For those suffering from chronic pain, relief can become a constant struggle, making it difficult to think of much else. Everything in life becomes a challenge, and frustration runs high. What causes the pain and how to help ease it is unique in every body. In some cases, the pain can be eased or alleviated with a little knowledge and some of these simple yoga practices.
Become Your Body’s Friend
One of the first things to understand about chronic pain is that it’s your body’s way of telling you something isn’t quite right. There are many reasons pain could arise in your body. from inflammation caused by an injury or degeneration or the spine, from consistently overworking some muscles while underworking others, or from emotional tension that doesn’t have another outlet, just to name a few.
Exercise is a great way to strengthen your muscles, provide support to the injured areas, and reduce inflammation. The exercises below can help to strengthen your core muscles, which will help provide support to your spine. It is important to listen to your body and find what triggers your pain cycles. If at any point you feel these exercises are causing more pain, please stop immediately. Before starting any type of exercise program, please consult with your physician.
Cautious and Gradual Strengthening
When a muscle hurts, most people instinctively focus on the location of that sensation, such as the sore lower back or the shoulder that won’t work. However, the muscle that hurts might not actually be the source of the problem. In many cases, pain in one part of the body is that part of the body letting you know it’s completely exhausted. That exhaustion is caused by those muscles overworking in compensation for another part of the body that isn’t working hard enough.
The answer here is to give that exhausted group of muscles a break by strengthening the muscles that have been lazily passing the work off rather than doing their job.
For example, if you have constant lower back pain, chances are good your lower back is working too hard trying to keep your torso upright. Most commonly, this happens when your abdominal muscles aren’t engaged in helping your spine stay erect. In this case, one way to ease lower back pain is to do gentle abdominal strengthening exercises.
Yoga Postures for Strengthening the Abdominal Wall
Posture One – Arm-Leg Extension: get down on the floor with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keeping your shoulders and hips level, lift one arm and reach it to the space above your head, then lift the opposite leg and stretch it straight back behind you. Draw your belly button in toward your spine and lift the whole back of your body, from heel to hand, up toward the ceiling.
Come into and out of the posture 5-8 times, moving your body with your breath. The last time you come into the posture, hold it steady for 15-20 seconds. Then switch sides. This will work the entire abdominal area, including the deep and often underused abdominal muscles.
Posture Two – Reverse Table: Sit with your feet in front of you, knees bent, and place your hands about 1 foot behind your hips. You can point your fingers toward your feet or out to the sides. Draw your shoulder blades down your back as you press into your feet and lift your hips. Lift your hips toward the same level as your knees. Keep your chin tucked in toward your chest. Relax the muscles in your bottom and press your hips up. This will make the muscles along the floor of your pelvis, which are part of your abdominal support system, work.
Come into and out of the posture 5-8 times. The final time you raise your hips up, hold the posture and breath deeply for a count of 15-20 seconds.
Posture Three – Triangle: Stand with your feet about 3-4 feet apart (that will depend on how tall you are). To start with the right side, turn your right toes until they point directly out to your right, with your right heel pointing back toward your left heel. Allow your left toes to angle in to the right about halfway, or 45 degrees. Lift your arms up and out to the sides until your hands are level with your shoulders, then bend your torso to the right. You can rest your right hand on a low table, on your thigh, or on a stack of books next to your right foot. Stack your left shoulder on top of your right.
As you do this posture, think about lifting the right side of your abdomen up away from the ground. Only turn your head to look up at your left hand if it feels good on your neck. You’ll get the same benefit if you keep looking down at the floor or straight ahead.
Hold this posture for 30 seconds, then take a break before repeating it twice more. Then switch to the other side.
Retrain Your Brain
Any thought that gets repeated frequently enough can become a habit. For people who experience physical pain on a regular or daily basis, thoughts about that pain can become habitual. Those thoughts can become so habitual that the body will respond as if it were in pain, even when it isn’t being physically triggered.
That means that the stress of anticipating pain can actually cause a release of hormones that make you more sensitive to sensation as well as trigger muscular tension that aggravates an already inflamed or sore area. One of the best ways to work with this pattern is to practice focusing on something else, even something really simple such as your breathing.
Find a comfortable seat. You might want to sit in a chair with a pillow behind your back, or on the floor with blankets under your seat. You might even want to lay all the way down on your back. Make sure there’s nothing to distract you for at least 5 minutes, then close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out your mouth. Let your breath relax into its own natural rhythm and pay attention to the way your breath comes into and out of your body, all on its own.
When you feel ready, exhale all the air from your lungs and inhale to a count of four. Hold your breath in for a count of four, relaxing your shoulders and back, then exhale for a count of four. Let your lungs be empty, holding your breath out for another count of four. Repeat this 4-count breath two more times, then begin to extend your count to 5, then 6, etc… See if you can bring your count for inhaling, holding, exhaling and holding all the way up to 8. Once you’ve reached 8, work your way back down to 4.
When you’ve completed your breathing practice, take a few natural breaths then open your eyes. Chances are good that focusing your attention on the task of breathing like this lessened your awareness of discomforts in your body. When you learn how to choose what you pay attention to, even pain can take the back burner in your mind for a period of time.
Dealing with Chronic Pain is a Journey
Patterns of pain that have become chronic take time to shift and unwind. As mentioned above, pain is often related to more than one thing happening in your life. During all the practices described here, be aware of the possibility for new insight into how you might make changes in other habits, relationships or even ways of thinking that might reduce the amount of stress in your life. These practices need to be done frequently and regularly to have a lasting effect, and can benefit your health in sometimes surprising ways.
Looking for more ways to alleviate pain? Check out our other Pain Management Tips.