What Is Yoga?
Yoga involves practicing specific breathing, exercises and meditation techniques to achieve an improved state of mental and physical well being. Yoga started around 5,000 years ago in northern India. 1 It began as a method of re-imaging the connections between our physical selves and our spiritual selves. These two realms can also be seen as the mind and the body. Yoga is rooted in spirituality. Although not linked to a specific, all-powerful deity, yoga seeks to help its adherents achieve a heightened state of spirituality through the control and manipulation of the mind and body. However, even people who are not particularly spiritual use yoga in order to adjust both their bodies and their minds, as well as re-think how the two are connected. It is this usage of yoga as a physical and mental self-analysis tool that leads many to use yoga for the treatment of pain. To understand how yoga is used to manage pain, it will be helpful to gain an understanding of how pain affects the way we view ourselves and our surroundings.
How Pain Affects Our Minds
The way we move is unavoidably impacted by pain. As we experience pain in a certain area, our bodies undergo a reflex reaction to the discomfort. This reflex is meant to prevent further injuring the affected area. Many injuries need the pain reaction in order to stem the damage. For instance, with a pulled muscle, pushing past the pain threshold can cause the tear to be exacerbated. The tiny muscle fibers have to stop working in order to reconnect as part of the healing process. However, there are other things that happen as a result of this pain. Although localized, it affects other movements, thoughts, and actions. For instance, the pain in a pulled muscle most likely doesn’t have to keep a person inside, prevent them from doing certain errands, or going to enjoy a good movie. However, we often let it. Yoga presents a solution to these types of auxiliary effects of pain.
Our breathing is affected by the pain we feel as well. Our breath gets quicker, less deep and uneven. The effects of this reach far beyond the rise and fall of our diaphragms. When we breathe, we are taking in valuable oxygen that helps keep us alive. Any significant change in this process, therefore, impacts us on a deeply personal level. When we are out of control of our breathing patterns, we are interrupting the delivery of something we cannot live without. It would be like going through a long, hot, dry day without having anything to drink. When you finally get home, you get a tall glass of cold water with a straw in it. But as you try to drink through the straw, somebody keeps squeezing the straw closed every couple of seconds. You still finish the water, eventually, but your entire drinking experience is impacted by the interruptions. When our breathing is off, the same thing happens to us on a psychosomatic level. The entire balance of our bodies is altered. So even though we’re not suffocating while in pain, we’re also not allowing the breathing process to empower us. Those who use yoga are able to counteract the negative effects of inconsistent breathing—even when it’s caused by pain. In turn, the pain is decreased because the two have a functional relationship.
The way we view ourselves is also drastically affected by pain. When we go through life in an efficacious, productive manner, we feel better. This is because we often measure our self-worth based on the things we accomplish. We become what we produce. When we are in pain and allow the pain to hinder our activity, our productivity is held back as well. This results in a self-critical mindset simply because we are frustrated with our inability to meet our own standards. Although our self-evaluation should not be contingent on what we’re able to do, we are conditioned to view ourselves through this lens. However, yoga can be used to re-evaluate the nature of pain, productivity, and who we are. Further, by separating our physical sensations from our mental perceptions, yoga seeks to free us from the chains of a negative self-image.
The way we think in general is disturbed by pain as well. When we feel good, the natural byproduct is optimism. As each moment creates a positive sensation, we get used to that and it becomes a presumed chain reaction. We expect good things to happen. However, the opposite is true when we don’t feel good. With each ensuing moment comes a bad feeling, and we begin to expect the pattern to continue. This breeds pessimism. When pain is allowed to take over the majority of our sensations, this negative chain reaction is set in motion. Soon, we develop a pessimistic thinking pattern. This can affect not just our mood but our relationships with others and how we perform at work, school, or just around the house. Practitioners of yoga seek to interrupt this cycle by gaining control of the body and mind. Once reigned in, the sensations can be redefined, and a new pattern of positive, optimistic thinking can be cultivated.
Healthy thought patterns can be further encouraged through the use of essential oils. These can be combined with yoga practices in order to augment the state of relaxation. This is particularly helpful because of the way yoga uses breathing techniques. As you breathe essential oils, you introduce them as soothing factors in the yoga experience.
How Yoga Helps with Pain
Yoga helps with pain because it naturally incorporates several things that help encourage pain relief. Yoga involves mild to moderate exercise that has been scientifically proven to reduce pain. As our bodies engage in exercise, areas that would be, or are already, affected by pain have the muscles around them strengthened. This includes both the areas around the painful spot as well as the location of the pain itself. As we exercise, miniscule tears are created in muscle fibers, and as these repair themselves, our muscles get stronger. Even when an area is already in a state of pain, it can benefit from this process. When that area is not being strengthened, there are still benefits because other muscles in the region get stronger. These can, therefore, help the weaker areas perform tasks that would have been otherwise impossible without the strengthening. Hence, the exercise improves overall functionality. It also produces endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that make us feel good. When the endorphins are released, the brain produces positive sensations, and these can reduce both pain and the mood-killing aspects of pain.
Yoga also enhances the amount of oxygen that goes to the brain. How does oxygen in your brain help you reduce pain? Many types of pain are due to areas of the brain that need repair. When the flow of oxygen is increased to the brain, the repair can happen quicker and even in ways previously either unlikely or impossible without the heightened O2 levels. A good example is the pain those with fibromyalgia face on a daily basis. Studies have proven that an increased level of oxygen in the brain can significantly reduce or completely eliminate the need for pain medication for sufferers of fibromyalgia. 3 This is because the areas of the brain causing the pain are being repaired by the enhanced oxygen intake.
Yoga also helps relieve muscle tension, a primary cause of pain. 4 When our muscles are tensed, they are contracting, cramping or balling up in ways they shouldn’t. This produces pain. When they relax, the cause of the pain disappears. The muscle relaxation involved in yoga is one of the most straightforward ways it relieves pain. The fibers of muscles, when in the proper position, don’t produce pain. However, when the position is altered to one that is unnatural, even on a tiny level deep inside an otherwise normally shaped muscle, the body’s way of rejecting that position is to produce the pain response. Yoga seeks to remedy the root of the pain through relaxation.
The movements in yoga encourage joint activity and the stretching of muscles. Joints can become centers of pain when they remain stagnant for too long. This stagnancy can be relative. A joint can have some motion during day to day activity, but the motion is limited. The motions in yoga involve moving parts of the body that require the joints to operate to a fuller degree. This increase in motion frees them up, increases mobility and makes them better able to handle new motions. Without the elimination of this relative stagnancy, these same new motions would have been a source of pain. A joint that operates with a greater range of motion is one that feels less pain.
The stretching of muscles results in a pain for similar reasons. When our muscles extend into new motions or simply do a normal motion to a more extreme level, there is pain. A good example is when you touch your toes. If you are not able to touch your toes and you reach down and force yourself to do it, you will feel a twinge of pain in your hamstrings and perhaps in your calves and glutes as well. The muscle being forced into this position when it wasn’t ready caused your brain to send a pain signal in the hopes it would stop you from potentially injuring yourself with a tear or a strain. However, if you were to reach towards your toes and then just hang there for a few minutes, you would see that you are naturally able to reach farther without making any effort at all. This is not because of an improvement in strength. It’s because your muscles are stretching. Now imagine if this type of an increase in mobility were to take place all over your body. The number of motions you could perform without feeling pain would increase exponentially. This is one of the goals of yoga. The poses force your body, in a natural way, to extend in directions that stretch the muscles. If any movements related to these are performed afterward, there won’t be pain.
Engaging in activity that involves mild amounts of pain helps you view pain differently. The positions performed in yoga may involve slight amounts of pain as muscles are extended farther than they are accustomed to. However, your mind realizes that this is beneficial for you. The stretches and positions help your physical and mental health. When the session is over, you feel better, more relaxed, and ready for the day or evening. As you use it to tone your body, you begin to look better, so looking in the mirror is a more pleasurable sensation. All of these are rewards. In order to attain these rewards, you had to undergo mild amounts of pain. Due to the connection your mind makes between what you do and what happens after it, pain can begin to become a good thing. You feel pain, then you get positive results. You feel pain, then you look better. You feel pain, but then you have a better, more relaxed day. This all equates to a new relationship with pain: You feel pain, you feel good.
This is supported by physiology as well. Strengthening our bodies requires stretching muscles and connecting tissue to new lengths, often while exerting new or greater amounts of strain on them. This naturally results in some pain. However, as we see the results, we quickly realize the pain was good for us. But further, we realize that without the pain, the results wouldn’t have even been possible. We then start to desire the slightly painful feeling that results from pushing our limitations. Yoga puts your body in positions that create and repeat this process again and again and again. This repetition starts to form a habit, and pain gets redefined as a positive thing.
Yoga for Inflammation
The effects of yoga on inflammation have been hotly debated. Inflammation involves more than just pain but redness and swelling in the joints. As these joints get more inflamed, they begin to fail, and eventually, they can break down altogether. The source of this breakdown is the inflammation, therefore finding a way to stem or reverse it is a holy grail of sorts for researchers and therapists. While some doctors have said that yoga does not actually help inflammation, others have come up with different results.
Inflammation is caused by proteins such as interleukin-6. When this is present in the blood, inflammation is around the corner. Conversely, if the proteins are absent, the types of inflammation associated with these proteins is also absent. In order to analyze the amounts of these proteins in the blood during yoga, scientists performed an experiment. Small tubes were inserted into the arms of women who were performing yoga. Some of the women were fairly new to yoga. Others were veterans who had been doing it for a considerable amount of time. The hypothesis was that those who had been doing yoga would have a smaller amount of the inflammation-causing proteins in their bloodstreams. After the study was completed, the results were revealed. Yes, the hypothesis was correct. The proteins that caused the inflammation associated with arthritis were not as present in the bloodstreams of the women who had more experience practicing yoga. 2 There were other benefits as well.
It was also observed that the women who were regular yoga participants handled stressors differently. When presented with similar stressful situations, those versed in yoga simply processed them differently—in a way that helped alleviate or completely erase the psychological stress that would normally be expected. While these results were not as easily quantified as those found by studying the bloodstream, they were just as compelling. Stress is, for all intents and purposes, psychological inflammation. And just like physiological inflammation, it can get worse and cause lasting damage. Yoga helps reverse this process.
Yoga for Pain: Yoga Asana
When you begin a yoga session, you go into positions called asanas. Yoga is most widely known for these interesting positions. An examination of some of them will help explain why yoga is used for many people to treat pain. Many of the positions are perfectly fit to help ease pain found in specific parts of the body.
The Cat-Cow Sequence is among the first yoga poses that many people learn as they begin it get into yoga. It comes in two different phases. The first of the phases is called the Table Pose, and the second is called the actual Cat-Cow. 9 In the Table Pose, the person is face-down, prostrate, with arms extended out in front and palms flat on the floor, ground, or mat. The spine is parallel to the floor in a neutral position—neither hunched or arched. In this initial position, even before any other movement, there are already some benefits. The latissimus muscles are extended by the arms reaching upwards and out in front. Further, the muscles in the forearms are stretched by virtue of this same extension. Because the knees are tucked underneath and aligned with the torso, those joints get a gentle stretch as well. The glutes are also stretched due to the way the legs are kept underneath and aligned with the torso. Also, the tops of the feet, similarly aligned with the rest of the body, are flat on the floor, which results in a stretch of the muscles that extend from the tops of the feet all the way up to the knees.
How the Table Pose Relieves Pain
As we sit—often for long periods of time—our bodies get used to certain positions. While sitting may be initially comfortable, it can produce stagnancy and a near-atrophied condition of certain muscle groups. When muscles go for a while without being used they become more susceptible to cramping, and, of course, injury. The position of the shoulders while sitting at a computer, in a car, at any sort of desk, or even while standing, can, without extraneous effort, be one of a hunched slouch. This affects not just the shoulder region, but the entire spine. The Table Pose is a direct counteraction of the slouched shoulder position. The shoulders are extended in the opposite direction of the slouch, reaching up towards the ears. Along with this motion, the upper back is freed from the hunch it may have been frozen in for nearly eight hours or more. A prolonged hunched position creates pain in several areas up and down the spine, the shoulders, and the neck. The Table Pose helps address this pain because it puts the body in a polar opposition position.
In addition, the stretch in the glutes as the legs are kept underneath counteracts the position of our glutes while sitting for long periods of time. Because the angle of the lower leg is so much more acute than the 90 degrees they sit in while sitting, there is a flexion of the hamstring, which also causes tension in the glute muscles. But as the body is bent at the waist, these same glute muscles get stretched out. As we sit, these muscles are flattened, and unless we make a conscious effort, they don’t act for hours on end. This can cause unhealthy blood flow to the region, weakening the glutes. Further, as we sit with limited blood flow, the glutes can become sore. After a while, this pain becomes chronic. You can tell because it arises sooner and sooner each time you sit for an extended period of time. This is due to the fact that they didn’t get a chance to heal fully after the last time they were frozen in that position. The Table Pose, therefore, frees them up, stretches them out, and introduces a higher volume of muscle-healing blood to the region. A reduction in pain results.
The next phase of the Cat-Cow involves curving your spine in unison with an inhalation of breath. It then gets hunched as you exhale. Each motion is synced with your breathing. For this, you are using a natural breathing pattern and allowing your body to be guided by it. As you do this again and again over the course of a couple of minutes, your spine begins to warm up. Practitioners are encouraged to hold—without forcing it—the positions at the edges of the movements. This way, the stretches can provide the most benefit.
How the Cat-Cow Relieves Pain
Although sitting for long periods of time can often involve a form of a hunch, the back is not hunched all the way. For your posture, this is a good thing. However, when the muscles remain in one place for a long time, certain ones do not get the kind of work they need in order to be healthy. Pain results. The Cat-Cow does a good job of addressing this issue. Because the arms are outstretched and the knees are tucked underneath, the entire back enjoys a stretch, not just the upper area near the shoulders. With the stretching movement, blood flow is increased to all the areas of the back, and with the blood flow comes the oxygen and nutrients need to heal damaged muscles and more. In addition, the working of the spine strengthens the muscles that surround the spine. This helps stabilize it regardless of the position you are in. As these muscles get stronger, future back issues are prevented because they all work together to make sure your spine and the rest of your core operate as one unit. Otherwise, the rest of your core and your spine can be at odds, causing an unnatural arch of your spine that results in several types of back pain.
Yoga for Pain: Relaxation Techniques
Some types of pain have very straightforward, easy to comprehend causes. For instance, an acute injury causes a simple to understand, predictable pain sensation. There are other types of pain that are more difficult to wrap our minds around. Some of these involve chronic pain, the pain that doesn’t go away. Many people try to find the source of chronic pain, only to come up with either nothing at all or incomplete answers. A lot of chronic pain actually stems from stress. 5
When we feel stress, it is either due to an active thought or a subconscious one. The thought triggers a reaction, not just in our brains but in our bodies as well. Often, the reaction is quite obvious. For example, if somebody sneaks up behind you in a dark room and grabs you by the waist, your body is going to jump or twitch. There’s nothing about jumping or twitching that necessarily helps you improve the situation, it’s just your body’s natural reaction. You can easily perceive how your body reacts to this stressful event, completely on its own. Another example would be when you’re watching a tense movie. This may be a little harder to perceive, but if you take a moment to think about how your body is acting, you will notice differences. The pace of your breath quickens, your heart beats faster, you may sweat a little. All of this is a reaction to the stress created by the movie. The movie isn’t even a real event; it’s entertainment, yet, it creates a genuine stress reaction. The other sources of stress in our lives do the same thing. However, many of them affect different parts of the body—in addition to our heart and lungs. The back and neck are typical victims of stress. It can be difficult to feel because only parts of the back are affected. There are certain regions that tense up, and because they are relatively small, we may not even be aware that they are reacting to stress. The same goes for the neck. The pain created by this stress can become chronic, particularly if the stress is not addressed. The perpetuation of the stress causes the pain to be exacerbated. Yoga has helped many people stop the cycle of stress, and thereby relieve the person of chronic pain. Let’s examine how this works.
How Mental Relaxation in Yoga Reduces Stress and Pain
The psychosomatic reactions to stress are a big of a factor in the use of mental relaxation to reduce pain. In fact, this kind of pain relief hinges on it. One reason this is effective is that the mind is a creature of habit. Thinking about something stressful can become a habit that we repeat again and again. What we may not realize is that this repetitive thinking brings pain along with it as well. Regardless of how aware someone is of the connection between their pain and their stress, the pain can be reduced using the kind of thinking patterns inherent to yoga.
The mental side of yoga is understandably touchy territory for some people. Because yoga began with a basis in Eastern religion, there is often a spiritual element to it. However, the general types of thinking can be tailored to meet a person’s religious preferences or lack thereof. For instance, much of the meditation in yoga has its roots on the connection between our thinking and our breathing. We breathe naturally without thinking about it. Further, we often let our thoughts guide our breathing. Something can surprise us or we can have a sudden thought, and we will stop our current breath and start another one. In yoga, the participant is encouraged to focus on the breath itself. This puts breathing in the driver’s seat instead of the other way around. As the mind focuses on breathing, it is indulging in the subtle beauties of a simple, yet essential task. Focusing on your breathing takes your mind out of the realm of stress you feel every day, and into a place of calm. As the stress gets ignored, it dissipates then disappears. The pain goes along with it.
We can address this stress using essential oils as well. As the aromas are infused into the yoga experience, they are introduced via our breathing and through our skin. This gives our minds something to focus on other than the stress we are trying to eradicate. The incorporations are also seamless and natural because we can access them through our breathing and skin.
Yoga for Chronic Pain: Rethinking Pain
Pain has two components. One is a physical reaction involving nerve endings. When one of these is disturbed by an object or action, it sends a signal to the brain, which then interprets that signal as pain. This aspect of pain is how our minds perceive it. When we learn to control how our minds perceive pain, we can literally limit how “painful” the pain is. Pain is something perceived, and all perception is subjective—open to interpretation. Yoga deep thinking exercises can help us gain the upper hand on pain.
We have touched on how our minds can interpret pain somewhat already. However, there are other techniques for mentally dismissing pain. One of the exercises yoga participants engage in involves taking the power away from pain. Pain can be like a nagging little sibling. Once it is ignored, it loses relevance. When pain interrupts a yoga session, participants can be encouraged to think of it as a cloud passing overhead. It is not a necessary interruption, just a cloud that has nothing to do with your life. Your yoga session is not going to change significantly because of the pain because it is not a function of the pain. This way, the pain is stripped of its powerful status as an entity. It becomes a forgettable event, not the focal point of your moment or day.
As mentioned earlier, our thinking patterns are what form habits. Bad habits often get more attention than good ones, but good ones can be just as powerful. This way of thinking of pain can become one of those good habits. Like all habits, the key to thoroughly ingraining it into your psyche and life pattern will take repetition. Like feet trudging through snow, the repetition of the motion creates a pathway. On a physical level, the firing of neurons happens across the path of least resistance. The paths used the most frequently become like those tracks in the snow. When the stimulus is observed, the path most taken is the one most likely to be traveling at the moment. When it comes to pain, the physical sensation of the pain is the stimulus. The new pathway created is the mindful way of processing pain as a passing cloud. After a while, that path becomes the way of least resistance for the firing of the neurons. Then whenever you feel pain, it is little more than an insignificant cloud, momentarily floating past your life.
Whether yoga is used for mental relaxation, physical relaxation, stretching, or the restructuring of how we process what happens to our minds and bodies, it can be useful for dealing with pain. Pain is something perceived and therefore something mutable, not static and not a constant. Yoga can take advantage of this reality and reduce pain and its effects. Furthermore, on a physiological level, yoga helps to stretch and exercise areas of the body that would have otherwise been centers of pain. And even the pain that cannot be diagnosed by tracing it back to an injury can be eliminated through the use of yoga poses. What results is an experience that is more powerful for both the mind and body.
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