Chronic pain and yoga asana: 4 tips

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Yoga has been instrumental to my recovery from Lyme disease. I’ve already written about how I use yogic philosophy to make sense of chronic pain (here and here), but long before I knew anything about yogic philosophy, I started using the physical practice of yoga (yoga asana) to work with the disease in my body. People living with chronic pain sometimes ask me how I did this. How does a person in pain walk into a yoga class and access healing? Where does one begin?

It’s important to know that not all yoga asana classes are designed to work for people in pain, and not all yoga teachers are interested or equipped to do so. Many (most?) classes are designed for healthy bodies and move along at such a pace that in a busy, mixed-level, drop-in scenario there’s simply not enough time for teachers to offer modifications for bodies in pain. As a student in those classes, I can modify poses as needed for my own healing, but someone without my years of yoga experience and training could easily hurt themselves.

If you’re looking for a yoga practice to support your healing, here are four things to keep in mind:

Find the right class

When you’re brand new to yoga, class schedules may as well be written in Greek (or Sanskrit!). How are you supposed to know the difference between “Vinyasa Core” and “Kundalini”? The best way to find the right class for your specific needs is to contact a yoga studio and speak to a staff member or teacher. Explain your situation and ask for recommendations for a gentle or restorative class. Don’t be afraid to start with something super gentle; you can always move on to a more challenging class when you’re ready.

Speak to the teacher

It’s essential to speak to the teacher before class begins. Let them know what you’re working with and allow them to ask questions about your condition. Yoga teachers aren’t medical professionals. We don’t have x-ray vision and we can’t diagnose what’s wrong with you. What we can do is make recommendations about which yoga poses you might find helpful, which to avoid, and how to modify poses for your specific needs. Have this conversation before class begins rather than after you’ve aggravated your condition by doing something contraindicated.

Listen to your body

Even the best yoga teacher is unable to climb into your skin and feel what you’re feeling. Only you know how different poses work for your body. If you feel that a pose is inappropriate, then don’t do it, even if the teacher tells you it’s safe. A good yoga teacher will always tell you to listen to your body first. Don’t be afraid to modify a pose or sit it out entirely. The benefits of yoga come over time from a regular, sustainable practice; few rewards will come from an unsustainable practice that leaves you injured and unable to get on your mat for a week. 

Keep practicing!

There may be days when just unrolling your mat feels like too much. If you dedicate yourself to this practice, I believe you’ll also experience days when the fog seems to lift, when the pain feels workable, and when you can imagine a life without chronic pain. The more you practice, the more you’ll learn which poses your body needs and how to apply them like medicine to your pain. This process takes time and there’s no rushing it. Keep unrolling your mat, keep stepping onto it, and keep practicing!

Photo by Mish Boutet

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