by Dr. Mark Wiley
More than half the American population is said to suffer some form of chronic pain. This pain interferes with quality of life by affecting sleep, emotional states and ability to work. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that pain is the single most common reason that Americans seek medical attention. So bad is the pain epidemic that Congress has called the first 10 years of this Millennium the “Decade of Pain Control and Research.”
And while the biotech and Big Pharma industries are spending trillions of dollars in search of super drugs to hide the pain and lessen suffering, their efforts have shown no great lasting benefit. Yet, it seems that a centuries-old Indian practice, known as yoga, proves not only safe but also quite effective at reducing pain.
Yoga is an ancient practice of health and well-being. As an exercise, it involves holding and moving between various postures, specified breathing methods and altering states of consciousness through meditation. While the broader aim of traditional yogic practices is unifying mind and body with spirit, in the West it has come to be seen as a relaxing or muscle-toning physical activity, depending on yoga style.
One of the basic tenets of chronic pain is that it has both mental and physical origins and manifestations. It is a mind/body phenomenon that requires a mind/body approach. Yoga seems to be the perfect practice to relieve this health issue. Here’s why…
One of the causes of pain is the hypertonicity (tightness) of muscles that constrict blood flow, reduce the amount of fresh oxygen and nutrients in circulation and allow toxins to accumulate in muscle tissue. Yoga is structured around the practice of physical movements that gently move the body. These movements are within the normal ranges of motion and thus do not require great exertion or flexibility and will not cause sprains and tears while being performed. When the muscles are supple and the blood is moving, pain is reduced and the mental anguish and physical restrictions of that pain are diminished.
Regardless of which method of yoga is practiced, studies have confirmed its healing properties. In fact, many studies have found that regular practice of yoga can reduce blood pressure by as much as 15 mm/Hg. With extended practice of yoga, a level of fitness is achieved and weight loss experienced which is also responsible for additional lowering of blood pressure and reduction of the effects of daily stress. Reduction of stress, lowering of blood pressure, calmness of mind and slowed breathing are all tools that help reduce pain.
Yoga can be an effective method for decreasing pain by its ability to induce a deep calming effect and slower breathing which assists in the relaxation of muscles and reduction of trigger points and systemic inflammation. This ancient practice brings down the stress-induced fight or flight response, thereby reducing the levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol that are pumping through your system.
Yoga practices, especially those with a spiritual component, are also able to offer practitioners an emotional experience along with their physical movements. These often foster feelings of love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. These feelings alone reduce the way people react to daily stress and the people around them. Stress causes pain, so less stress means less tension in the body and therefore less pain.
The body has learned ways of reacting to stress with protective measures like tension and pain. To overcome those ingrained responses, one needs to retrain the body’s response to the mind. Practicing yoga on a weekly or bi-weekly basis has proven effective at doing this. It gives the mind and the body a new pattern of relaxation and quietness. Yoga teaches one to use his mind to observe his body, to control posture, to regulate breathing… all in an effort to allow him to take control of his experiences and how these experiences take hold in the body.
The on-going practice of yoga is transformative. It changes stress and pain responses into healing responses. Over time, it brings one to feel a sense of self empowerment, vitality and relaxed, stress-free living.
Pain and energy drain comes from tight muscles and tense minds. When the mind is tense, the muscles also become tense. When muscles become tense, it restricts blood flow, decreases range of motion and can cause trigger points. Trigger points are painful dime-sized “knots” deep in the muscle tissue that can cause pain for weeks on end.
Easing mental stresses and physical muscle contractions is a must if you are striving for pain-free living. When you are relaxed, very little energy is consumed, which allows the body to recharge and repair. These periods of regeneration, just like when sleeping, are vital to proper pain-free functioning.
One natural way of relaxing both mind and body is through regular practice of yoga. By assuming the yoga postures, known as Asanas, one is able to relax, stretch and tone the body at the same time. How?
Each posture is held for a period of time. This allows toning of the muscles necessary to hold the posture. However, since the postures are all designed to be assumed within the body’s normal range of motion, there is little stress or strain. And with low stress comes slow breathing which relaxes both the mind and the body. Thus, in each moment the yoga Asanas are held, the person’s mind and body relax and recharge. Just like while sleeping, but with the added benefit of gentle, strain-free toning.
When the muscles are toned, they are better able to hold the body in correct posture throughout the day. You see, an imbalance in muscle tone or muscle suppleness is a cause of chronic body pain. If muscle A is strong and muscle B is weak, then A carries the load and B suffers injury while along for the ride. Moreover, neck pain on one side is a sign that the muscles on one side of the neck are either weaker or tenser than the muscles on the other side of the neck. Pain is the result.
What we are talking about are muscle imbalances. A safe and natural way of correcting poor posture derived from muscle imbalances is through the practice of yoga postures. The breathing and meditative aspects of yoga also help relax the mind and reduce stress. Try relaxing with yoga. You may feel better than you ever thought you could.
My favorite and treasured manual on yoga is by Dr. Viyayendra Pratap’s A Teacher’s Guide for Beginning Yoga. It is simple and elegant and direct to the point. I highly suggest this book for all those who either want a solid place to begin learning the Yoga Asana, and also for those you have been in Yoga even for decades and wish to learn the deeper aspects. The true traditional teachings are simply presented in this lovely book. Have a look… give yoga a try… and feel better soon!