Yoga and Chronic Pain

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Chronic pain awareness month and yoga awareness month are the same month (every September), but is there is a deeper connection between the two?

The research

A 2014 pilot study on older women with knee osteoarthritis concluded that a weekly yoga program with home practice is safe and has therapeutic benefits. A 2016 focused review, Effects of Yoga on Symptoms, Physical Function, and Psychosocial Outcomes in Adults with Osteoarthritis, found that yoga practice reduces pain, stiffness, and swelling. Research also tells us that meditative movements, such as yoga, are helpful for improving depression and sleep. And while there are many studies showing the benefits of yoga for various medical conditions, a study out in August 2016, Heart Rate Variability in Chronic Low Back Pain Patients Randomized to Yoga or Standard Care, is particularly interesting. It gives us a closer look at how yoga can change physical reactions of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Chronic pain can cause a loss of heart rate variability (HRV), suggesting the ANS is out of balance and unhealthy. The study suggests that chronic pain patients with reduced HRV were able to restore heart rate variability by adding yoga to standard medical care.

What is yoga?

Yoga is an ancient form of non-aerobic mind-body exercise that improves flexibility, strength, posture, alignment of the spine, and balance. The most familiar yoga styles involve gentle stretching movement and breathwork, which increases oxygen and blood flow, and improves circulation and healing. As we assume different poses (asanas), we release the flow of healing energy called qi or chi. Yoga styles can also include a variety of approaches, such as visualization, progressive relaxation, and meditation.

Getting the most from yoga when you live with chronic pain

Pushing beyond our body’s limits goes against the teachings of yoga. If we hold a posture too long, or stretch our muscles, their covering, or connective tissue beyond their capabilities, creates blockages to qi, which prevents this healing energy from flowing freely. Our goal is to move better, improve the flow of energy, and thereby improve our pain response.

Here are six ways we can modify yoga postures without causing discomfort:

  1. Use straps to support joints to minimize overloading the muscles involved.
  2. Use bolsters to support the neck, knees, or other joints when doing floor poses.
  3. Practice poses from a chair rather than standing.
  4. Use a chair or the wall as support for balancing poses.
  5. Hold pillows, foam blocks, or other bolsters to avoid excessive bending when reaching for the floor.
  6. Flow from one posture to another if holding a pose causes pain.

Listen to your body. For instance, I have severe cervical spine disease, and I have learned the cobra posture can greatly affect my neck pain; therefore, I don’t do it. I also have myofascial pain syndrome, and holding postures too long puts undo stress on muscles with trigger points, but I still practice yoga by moving fluidly from one pose to another as I breathe into each pose and meditate. The point is that whatever your condition, you can modify yoga and benefit from it as long as you listen to your body and respect your limits.

The beauty of yoga is that we can do it with our peers, maybe meet some new friends, or practice it in the privacy of our own home. Many local activity centers offer affordable classes. But, if that’s not available, you can do it at home too. Many good teaching DVDs are available, and I suggest talking with your fellow chronic pain friends or reading the reviews before choosing a DVD.

Most of us won’t be able to bend like a folded piece of paper or stand on our head, but we should be able to incorporate yoga into our movement therapy if we take the right precautions and respect our physical boundaries.

And as we say in yoga for farewell (and hello):

Namaste.

See More Helpful Articles:

Spring into Yoga, which includes illustrations of modifications and the use of bolsters.

About Beginning Yoga, a testament from a 73-year-old.

Get Your Mojo Back with Yoga


Celeste Cooper, RN, is a chronic pain patient, freelance writer, and contributor to the Health Central community. She is also lead author of five published self-help books and enjoys writing and advocating for people living with chronic pain as a participant in a local patient leadership group and the PAINS Project. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at CelesteCooper.com.

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