Yoga is for everyone!
How can we use Yoga practice to reduce pain, and especially, what kind of Yoga practice? Science has been studying pain in the recent years, and the findings that come out of that research are very interesting to me, because as a Yoga therapist my first priority is to help people find relief from pain.
According to Wickipedia, Nociception (also nocioception
or nociperception) is the encoding and processing of harmful stimuli in
the nervous system, and, therefore, the ability of a body to sense
potential harm. Let's look more closely at what pain is and who is most likely to suffer from it to a greater degree (everyone experiences pain at one point or another, and back pain is the most common complaint). At the end of this article, there is a Yoga practice I designed to help relieve back pain - keep reading!
In Yoga we have a great variety of movements, and the novelty of some of them is wonderful at training our body awareness. The trick is to take a movement that is habitual to you, that you feel "safe" doing, and then change it just enough for it to feel "new", but not so "new" that is triggers the "danger" response in your brain.
We have been playing with this concept in group classes this week, and having a lot of fun. By introducing a bit of novelty into your movement, you are creating an opportunity for your body to experience something it does not yet have an opinion about. And because Yoga is done in a quiet, relaxed, meditative environment, the brain is much more likely to accept new positions, angles, and movements as "safe," therefore increasing your repertoire of pain-fee movements.
In Yoga therapy we use a technique called Vinyasa Krama to gradually retrain the brain to accept movements and positions of the body that are painful, so that eventually they become pain free. In Western parlance, it has been called "nudging the edge". We reduce the amplitude of the movement that is causing pain, and trying to find the edge, so to speak, where we feel that the protective response from the body is increased. There are certain signs that you may be approaching your edge:
Let's design a Yoga session based on the above information. For example, if you have been to a Yoga class, you've probably done this pose, Cat&Cow. Begin in your smallest range of movement, completely pain-free and easy, and gradually build the amplitude, playing the edge.
When doing this pose, inhale as you arch the spine (cow), and exhale as you round the spine (cat). Try moving the entire spine evenly, moving from the middle of your back.
Now, to add a little novelty and to increase body awareness, try to isolate just the lower spine, and move back and fourth from the pelvis only, keeping your shoulders as still as you can.
Next try to keep your pelvis as still as you can, and move just the upper, Thoracic spine. Notice which of these movements are easier for you to do, and practice the more difficult one to get proficient in all three.
How did you do?
There is more we can try here. The next movement is more difficult and requires more coordination - the lateral one on all fours, like this:
On the exhale, bring your hip and shoulder towards each other, squeezing the side body. Keep your pelvis stacked over the knees and don't swing it side to side. Alternate direction.
Then try moving the pelvis only, keeping the shoulders as still as you can. Use your core to make the movement smooth. How is your breathing?
And finally, try to move just the shoulders, while your pelvis stays perfectly still. Interesting, right?
And finally, the most challenging of all - the jump rope. I love this spinal movement! You would be surprised how difficult it is to do if you've never done it before.
Move the spine in an arch, using the entire length of it evenly. You can inhale in neutral and go slowly around on the exhale, or do several passes around on one exhale, as you like.
Then try to keep your shoulders still and move only the pelvis. Remember to start with the smallest amplitude, and then gradually increase up to your edge. As you repeat, watch your edge shift further out.
And finally, the last version - this one was the most difficult for me! Keeping the pelvis steady, circle around with your upper back. Switch direction. Wow, right!
You can apply this approach to many Yoga movements (or any movements). I will be playing with this concept in the coming weeks. If you are interested in the science behind this thinking, you can watch the short but very informative lectures by Professor Lorimer Moseley from Australia, who is one of the leading scientists studying pain:
And also highly recommended this short lecture by Dr. Tasha Stanton, on how pain can be managed by tricking the brain. Fascinating!
Thanks for entertaining my thoughts on the matter, and I wish you a pain-free practice!