is the “no one has been able to shed light on the reason for it” pain. Can yoga help me with this pain? Maybe. Likely, at least to some degree. And at the least, it can help one manage and cope with the pain.
Yoga has several aspects to it that are fundamentally a good deal for working with pain. First, yoga is mindful movement. Second, it requires and encourages breath. If you are not moving mindfully, and you are not breathing with a full exhalation, you are probably not doing yoga. Both mindful movement and authentic breathing with a full exhalation encourage what used to be called the relaxation response and is now more commonly called ‘down regulation’. This means that the autonomic nervous system, the mechanism in our bodies that winds us up into ready, active, take-care-of-business, even fight or flight mode, and then when the emergency or demand has passed, settles us down into rest mode, tends to be balanced by mindful movement and authentic breathing.
The nature of pain is that the body tends to take it as a signal that something is trying to heal, and so guarding forms around the painful area to try to stabilize and protect it. Compensation also happens when other muscles try to stand in for the painful area or the tight muscles that are guarding the pain. This guarding and compensating creates tension, which tends to expand, deepen, and add to the experience of the pain. The guarding and compensating also inhibits the breath in that area. The problem with this is that our breath is like an internal massage that helps keep tissues soft and juicy. Working mindfully and with the breath in yoga can soften the guarding and allow the breath to move through the painful area, opening the area to increased blood and lymph flow. Often this alone can lessen the pain.
Another way yoga can be an antidote to pain is by turning on and strengthening the structural support muscles in the body. These are the muscles that support the bones in naturally good posture. When these muscles are asleep or insufficiently strong, the surface muscles try to take over, but this is not a job they are prepared to do over the long term. They become tired and tense. For example, if one sits at a computer or drives an automobile for a long time in a position that rounds the back instead of allowing it to extend naturally, the head is forced forward. The heaviness of the head, which would normally be supported atop the spine in natural alignment, is thrown forward and the muscles of the upper back, shoulders, and neck are forced to try to support it. This is a recipe for neck pain and upper back pain. Yoga’s ability to teach us how to support our bodies most naturally will eventually create better core strength and postural support that will alleviate the cause of this pain.
The mind can also play a part in how we perceive and feel pain because what we think can create tension in the body, and thinking it more creates more tension. A friend of mine calls this ‘pre-purchasing your pain’. I am worrying about going to an event where I have a responsibility, and as I think about how awful it will be and how I will mess it up, I create more clear images in my mind of the worst version of that event, and that reinforces my mind’s tendency to think more about it, and pretty soon I have given myself a headache. Yoga can help us in several ways to interrupt or change this inclination to think out into the future and pre-purchase pain. Focusing on our body brings us into the present moment, which makes it easier to not think into the future. Tapping into structural support muscles and exhaling fully bring us into greater down regulation, which also brings us more fully into the present. Practicing yoga over time increases these skills and our ability to be working quite a bit in a pose while allowing and encouraging other parts of us to relax.