Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union.” It can be thought of as a form of exercise developed over thousands of years in India. It promotes health and happiness by working on the mind, body, and spirit. Yogis practiced yoga exercises to join their inner spirit with the spirit of the universe. Originally, the asanas (postures) were developed to prepare the body so a person could sit perfectly still to meditate. Yoga is being used more frequently as a chronic pain treatment modality. Where the techniques and benefits of yoga were once in doubt as a therapy, physicians are now turning to it as a viable treatment for many different conditions, including chronic pain. Study after study has shown that for many people, yoga is one of the most effective treatments for increasing mobility and reducing pain. Yoga works on stretching and strengthening the body. By increasing strength, improving flexibility, and ridding the body of muscle tension, you can bring your body into balance and ease your pain. Practicing yoga can allow you to focus on positive aspects of life, as opposed to focusing strictly on pain. Deep breathing has physical and psychological benefits that can help calm the extreme emotional effects of chronic pain. Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit organization devoted to the discipline, lists ten ways that yoga can benefit a person’s health:*
- Stress relief. By encouraging relaxation, yoga helps lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Related benefits include lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improving digestion, and boosting the immune system, as well as easing symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, asthma, and insomnia.
- Pain relief. Studies have shown that practicing asanas, meditation, or a combination of the two reduces pain for people with any number of conditions. Some practitioners report that emotional pain can be eased through the practice of yoga. *Adapted from “Top 10 Reasons to Try Yoga,” used with permission, yogaalliance.org. Copyright © 2006
- Better breathing. Yoga teaches people to take slower, deeper breaths. This helps to improve lung function, trigger the body’s relaxation response, and increase the amount of oxygen available to the body.
- Flexibility. Improving flexibility and mobility and increasing range of movement will reduce a person’s aches and pains. Yoga helps improve body alignment, resulting in better posture and helping to relieve back, neck, joint, and muscle problems.
- Increased strength. Yoga postures use every muscle in the body, helping to increase strength. They also help relieve muscle tension.
- Weight management. Yoga can aid in weight-control efforts by reducing cortisol levels, as well as by burning excess calories and reducing stress. Yoga encourages healthy eating habits and provides a sense of well-being and self-esteem.
- Improved circulation. Yoga helps improve circulation and moves more oxygenated blood to the body’s cells.
- Cardiovascular conditioning. Even gentle yoga practices can provide cardiovascular benefits by lowering resting heart rate, increasing endurance, and improving oxygen uptake during exercise.
- Focus on the present. Yoga helps practitioners to focus on the present, to become more aware, and to create better mind-body health. It improves concentration, coordination, reaction time, and memory.
- Inner peace. The meditative aspects of yoga help many reach a deeper, more spiritual, and more satisfying place in their lives.
Throughout the centuries several distinct forms of yoga have emerged, although they all ultimately lead to the same place. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of different “styles” of yoga, each promoting a different path to similar conclusions. Some of the better-known schools of yoga include hatha yoga, or physical and breathing exercises; raja yoga, which represents the path of transcendental knowledge; dhyana yoga, which is meditation on the absolute; Sankhya yoga, emphasizing discrimination between matter and spirit; mantra yoga, which includes the chanting of sacred prayers; and a host of others. Some more active styles of yoga include ananda yoga, which emphasizes consciously directing the body’s life force to different organs and limbs; integral yoga, which aims to integrate the various aspects of the body and mind through a combination of postures, breathing techniques, deep relaxation, and meditation, where function is given preeminence over form; shivanda yoga, which includes a series of twelve postures, breathing exercises, relaxation, and mantra chanting; hidden language hatha yoga, which seeks to promote not only physical well-being but also self-understanding by exploring the symbolism inherent in asanas; and somatic yoga, which is an integrated approach to the harmonious development of body and mind based on traditional yoga principles and modern psychophysiological research. In terms of exercise to help with pain, there are two practices of yoga that are relatively slow-paced and gentle. In Vini yoga, practitioners focus on slow stretches and deep breathing. This approach often is used to treat chronic back and arthritis pain. Iyengar yoga is another gentle style that focuses on precise body alignment. Different props, such as straps, blocks, and blankets, are used in Iyengar yoga. As always, I recommend checking with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise program, including yoga. Additionally, it’s always important to let your yoga instructor know of any problems you might have. It is a mistake to exceed your capabilities and injure yourself, though you may be able to push yourself and learn about you in the process. Just keep in mind a common saying in some twelve-step programs: “Easy does it.” This blog post is an excerpt from A Day Without Pain (Revised) by Mel Pohl, MD, FASAM; Published by Central Recovery Press (CRP).