March 2

What is the Best Yoga For Chronic Pain?

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Any chronic pain condition needs to be managed holistically. And when it comes to yoga – it’s not about whether or not it’s a good idea. It’s about knowing what type is suited to you. 

Yoga is such a diverse practice. Each variation caters to specific needs or limits that someone may have. 

It works because any successful chronic pain management needs to focus on mind, body and soul – which yoga does perfectly.

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It’s been proven that using yoga as a form of chronic pain management can lower pain intensity, depression and functional disability in people with chronic lower back pain. 

I know you might have your guard up right now – I would! (And I did.) It’s hard to imagine yourself physically functional. Never mind twisting into all sorts of weird shapes for a yoga pose.

But let me assure you that you’re not expected to do anything you don’t want to do. The reason why yoga is a feasible therapy is because you can make it work for you. 

Why Yoga Works for Chronic Pain

There are a certain number of elements that all yoga practices include – no matter what you choose. 

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The reason why yoga is so well suited to people with chronic pain is because: 

  1. It’s effective in the long run.

    It uses an integrated, holistic and balanced approach to managing your condition. It focuses on: 
    • Physical postures,
    • Breathwork, 
    • Mental self-discipline, and 
    • Mindfulness.
  2. It has a number of proven health benefits.

    These benefits can help restore balance in the body, indirectly helping people with chronic pain too. 
  3. It helps you develop a good sense of body awareness.

    This is essential if you have a chronic pain condition.

    If you can get a better sense of where your symptoms are and how they’re affecting you - then you have a better chance of finding a solution. 
  4. It can change the relationship you have with your own pain.

    Instead of ignoring your pain, hating your body and building resentment toward what you can’t do, yoga gives you the opportunity to get in tune with your body and unleash the things you can do. 
  5. It initiates the process of acceptance.

    This is another important mental shift. Yoga requires self-discipline, mental courage and will encourage you to set personal goals.

    Unintentionally, it takes you from “I don’t want to be here,” to “I know what I can do today to make tomorrow better.” 

If you’re interested in diving into the real health benefits of yoga then give this article a read: Benefits of Yoga for Chronic Illness.

What to Focus On in Yoga Practice

When it comes to yoga for chronic pain, it’s extremely important to respect your body’s sensitivities and limits. 

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Your body speaks to you for a reason, and yoga should teach you to listen to yourself better – not bash yourself around.

Never worry about anyone else’s goals but your own. Even within the chronic pain community, the diversity of levels, techniques and practices will be very different. 

No, you may not be able to cook yourself and burn a million calories in a Bikram sauna session. But that really should not be your focus at all right now. 

Yoga for chronic pain needs to be calming – our bodies are already working at maximum intensity. 

Your main yoga goals for chronic pain management

The objectives you should have if you’re using yoga for chronic pain management are quite simple, really: 

  1. Aid fatigue and brain fog; 

  2. Bring down your perceived levels of pain; 

  3. Increase your joint mobility; 

  4. Boost your overall health; and

  5. Work on your mental wellbeing. 

Firstly – yes, yoga can do all those things and so much more. If you have issues with your heart, kidneys, circulation, sleep patterns etc. there are even more personalised yoga routines out there for you. 

I don’t want to get into the technicalities, but the reason why yoga is so effective, is because...

Each physical movement, along with the breath work you do and the mindset you acquire, helps to calm your brain and heal your body.

And since you have a chronic pain condition, you need to achieve these goals using techniques that aren’t going to push you past what you can handle. 

You need to look into yoga practices that:

  1. Help you relax; 

  2. Are slow-paced; 

  3. Focused on breathwork;  

  4. Work on stress relief; and 

  5. Allow you to meditate and be mindful.

7 Types of Yoga For Chronic Pain

What you'll notice as you go along, is that most styles of yoga share common poses.

What makes a style unique is how its sequence is constructed. Each type of yoga will have its own: Pace, force, level of comfort, degree of exertion and focus. 

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Beyond all the different styles you can try. You can also take elements from different styles and create a unique practise, focusing on resolving a specific need you may have. 

For example, if you have chronic lower back pain, your instructor can create a sequence with various postures (from different types of yoga) that all focus on improving mobility, flexibility, strength and posture in that area. 

For now, I'm going to show you the seven types of yoga that are most commonly used for chronic pain as a general rule. 

Hatha yoga

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Hatha yoga is a more traditional and gentle form of yoga. It combines steady and comfortable physical postures with breathwork and meditation. They aim to bring peace to your body and your mind. 

Here are three examples of Hatha Yoga: 

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Tree pose

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Downward dog pose

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One legged downward dog

Yin Yoga

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Yin yoga is also a gentle form of yoga. It targets and works on your connective tissues and joints, without being an intense form of exercise.

You'll find that most postures are held for a bit longer, and they are done sitting or laying down. Your muscles are also meant to be disengaged through the process. 

Here are three examples of Yin Yoga poses:  

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Child's pose

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Pigeon pose

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Cobbler pose

Restorative yoga

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Restorative Yoga is all about relaxation – mental, physical and emotional. This style of yoga is done lying down or seated and uses slow movements.

Like Yin Yoga, each pose is done seated or lying down and held for a long time. The biggest difference between the two is that you are meant to engage your muscles with Restorative Yoga. 

Here are three examples of Restorative Yoga poses:  

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Gas release pose

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Bridge pose

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Spine twist pose

Restorative flow yoga

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Restorative Flow Yoga is a bit more dynamic than standard Restorative Yoga. It uses breath work and movement to create a flow in each position you do.

Here is an example of a Restorative Yoga flow sequence:  

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1. Extended child's pose

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2. Cat's pose

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3. Garland pose

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4. Cobra pose

Yoga Nidra

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Yoga Nidra is otherwise known as yogic sleep. There’s almost no physical movement at all. It’s actually a guided meditation that helps with stress and anxiety.

Here are three examples of Yoga Nidra poses:  

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Corpse pose

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Fish pose

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Frog pose

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Extended supine hero

Iyengar

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Iyengar uses traditional yoga poses, and it focuses on detail, precision and body alignment.  With Iyengar Yoga, you tend to use props quite a bit to make sure you execute the poses properly. This style needs a little more energy to get right. 

Here are three examples Iyenger Yoga poses:  

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Warrior I

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Triangle forward pose

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Warrior 2

Viniyoga

Viniyoga is highly personalised and it’s all about adaptation. Your teacher will take a more therapeutic approach to your classes, which should be one-on-one ideally. 

The objective is to design programmes that are entirely based on your needs. Taking into account age, health, injuries etc. 

The pace, force, comfort and physical exertion really depend on the needs of each individual student. However, in most cases, Viniyoga is quite gentle. 

The focus is on one-on-one yoga physical therapy that aids wellbeing and health. 

I’ve tried many types of yoga over the last 7 years, and I’ve found that combination routines are a great idea. 

I have learnt what my specific needs are, and you will learn them too when you start going to class. 

The more you learn about yourself, the more you can gage what you’d like your goals to be, realistically. And there’s nothing wrong with combining different types of yoga. 

As long as you have something that is helping you achieve your goals, that is the most important thing.

How long should you hold a yoga pose for?

When you chat with your yoga instructor, they will be able to tell you how long you should be holding each yoga position. 

But in general, when you practice still postures, you should hold them for as long as is comfortable for you. If you don't feel comfortable anymore, you should stop. 

Types of Yoga To Avoid if You Have Chronic Pain

With everything that I’ve just spoken about in mind. I would recommend staying clear of any yoga that is: 

Moderately or very fast paced;
Very sweaty;  
Focused primarily on weight-loss;  or
A combination of strength, endurance and flow (it’s very intense).

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This is especially important if you are a beginner, and are not working with a yoga instructor yet. In that case, things like headstands and shoulder stands are not a good idea. 

It is possible to hurt yourself. So it’s really important to listen to your teacher and use their guidance. I know you may want to give this your best shot. But if you overdo it, you’re going to take quite a few steps back. 

Even as I write this, I know it’s something that I’ve had to learn the hard way a few times. 

Just remember that believing in yourself is a discipline. It’s not just about going full speed ahead. It’s being confident that you are adaptable, patient, discerning and focused. 

10 Tips For Practicing Yoga With a Chronic Illness

I have practised yoga for about seven years now, and I have learnt a lot from my experience. 

If you have a chronic illness and want to give yoga a go. Here’s what I can recommend you do right now...

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Speak to your doctor.

See if the yoga you want to do is right for you and what you should be avoiding. You might find that your doctor isn’t very knowledgeable about yoga, and that’s okay.

It’s just important that you raise any concerns as they come. It helps you better understand your body and what you can and can’t do going forward.

Aim for something restorative – not invigorating.

Go for gentle healing and relaxing classes. Not powerful or intense ones. You want it to be restored and relaxed when you’re done.

Be comfortable.

Whatever helps you feel at home, relaxed and happy – do it. You won’t get the most out of yoga unless you start a session feeling at ease. 

Three areas of comfort you may want to look at include:

Clothing - you want to feel light and free to move easily.
Area - use a room or space that is calming and not distracting
Small aids - if things like scented candles or beautiful mats etc make you happy, then include them in your space.

Be consistent and create habits. 

Unfortunately, you can’t find time for something like yoga – you need to make time for it. Discipline and compliance are crucial.

The more you get into a rhythm and start seeing the benefits – the more you will find that yoga will be something you look forward to every day.

Ideally, try to get your yoga done first thing in the morning. It’s a great way to start the day and you’ll associate it with positive beginnings.

Be mindful of your body throughout a practice.

While your goal might be to get to the end of the class – it’s really important you keep tapping into how you’re feeling.

Is the pace too intense?
Do you feel comfortable?
Is your teacher adapting to your needs?
Are they respectful?
Do you feel safe physically and mentally?
Do you feel like you are working towards your goal?

Consider private lessons.

This really depends on availability, accessibility and cost – I know. But I would recommend doing a little bit of research and seeing if there’s any feasible option for you. The personal attention and consideration really do go a long way.

Look for a teacher experienced in chronic pain.

This is very important. At the very least, you need someone who will respect your boundaries and listen to your concerns. 

Ideally, you should take note of what you do in class. If there’s anything you’re concerned about – speak to your doctor and get some feedback. Try to keep the lines of communication open. 

Give online yoga classes a go.

This is a great alternative to going to class. It’s convenient, comfortable and less restrictive. However, I do recommend having a few lessons with a professional teacher first.

Don't take on too much.

If you feel motivated to go all-in at the beginning – that’s amazing. But please, take it slow. 

Building strength takes time and patience. It’s better than pushing too hard and then taking 5 steps back... believe me! Listen to your doctor here, but most importantly – listen to yourself.

Do it your own way.

As long as you’re positively working on your body and your mind in a safe way – who cares if it’s not exactly traditional practice? Make your own tradition. Just remember that:

  • You need to know what you’re trying to achieve from the beginning.
  • You should be able to focus on your goal for the practice.
  • You’re meant to finish the practice happier and more relaxed than you did when you started it.

If you’ve started yoga and have something you’d like to share about your journey with chronic pain management – I’d love to hear it. 

After all, yoga is a practice that you should continually use for self-progress and development. 

Even after 7 years of getting into it, I still try to learn something new about yoga as often as possible. And it makes me realise just how much is out there to explore.

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Marina

Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.


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