Yoga for Chronic Pain

In addition to the damaging effects stress has on the physical body, researchers have found a complex relationship between stressful situations and mental health, including clinical depression. Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period over which an individual perceives he or she has no control. Some people may become depressed as a result of having to deal with constant, chronic stress. Examples include major lifestyle changes, marriage, divorce, death, and economic concerns.

Along with these two types of stressors, the body experiences acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is an immediate and temporary response to an injury or illness while chronic pain often persists for a prolonged period of time and can develop into chronic emotional suffering, including anxiety disorders and depression. A vicious cycle thus occurs: chronic pain makes one more susceptible to chronic stress and chronic stress can make one more sensitive to physical pain.

How can the principles and practices of yoga reduce chronic pain and stress? Our minds and bodies have powerful built-in healing responses, and by learning to activate these responses through yoga and meditation, we can counter the effects of pain and stress to help the body heal and recover from injury and illness. The brain has an ability to learn in response to repeated experience. This is called neuroplasticity. Unfortunately, this creates a cycle of protective pain response leading to more pain in the case of chronic stress and illness. On the upside, neuroplasticity makes any response you practice more likely to lead to lasting change. Learning new, healthier habits associated with the practice of yoga, such as relaxation, gratitude, joy, and peace is the best way to unlearn chronic stress. As a comprehensive mind- body system, yoga addresses every aspect of the pain response. Through breath work and mindful movement, we engage our bodies’ relaxation responses and help train the mind to be less reactive to pain sensation.

Encouraging rest as part of the yoga practice teaches the importance of allowing for the needed time of assimilation and integration, which builds the whole being’s ability to tolerate stress in a new and more profound way. Rest—especially the practice of savasana at the end of class—also attunes the system to remember its most effective manner of functioning, bringing the whole person back into balance and harmony.

Published August 22, 2017