“My doctor couldn’t find anything on the MRI, so he suggested I try yoga. He’s heard it helps.”

This has been a common refrain from new clients with old injuries who have come to work with me. They are in pain, lots of it, and have been for quite some time. And yet, these students, who have turned to yoga, desperately seeking relief, back away from the work when they start to get uncomfortable, saying, I’m not doing that. It hurts. I’m just going to listen to my body. We, as yoga teachers, can foster a safe haven for our students to deal with their pain, but to be effective, we must help them decode what their body is telling them—and if what their body is telling them is true! Understanding the science of how the brain processes pain can help you help your students.

When we get injured, our tissues often require stillness to heal. Our muscles instinctively immobilize tissues by tensing around them, we also impose stillness with slings, casts and braces. Over some period of time (a doctor can tell you how long given the specific injury) tissues mend. However, a period of no movement means no circulation. No circulation means  chemical waste builds up around the injury and inflames the tissues. Inflammation triggers nociception (the body’s warning system of imminent injury)—and the brain senses pain.

Nociceptors possess an interesting behavioral trait. Immediately following an injury, their sphere of influence spreads beyond the injury site and they respond with greater amplitude every time they are stimulated. So, with time, nociceptors need less stimulation to scream louder from father away. The brain gets bombarded with pain warnings long after the tissues have healed, and now can’t figure out how to break the cycle.

Here’s where you come in: get your students relaxing then moving. Relaxation encourages muscles to stop holding, which allows circulation to increase. Increased circulation clears inflammation; less inflammation means less nociception.

As nociception decreases, you can approach tissues with pressure. Have you ever noticed that when we get hurt, we intuitively hold or rub the injury? Pressure sends proprioceptive information (location, pressure) to the brain. Like a Royal Flush beats Four of a Kind in poker, proprioceptive input to the brain trumps nociceptive input, which overrides the pain response. Looked at another way, our bodies love compression—that’s why hugs and massages feel so good—they soothe. When we are soothed, our breath deepens, circulation improves and muscles relax, all of which facilitate healing.

Now for movement—yes, when tissues begin moving again after a long time of stillness, the brain will perceive discomfort. Encouraging your students to stick with a movement program is not an attempt to deny their pain, but to turn the pain mechanism off and train the brain to stop protecting tissues that no longer need protection.

My first step in working with clients overly familiar with pain is to get them breathing, then onto the therapy balls, then into movement. I always start with the Belly Breath Primer (shown below and on the 5 Minute Quick Fix Stress Relief video). Once they start breathing they start unwinding the chronic pain state their brain perceives, then they really can start listening to their body.

Learn about our Therapy Balls Program for pain relief.

How is your pain trending? – Read the post.

Check out our line of Yoga Tune Up® products for pain relief.

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Karen

This is really interesting. I often feel that I am sending conflicting messages: listen to your body, but, the messages you are getting are not always indicators of what’s actually happening in the tissues. You express this condundrum clearly and offer some great solutions. Thank you!

Noelle Carvey

This is so vital. People just want to act like what they provide will provide some speedy miracle weight loss or result. The YTU program focuses on slowing it down and honestly healing from root outward. This concept is so important to. E able to address and deliver to people.

Cheryl

Thank you for describing the relationship between inflammation, nociceptors, and a difficult-to-break pain cycle. Your advice to get the student relaxing and then moving, along with the explanation behind it, is excellent.

Tam

This is such an interesting piece in a number of ways. I learned about nociceptors, the brain and the body’s relationship to pain and useful encouraging steps to help students who experience chronic pain. Science, mindfulness, holding space and words of encouragement. Thank you.

Joy

Thanks for the explanation on nociceptors and proprioceptors. This article helps me understand the importance of relaxation and the breath to facilitate healing and stop pain.

Michelle Pitman

I’ve been struggling with chronic neck pain now for about 2 years. Two big A-HA statements stood out for me in this article: 1. “Our muscles instinctively immobilize tissues by tensing around them, we also impose stillness with slings, casts and braces.” I hadn’t thought of it this way before – the muscles contracting around the tissues as a way to protect. I just have to continually remind them now that there job is done, it’s safe to relax now. There is no more injury or impending harm… 2. “Nociceptors possess an interesting behavioral trait. Immediately following an injury, their… Read more »

Lisa Federico

Thank you for reinforcing the importance of relaxation. Your recommended pattern of breathe, relax, compress and move is intelligent and a ‘mantra’ I will share with my clients.

Nicole

Learning how the nervous system responds to traumas has been really insightful for me personally, and for dealing with my students. Using the breath as a guide to get below the emotional body, and into the sensate body has really helped me decode my pain signals.

sara

This is such an important discussion for both injuries as well as other pain disorders for which doctors cannot pinpoint a direct cause. Often patients are told “it’s all in [there] head” in a pejorative way, in a way that makes them feel “crazy” and “helpless.” The doctors, in a neurological way are not wrong, but this message can be conveyed in a much more empowering way, and that is what you have done here! This article helps to put the power back in the hands of an individual to work with both their physiology and neurology for deeper healing… Read more »

Jillian

This is wonderful insight! It’s amazing how an individuals mental state can put an affect on how they heal. And it is our job as healers and teachers to help them bypass those obstacles and allow them to truly find what their body needs. Thank you for the wonderful advice when approaching these types of clients.

Jessica

Nocioception–a new concept for me! So interesting and helpful for thinking about how to work with clients in pain–there are ways we can physiologically let go of our pain. So increased circulation is the key to breaking the nocioceptors’ vicious cycle? Something I’d love to look into further.

Glenda Garcia

Thank you for this article on moving past the pain – wisely – to help heal from injuries. The body is intelligently trying to protect itself from further injury, but with an understanding of the role of relaxation to move past the pain, we can do the work necessary for healing.

Rebecca

I have suffered from perceiving scar tissue pain as the injury and it really held me back. It is such a fine balance of pushing yourself but then also taking care of yourself. The yogi tune of balls seem to be a great way to start to gauge this problem, if it is to much you can put less pressure or if it is not enough you put more. With my injury I used acupuncture to rid myself of the excess tissue but it seems like the tune up balls are a better option. This along with yoga seems like… Read more »

Betsy

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I am a yoga teacher and one of my senior students (in her late 70’s) recently began working with me privately so that we could address her uniques injuries, misalignments, and the resulting chronic pain. After our initial consultation and reviewing documents from her chiropractor, I felt fairly confident the I knew what to do to help her. About halfway in to our first one on one yoga session together, I had some serious doubts. She said that everything I asked her to do (and I mean everything!) hurt or “was too hard”. I… Read more »

Rob

Thank you for an article on this topic. Although we shouldn’t downplay that some pain should be listened to, and sometimes getting people to move more against pain isn’t beneficial across the board.

You mention inflammation triggers noiceceptive pain. I have read elsewhere that it is a separate pain mechanism, and have been unable to find a firm answer in my personal research. Would you know of a article/journal/source that could help me clear it up the confusion?

jackie leduc

Our bodies are so well set up to heal itself. We just need to actually breath and let it do its job. I love how you stated that: our bodies love compression—that’s why hugs and massages feel so good—they soothe. When we are soothed, our breath deepens, circulation improves and muscles relax, all of which facilitate healing. Well said and I will be using that line often

Garrett Plumley

Thank you so much for this! This article really gives a great starting point for understanding my own pain patterns and why I love ART, and now ball work, so much!

Ayla Barker

This is incredibly interesting! I had never made the connection between the bodies natural response to apply pressure to pain and the massage therapy balls. I also think that it’s important to mention that we can retrain our brain to perceive pain differently. Pain is just a sensation, and how we perceive that sensation is something our brain is telling us, not our body. It’s just a message going through our nervous system. Take chair pose for instance. Recently during a teacher training we were challenged with a five minute chair. Now with a proper posterior tilt to the pelvis… Read more »

Rachelle Gura

This article is completely fascinating and informative! My boyfriend broke his ulna right at the joint and the Doctor did NOT cast him, it was such a blessing given the muscle atrophy that occurs due to immobilization. Thank you so much for demystifying the complexities of the human body in an approachable way.
I recently watched Kelly Starrett chat about that inflammation and recommends NOT icing inflammation as it is part of the natural healing process, not sure if that conflicts with the idea of working to reduce nocicepters by reducing inflammation which may require icing.

Amanda Joyce

I work with many people who are experiencing physical pain and belly breathing is always my “go to” before we even begin a movement assessment. It’s always rewarding to be able to introduce this breathing technique to someone who has not been able to catch a break from their pain and watch how they melt and let go of unnecessary patterns of tension. Explaining to them how the nociceptors and proprioceptors work empowers them to move more deeply into their healing process with less fear and allows us to make faster gains towards recovery. Thanks for a great blog!

Christine

Great point about starting with relaxation and breath first. Until someone starts to breathe with the diaphragm it’s difficult to get them out of the chronic pain loop. Breath retraining and the work with the balls is a gentle way to break the cycle of pain.

Emma

This article was incredibly interesting to read and it has certainly piqued my interest in nociceptors. Based on the information you shared it seems to me that while nociceptors maybe necessary in the body, their function is incredibly flawed. I am interested in ways that nociceptors may benefit the body.

Kristin

If you can’t relax you can not fully receive! Work through the discomfort when it is sensation. Brilliant post! Where are you teaching I want to learn from you! I am curious that if the brain keeps this pattern and chronic pain is the result how much toxins the body is producing and how long it can take to re pattern. Also it makes me think of fibromyalgia and if the balls would benefit people who suffer from this

Stephanie

Great, detailed explanation of nociceptors, proprioceptors and how to get the brain out of the guarding realm and into the healing. Thank you!

Leslie Wright

This article is a helpful reminder to encourage students to sort out sensations in their bodies. Just ten days ago, one of my friends fell and injured her ribs. After about five days of immobility, (and little perceived reduction in pain) she finally got an x-ray to make sure nothing was broken. No bones broken. We spoke on the phone, and I talked her through the steps of the breathing Jill shows in the above video. Almost immediately, she began to notice a loosening of the gripping of the muscles which still seemed to be in an alarmed contraction after… Read more »

Jackie

Thanks for an explanation of something that I’ve watched happen as I work with clients in pain. Sometimes just by paying attention to the breathing they realize how they have been holding it much of the time. As they feel the movement of the breathe their body relaxes and they can move from a place of less or no pain.

Meghan

This is a wonderful article as it speaks to the body’s ability to still and heal itself so efficiently. Many times our emotional brain gets do caught up in having pain it takes awhile for it to grasp the fact that healing has in fact occurred. I find that many of my patients with chronic pain will get more mobility after rolling with the therapy balls and doing a little pin and stretch, but if I ask them how they feel it takes a while before they say pain free. And many time long standing fear patterns develop around pain,… Read more »

Jenny Buchanan

Fascinating Christine! “Nociceptors possess an interesting behavioral trait. Immediately following an injury, their sphere of influence spreads beyond the injury site and they respond with greater amplitude every time they are stimulated. So, with time, nociceptors need less stimulation to scream louder from father away.” Nociceptors sound like the sugar addict in me: the more sugar I eat, the more I want! Reminiscent also of Nerve cells that fire together wire together, and strongly urging that motion is a must after acute healing has passed. When in doubt, BREATHE is indeed the answer. I’ve often found that starting a group… Read more »

Macala

I love this article on how the brain perceives pain. With regard to soft tissue pain, getting the area moving again is so important but starting with relaxation is brilliant! Thanks for this post!!!