“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.