Chronic pain is accompanied by many distressing symptoms, including soreness, tightness, stiffness, shooting/burning/aching/electrical forms of pain, fatigue, depression, weakness, irritability, anxiety, stress, hopelessness, general discomfort, and more.
The NIH suggests that practicing yoga on a regular basis can increase functionality and reduce the severity of many of these symptoms.
Yoga combines physical movement with breathing techniques and meditation/relaxation. It is a low impact form of exercise that can be modified and individualized to accommodate for different health restrictions and comfort levels. The risks of yoga are minimal, especially when practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor. Always consult a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise routine; they should be able to tell you whether or not certain physical movements are unadvisable based on your individual circumstances.
Yoga Heals Pain
According to studies conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), yoga is an effective, evidenced-based clinical modality. The NCCIH found in one study that individuals with chronic lower-back pain benefited significantly from practicing yoga for six months, and presented with less pain, depression, and overall disability. In another study, they found that yoga and stretching routines were more effective at reducing chronic pain symptoms and improving function than self-care book consultations. They also found that 12 weekly yoga classes were able to improve function more effectively than standard medical care for chronic pain of the lower back. Yoga should never be used to completely replace conventional medical care, though; it should only be used as a form of complementary health enrichment. Our residents, for example, take generalized yoga classes at Two Dreams Outer Banks primarily as a means of enhancing the recovery process and promoting overall health and wellbeing. There are numerous different forms of yoga, each of which offers its own unique style and benefits. Studies have not shown evidence that one form is superior to another, so selection is primarily a matter of personal preference.
Much of yoga’s terminology is indiscriminate; for example, the term “hatha” encompasses several forms of yoga, though it’s generally used to describe sessions that incorporate slow-paced, gentle, introductory poses. “Vinyasa” is another general term based on “Sun Salutation” poses; these types of sessions focus on breathing and moving in synchrony, while emphasizing a continuous flow between one posture and the next. Residents at Two Dreams Outer Banks actually incorporate this concept of the Sun Salutation into their routine every single day. Each morning begins with a sunrise walk and stretching on the beach, a ritual we call the “Sun Salutation.” This peaceful, early exposure to sunlight assists in the transition from the body’s sleep state (GABA brain receptors activated) to its wake state (glutamate brain receptors activated). Stretching further wakes up the body, encouraging blood flow to the muscles for optimal ease of movement throughout the day.
“Ashtanga” is an intense, fast-paced form of yoga that involves performing the same set of poses during each session. Individuals with chronic pain may want to exercise caution if enrolling in this type of class, as it is physically demanding and meant to be practiced on a daily basis. “Baptiste Power Vinyasa” is another intensive form of yoga, characterized by strong, sweat-inducing movements. Again, those with chronic pain may want to consider their limitations before committing to this type of practice.
“Iyengar” and “Restorative” yoga classes may require additional precautions, as they stress holding each pose for a long period of time. Props such as blocks and straps are used for support and ease of movement, though, which should ease the pain of long-term positioning. They also emphasize body alignment, so may be effective for practicing good posture as a form of pain relief. “Anusara” yoga also works on body alignment, but with additional emphases on positivity, light-heartedness, and the inherent goodness that lies within all human beings.
“Kundalini” yoga focuses on breathing techniques and the effect that controlled oxygen flow has on the human body. This method may be a good choice for individuals with chronic pain, as increased oxygen intake promotes healthy muscles and joints. “Viniyoga” is another fine selection, as instructors take time to create an individualized practice for each participant’s health and needs. Knowledgeable professionals should be able to optimize the yoga experience to be both therapeutic and enjoyable. “Kripalu” is another holistic, individualized form in which participants focus on physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Pace is determined by inward cues, an ideal practice for individuals with special restrictions like those that come along with chronic pain.
“Chair” yoga is another great option for individuals with limited mobility, particularly if standing for long periods of time triggers pain. This method of exercise is essentially what it sounds like: yoga poses are performed using a chair as support. “Aerial” yoga similarly provides support in the form of a fabric sling suspended from the ceiling of the classroom. Students use the sling to avoid stretching and/or compressing joints while practicing, making this form of yoga a great way to improve core strength and prevent injury.
“Bikram/Hot Yoga” is a popular form of yoga that is practiced in a heated room. The high temperatures are meant to loosen participant’s muscles, raise metabolic rates, and promote sweating as part of a toxin cleanse. This type of exercise, while beneficial, is physically rigorous so participants with chronic pain should think carefully before pursuing it. “Forrest” yoga is another form in which students can expect an intense workout full of strengthening exercises. It is more holistic than Bikram yoga, though, as it places an emphasis on body and soul purification in the pursuit of physical and emotional healing.
“Bowspring” yoga puts a lot of stress on the body and may need to be avoided by individuals with chronic pain. The style involves many bent-knee poses and positions that are meant to keep the spine curved. Some users derive power and strength from this system of alignment, but those with pain should probably opt for a less aggressive style of exercise. For example, “Yin” yoga is designed to continuously stretch the body’s connective tissue and joints in a gentle manner. Poses keep the muscles actively engaged, but in a more physically therapeutic fashion. In fact, the original teacher of this method created this form of yoga as a way to get rid of the discomfort brought about by sitting in one position for a long time, an ache which those with chronic pain know all too well.
Other Types of Yoga
I would not recommend that individuals with chronic pain try “Acroyoga.” This form involves two people performing each pose together; one person lies on their back and holds the other up above them using their legs. The balancing person in the air is then free to perform a series of poses. “Stand-Up Paddle” yoga is another inadvisable practice that also requires extreme balance. Individuals practice yoga poses while standing on a paddleboard floating in water. This form tends to be strenuous on the muscles and joints, and is therefore unlikely to reduce the physical symptoms of chronic pain.
Choosing a Type of Yoga for your Pain
Every form of yoga has its strengths and weaknesses, so class choice is ultimately a matter of personal discretion. Be sure to consult with a physician before engaging in yoga and, above all, enjoy the healing process!
*Written or medically reviewed by a board-certified physician