Physical pain is an indication of a that there is problem in the body. Pain might be chronic, lingering for a long time with little or no relief. This is often related to long-term illnesses or injuries that have healed but the pain persists. Or pain may be acute, meaning it had a rapid onset. With acute pain, the pain is a symptom of injured or diseased tissue; when the injury has finished healing, the correlating pain will subside. Although practicing yoga while in pain doesn’t seem altogether appealing, recent studies have indicated that yoga can promote healing and reduce feelings of physical pain.
When dealing with pain, it’s important to look for the underlying cause of the pain rather than just trying to cover it up with pain relievers or self-medicating habits. In some instances, the pain may seem to have no identifiable cause. Even if the origin is unknown, the feeling of pain is often brought on or intensified by tension, and while there may not be any immediate cure for this pain, yoga can help to reduce its intensity. No matter the source of the pain, however, it’s a good idea to consult with a medical professional before beginning a yoga practice. And make sure to ask the teacher for modifications to avoid worsening any pre-existing conditions.
The effects of yoga on pain are multi-fold. First, pranayama, or yogic breathing, relaxes the body, releasing tension that exacerbates physical pain. Long deep breathing has a physiological effect on the nervous system, which in turn creates a sense of relaxation in the body and the mind. Although pain may still be present, it is often less noticeable, and often less debilitating, if the body is free of stress.
For people who suffer from chronic pain, it often feels like “everything” hurts. Kundalini yoga, called the “Yoga of Awareness”, creates a sense of self-awareness that allows pain-sufferers to begin to identify what actually hurts. Knowing that the pain is radiating from a particular part of the body often helps pain-sufferers overcome the sense of general malaise and makes the pain more manageable.
Most Kundalini kriyas help with this, but two of my favorites are For Unknown Cause of Sickness in the Owner’s Manual for the Human Body, which works to help consciously move attention through the entire body; and Getting the Body out of Distress, from the I Am a Woman Manual, a very relaxing sequence of exercises–including self-massage–to circulate and distribute energy through the entire body.
Another way that Kundalini Yoga helps people deal with pain is related to Kundalini’s focus on the spinal column. Kundalini kriyas raise energy along the spine, at the same time stretching the spinal column, releasing tension in the back, and maintaining flexibility. A gentle kriya such as the Basic Spinal Energy Series in Sadhana Guidelines can do wonders to relieve pain in the body that radiates along the spine.
For those days when a physical practice is just too much to take on, meditation can still make a world of difference. Recent studies have shown that even yoga beginners can significantly reduce pain through meditation. Researchers have tracked brain images and have learned that meditation increases activation in areas of the brain related to cognitive control and emotion, which is also where we experience pain. In other words, the more a person meditates, the less they experience pain. To learn more about this, check out the tremendous book “Meditation as Medicine” by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD.
Whatever practice you decide to take on to manage your pain, it’s important to know your limits. It’s not necessary to push yourself to full times through every kriya, and be sure to rest sufficiently between exercises. Be gentle with yourself, and honor the sensations in your body. Your pain is trying to tell you that something is amiss. Don’t ignore it, but please try not to let it rule your life!