By E.B. Ferdig, Big Yoga Yoga
Just mention that you have chronic pain and everyone (including your doctor and her dog) are likely to suggest that you “do yoga.” After all, yoga has firmly established itself in popular American culture and has taken root in modern medicine. But what does “doing yoga” actually mean? There are so many different kinds of yoga, ranging from the austere spiritual discipline of yoga’s earliest days to the gymnastics-inspired practices we see on the covers of magazines. So how do you know which yoga might be right for you?
Let’s start by examining what yoga really is before we explore how it can be useful in managing chronic pain.
Yoga was developed and has evolved as a way for people to find more ease and comfort in their lives through harnessing the natural, human fluctuations of the mind. First and foremost, it is a mental practice. We call it a practice, because whether we are living with chronic pain, stress or just living life, it takes lots and lots of practice to begin to control these fluctuations.
The word yoga actually means “to yoke” or “to join.” These days, it’s more commonly translated as “union.” Although this “union” was originally understood as between a person and God, we can also think of it as being a personal connection with ourselves – a connection that chronic pain can jeopardize.
When we view yoga through the lens of chronic pain, we can break it down into four useful categories:
The yoga of breath (pranayama): We can use breath practices to help regulate the nervous system, which can get caught in a sympathetic pain loop – a recurring, revved-up fight-or-flight mode. By calming the nervous system through breath, we can access a relaxed, parasympathetic state, in which the body allows healing to occur.
The yoga of philosophy: Yoga philosophy offers many ideas to ease the mind when we are feeling distressed. Its foundational texts, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, remind us of universal ideas that can provide solace for daily living, such as the virtues of truth, non-harming, discipline and letting go.
These writings also remind us that we are human and that humans have always struggled with challenged bodies and minds. The isolation that chronic pain often imposes can make it difficult to remember that all of us have suffered at some points throughout our shared history: taking the time to recall this can help us to feel less alone.
Yoga philosophy has a long history, but it also benefits from new interpretations and is reinforced by emerging findings in neuroscience. And because it is not a religion, its teachings adapt with those who practice it. Yoga can be a great complement to any religious or spiritual practice, but it does not require any spiritual component or beliefs.
The yoga of movement (asana): This is what most of us think “yoga” is – and where most of us get stuck. Have you ever told yourself, “I don’t look like those photos in the magazine” or even, “I used to do yoga, and I know what it is, and I know that my body will not tolerate that now”? But there is so much more to yoga than the postures we have learned to associate with yoga. By moving the body, we can start to learn and understand what it needs, what it is capable of, and how we can respect its limits and its potential. With a compassionate, partnership-oriented teacher, you will find poses, adaptations of poses, and newly-created poses to fit your own body and your energy level on any given day. Yoga emphasizes the balance of effort and ease, or the comfort of the posture – not whether you’re doing the pose “right” or “wrong.”
But movement itself is truly not essential to yoga. My teacher, Molly Lannon Kenny, once practiced yoga with a military veteran who was paralyzed from the neck down and was on a ventilator to help him breathe. Over a period of weeks, they worked with breath, visualization, and philosophy. Molly helped him find his center and make peace with his body, mind, and life circumstances. She ultimately helped him transition peacefully out of life. This is a fantastic example of how yoga can provide unlimited possibility for healing, no matter what one’s capabilities and capacities might be.
The yoga of meditation (dharana and dhyana): Meditation, concentration and mindfulness can also be important tools in your kit for reducing pain and managing your reactions to pain. The mind plays a significant role in the pain experience. Chronic pain is never the fault of an individual, nor is the pain “all in your head.” However, we do know that by learning to control the mind, in a dedicated practice, we can develop greater control over our emotional, and eventually physical, reactions to pain.
The prevailing Western conception of yoga is at odds with both yoga’s historical roots and its therapeutic potentials. In fact, yoga presents immense opportunities, particularly for those who live with chronic pain. To learn more, find a teacher who can help you find your own balance between effort and ease – someone who has experience and training working with people with these conditions. Look for a guide who can help you connect with your best self and help you unfold into the developing person you want to be. Yoga offers so much to each of us, and because its breadth and depth are so unlimited, it can meet each of us, exactly as we are – helping us to discover that we are perfect and whole, wherever we are on our life path.
E.B. Ferdig is a certified yoga therapist and is the president of the Northwest Yoga Therapy Collaborative. She works with individuals using the method Integrated Movement Therapy® and teaches classes both at The Studio at The Frida Center and at Big Yoga Yoga. Her current programs at The Studio include Yoga for Myofascial Release, Gentle Stretching & Deep Relaxation, and Chair Yoga. For more information, please contact E.B. at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Studio at email@example.com.