Yoga for Pain, Tension and Achiness

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White Willow Tree - Bark is traditionally used for Pain Relief. Stock photo by Alamy

Science of Yoga for Pain

In the last ten years, scientists have dramatically revolutionised the way they understand pain, especially chronic pain. A lot of what we thought to be true about pain is no longer supported by the evidence. The striking development in understanding, is that we now know is that pain is not a purely physical experience. This means that yoga, being a min-body practice offers a good approach to the problem of ongoing pain. 

The science now shows that in order to address pain, we cannot look simply at the physical. We must also look at the social, environmental, mental and emotional conditions that might be contributing to pain. This is called the bio-psycho-social model. Our past experience, thoughts, beliefs and conditioning are all contributory factors.

Yoga recognises that we are more than the body, even more than the body-mind. Our environment, our experience, our history and community all play a part in our health and wellbeing. Yoga has techniques to help with stress reduction, soothing an over active mind, dealing with circling thoughts, releasing stuck stress and tension as well as identifying and changing habits. This is why taking a specific class in yoga for pain, general aches and soreness can be so helpful. Also joining with a community of people who are working with similar issues of stress and pain can be really supportive and validating. 

Meditation, relaxation, breathing practices and mindfulness are all scientifically proven yoga techniques that can help to rewire our nervous systems. Specific versions of these practices can have the effect of reducing the severity and duration of the pain that occurs after a flare up or injury.

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Moving Through Pain

That said, it is undeniable that many of our aches and pains are related to posture and muscle imbalances. Which is why yoga for pain, coupled with somatics for re-educating the neuromuscular system, works so well. 

The more you explore your movement with curiosity and kindness, the more neural pathways you wake up. Due to the improvement in neural connection, your muscles become more relaxed, engaged, balanced and co-ordinated. This prevent areas of stuckness (which Thomas Hanna called Sensory-Motor Amnesia) where there is less sensory-motor control. Blood flow to the area is reduced and the body signals something is wrong by creating aches and pain in the area.

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The science on pain is evolving rapidly, and there is much that scientists still don’t understand. However, it is agreed that (ruling out serious pathologies such as broken bones, tumours and a few other red flags) it is better to keep moving if you have chronic pain.

Be that as it may, choosing a suitable exercise is not that straightforward. Exercising too much, all of a sudden, can cause a flare up in symptoms. Faster paced or high impact sports or exercise can be jarring and overburden the joints because the movement is fast and lacks precision. In contrast, conscious mindful practices such a Yoga, Hanna Somatics or Qigong are ideal for working with chronic pain. Yoga for pain has helped so many people reduce their pain and move on with their lives.

Can a General Yoga Class Help Reduce Pain?

Normal yoga can certainly reduce mild pain symptoms that are non-specific and generalised. In fact, many people experience a relief from pain when they attend studio classes regularly. However, I found that general yoga did not get to the root cause of my joint pain. In fact, I started to experience more joint pain when I started to go to more demanding yoga studio classes, in stead of practicing more gently and mindfully at home with a book. I am quite flexible and my teachers encouraged and assisted me to move more deeply into the poses. Although this felt great at the time, it was not doing my joints any favours. There was very little specific instruction on how to protect my joints in the class, so I ended up having injuries in my knees and sacro-illiac joints. Thankfully, once I started to train as a yoga teacher myself, I learned how to correct my yoga practice. This meant that I avoided having the surgery that was recommended by my physio.

Somatic Yoga

The best type of practices for people with chronic pain might be termed somatic practices. Thomas Hanna coined and defined this term in the movement field. He described somatic as “the body, experienced from within.” In medicine soma means “of, or pertaining to, the body”. Somatic practices certainly include yoga.

However, to be somatic the yoga must allow the time and space for the student to listen and respond to how they feel in the poses. It is not about how the pose looks like from the outside, rather more it is how it feels to the student, on the mental, emotional and physical levels.

There is a vast array of different styles of yoga, many of which are fitness orientated. If the intention within these classes is to override the body’s sensations to “feel the burn,” “strengthen the core” and “stretch out tight muscles” then these types of yoga are not somatic.

Although these are all good intentions, if we are focussed on an outcome and not paying attention to our body’s sensations we are at risk of adding insult to injury. Gentle yoga or therapeutic hatha yoga is definitely a better choice if you have joint pain.

Hanna Somatics for the Somatic Nervous System (SoNS)

I differ from many therapeutic yoga teachers in that I incorporate both Hanna Somatics and Anatomy in Motion principles into my classes. These are both neuromuscular education techniques. They offer models to help me understand how the SoNS works, and how bones articulate and muscles move. This is having a working model on how the moving body works is key, particularly when using yoga for pain relief.

This gives me the theoretical underpinning to explore functional, yoga and somatic movement patterns, in a way that is safe and appropriate. These models also explain how to carve out clearer pathways through our sensory and motor nerves.

This has the effect of waking up sleepy muscles and enabling more feedback from areas that feel dull and stuck. In this way, we can create more efficient movement, conserve our energy and put less strain on our joints.

Yoga for Pain – A Holistic Approach

At the start of this article I talked about how medical researchers now know that pain is not purely physical. This is particularly true for chronic pain states. Chronic pain has been found to be related to nervous system imbalances. To explain this in a very simple way, being in pain is stressful and puts our nervous systems in a state of readiness to fight or flight. This can lead to being stuck in a loop of being in pain and being stressed, unable to find a way out. 

Our muscles guard against relaxing and releasing as they feel the need to protect the painful area. Sadly, this increases the likelihood of ongoing pain. There are other factors such as dealing with stressors in the present or the past which can contribute towards pain. By working with breath and deep relaxation techniques on a regular basis, we can learn to “self-regulate,” to create comfort within ourselves, despite our experiences in the past.

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Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

We will also work with yoga techniques to help us shift from the fight or flight to the rest and digest mode of our Autonomic Nervous System to enable us to release some of habitual tension and guarding in our muscles which literally holds the pain in place.

OK This All Sounds Great… Where Do I Start?

There are three choices of how to access Holistic Yoga classes online. Choose what suits you and do remember to check with your medical professional to see if gentle floor based exercise is suitable for you. 

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Classes

If you’re suffering from aches and pains, currently, it recommended that you start off with a Holistic Somatics class.
Yet if you are used to a stronger yoga practice and want to explore something more specific for people with aches and pains, it would be more appropriate to start with the Holistic Yoga Classes.
Even if exercise is not possible for you right now, meditation can be very helpful for pain relief. You can listen to the meditation lying on the floor, in bed or sitting in a chair. All classes are currently on Zoom.

Holistic Somatics
Holistic Yoga
Free Meditation

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Private 1-2-1 Classes

The ideal approach if you have pain is to start with at least one private class (on Zoom or in-person) with me. This first class will mostly consist of an assessment of your breathing and movement, which allows me to tailor the movement practices specific to your needs.
As you progress in your lessons, you will gain understanding of why you are in pain and what to do about it. Email Julia about in-person 1-2-1 classes or book a Zoom 1-2-1 class by clicking the button below

Holistic Somatics
Holsitic Yoga
Anatomy in Motion

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Courses

The best course to start off with if you are in pain is the Seven-Week Audio Somatic Course. The exercises should feel relaxing and relieving, they should not exacerbate or increase your pain. Throughout the course you are asked to use the mantra “less is more”. Gentle and slow movement allows repatterning of the sensory-motor nervous system. Skip any exercise that does not suit you, and rest and breathe instead. It is best to have a private class to gain more understanding of your movement prior to starting the course.

Yoga for Strength and Resilience
Seven Week Audio Yoga Course
Seven Week  Audio Somatics Course