“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.

Christine Jablonski

I believe most people who end up in the fitness profession are trying to heal themselves. Fifteen years ago I sought out SPIN to rehabilitate a full knee reconstruction. Ten years ago I started Pilates to help me recover from a horseback riding accident. More recently, as still-young age and old injuries caught up with me, I began a restorative and Kripalu yoga practice. In every instance, with every discipline, I've experienced a moment of “ahhh....I want to make everyone feel this good.” And so began my path toward fitness studio ownership where I could keep my classes small and focused on my client's journeys from injury, through healing, and on to strength. In addition to figuring out how my clients and I could feel even better (as well as look better in our jeans), curiosity about human biomechanics led me to study with Helena Collins of Life in Synergy, Sadie Nardini of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, and of course, Jill Miller. Combing the knowledge from these tremendous teachers with my strong Pilates background has enabled me to create exceptionally effective programs for my clients, who range from joint replacement patients needing post-physical therapy help to the “uninjured” wanting stronger, better aligned bodies so they can experience life to the fullest.

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Dana

Upon first read I saw noprioception, as in not proprioception, which is what nociception seems to be.
A common movement conception is that either you go hard or go home, practice all out or don’t bother. It’s those extremes that create or perpetuate injury, preventing healing. Variations of movement between those limiting points are where healing & body awareness live. It also sends that very different message to the nervous system of safety & care vs fight or flight.

Sujun

This has opened my eyes. I want to thank you so much. No wonder most people love hugs, touching, breathing and massages. Compassion – compression = bliss? Great!

Em

Thank you for this excellent post!

A good case for starting in more static poses rather than intense ones! I’ve often been resistant to starting classes in static poses like savasana, because in my body creates a drowsy attitude.

Will consider this!: “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.”

Kimberly Lou

Great article! Thank you so much for breaking it down. I’d like to add something. I’ve experience psychosomatic pain in my own life and have worked through pain with my clients as well. I do agree that there are subconscious blocks that keep us from moving forward, AND/BUT that pain is there to tell us something, whether it’s real or not. I know this may sound silly, but when I’ve dealt with perceived pain, I ask it why it’s there and if I listen long enough I will eventually get the perfect answer which tells me what it is and… Read more »

Johanna

It is hard to know the difference between just wanting to avoid the pain and listening to your body.

Giancarla

This is a very smart article! I think it is also empowering to know that we can manage and begin to eliminate pain with one of the oldest tricks in the book– breathing! I notice with my own students that just by starting them out with awareness of breath from the get-go drops them into a meditative calm place. I have found that if you are very specific about movement and breath together they can also assimilate to a deep rhythm. Staying in poses and allowing the body settle in and exploratory breathe can get the breath deeper and even… Read more »

Ben L

I find this hits very close to home for myself and probably for many others. I’m pondering now with how to safely lead someone into their pain without creating damage, to their body or the trust that is so important in the teacher/ student relationship. This article outlines just the right information at exactly the right time for me and demonstrates the importance of the YTU community and these blogs. In the interest of engaging the parasympathetic ns the belly breathing is a perfect start to relax the body in preparation for the therapy ball work which can at first… Read more »

Helen McAvoy

This is incredibly helpful as a new YTU® instructor working with students…not tuned in to their bodies and how to relax and down regulate. Thank you!

Christine

Katherine, you can approach the tissues adjacent to the injury and slowly work your way toward the injury over time. Gently begin to compress and release the tissues around the site with your hands, or use the balls manually to twist and wring the surface of your skin. That should stimulate some circulation in the region without aggravating the injury. Good luck!

Katherine

Wow, the concept of nocioception is totally new to me and this blew me away. Dealing with a new injury myself, I I definitely believe that some rest is necessary to the healing of the tissue, but I have also been gradually challenging the comfortable range of motion to avoid too much chemical buildup. When I let that arm be completely relaxed, and move it with the opposite one, I find significantly reduced pain there, which makes me think that this definitely applies to some extent! For now though, the injury is still quite fresh, so I do not want… Read more »

Rachelle Tersigni

Thank you for the introducing nociception! I love learning about the biochemical processes of the body and this is a new one for me. I agree that relaxation before doing any physical work is what makes yoga techniques so effective and separates yoga asana from other forms of exercise. The specifics of doing abdominal breathing vs. other types of breath work is also a good idea. I have also found in my own experience that when I have a previously injured area, I tend to be much more cautious and sensitive to small tweaks, and I can see how different… Read more »

Lisa Harris

Very interesting. This will help me to explain why discomfort during movement isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. So many people associate discomfort with “bad” and will stop an activity as a result, when in fact it is actually the thing that they really need to get the body moving.

lorimerburns

Thank you for this article. The psychology of pain is fascinating to me! I think helping a student to just acknowledge or address pain is a significant way “in”. Awareness (vs. denial or avoidance) is KEY! Breathing intentionally through discomfort is HUGE!!!

Anastasia

Healing from my own injury made me reach out and look for other alternatives out there. I read a book by Dr. Sarno pn back pain and there is really no treatment that he offers other than the power of knowledge. Understanding and accepting that the injured area is no longer in imminent danger and does not need protection has helped me move forward in regaining my normal activity level and ROM. I’m wondering if the nociceptors have been overly stimulated for too long of a time, are they able to shut off after the healing process begins, or is… Read more »

Aida

Thank you for opening up this subject. i often find myself wondering how to explain to someone that their edge might not be at the first sign of discomfort in a way that is understandable and plausible. I often notice students are not willing to challenge their perceived limitations because of fear of further injury. This article gives them something to consider so they can learn to listen to their bodies more intelligently.

Marla Brackman

Thank you for sharing on this important topic. I’ve seen this with people I love, something starts hurting and they stop moving. Eventually, because of lack of movement something else begins to hurt. It’s a good reminder that relaxation and breath is a wonderful first place to begin with clients such as these. Especially if they have anxiety about exercise. I’m also curious to learn more about “laugh therapy” and chronic pain.

Katie Fornika

Thank you Christine for this very insightful article. I am curious if nociceptors are also at play when dealing with nerve related pain. Do you have any insight on how the nervous system might be able to help in this regard?

Anh Chi

“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.” I love how you explain the physiological changes that take place in reaction to injury so clearly. Nociceptors can get a bit over-jealous. I believe this is especially true if the person takes a… Read more »

Sharon Stockla

Yes, I’ve experienced this, thanks for explaining how this happens! I had pain from an old injury, top of the hamstring, for 2 years. I finally decided to start working through it, and now the pain has mostly subsided. And the way I started to get it moving was by massaging with Yoga Tuneup balls, or pressuring with my hand while attempting to move.

Heather Lindsay

Gracias! Love this article. I often start my classes with some down regulating work. Giving time for them to let go of what had taken place up until they arrived. Check in and see what needs to be addressed with the therapy balls. Letting that all sink in before the much needed movement begins. Wish you lived closer, I would take many classes from you. 🙂

Cynthia Bunt-Gardner

Brilliant! I completely agree with get your client to relax, muscle relaxation leads to increased circulation which brings the oxygen and nutrient rich blood in and removes the waste products. Then once you can get some movement into the area those nocioceptor can quite down and the proprioceptors can get louder. Thank you for such a wonderful way of explaining this

Amanda Joyce

I love the way you explained the nociceptors here. I run into this experience quite a bit with my clients (I’m a Corrective Exercise Specialist) and have really found the concept of relaxation and using the balls to overcome their quick hesitation toward pain to help. The more YTU training I do, the more and more and more I learn to contribute to this equation. And the belly breath rocks!!!

Diane M

Great article! I appreciate your explanation of nociception and proprioception — and believe that this is written simply enough to share with students – along with a bit more explanation -perhaps. Of course – we teach what we need to learn. I also fell into working in this industry to heal myself… and continue to find my ‘blindspots’ and places that I am guarding which are no longer injured…. Thank you – very enlightening.

Victoria Yoffie

I am thrilled to read a post that supports relaxation as a healing medicine for injury and pain – both physical and emotional. Working almost exclusively with injured clients – both physically and emotionally – I find the most success in placing them in completely supported postures propped with bolsters, pillows, blankets, towels etc.. The more supported the body feels, the more likely the body will “let go” of tension, allowing for more complete breath and therefore deep relaxation, peace and ease. A supported body = a relaxed body = relaxed/full breath = relaxed/peaceful mind. These feelings of peace and… Read more »

Basak Gunaydin

I have experienced after an injury how body protects itself by shutting down the particular area and over compensating another and as a result creating more problems in both. It’s so awakening to realize this may not be the body’s doing but it’s the mind creating all the fear and barriers in healing. This is a great read as to how to learn to relax and then while being present to all the fear and protection, just to breathe and get moving! Get the mind out of it..

Celine Antoine

I’m currently working with a student who has been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder. We are working on warming up the joint by doing a few weight bearing poses such as plank pose or on to the hands and knees. Then we start the stretches with support that we hold for 2 minutes. There is no other way that my student feels some discomfort when we stretch. The shoulder hasn’t been moving for so long. Slight discomfort is okay but sharp acute pain isn’t. My student is very aware of his body so by focusing on the breath is able… Read more »

Elizabeth W.

Thank you for this! I have seen so many people through all my years of teaching who got injured or had surgery many years in the past. People who are actually healed but refuse to even visit the area of injury because of the continued perception of pain and total bewilderment about how to approach it.

It’s almost like they have somatic PTSD.

So great to know how to tread lightly to get to the heart of the matter, deal with it, and get them back on track. Breathe first!

Matt Nadler

Learning to relax and step back from our everyday relationship to our bodies is the first, and perhaps most important part of a yoga practice. Then, mindfully moving through a variety of poses and stretches, we give our bodies an opportunity to explore those aching parts, perhaps allowing some relief of pain.

Andrea Borrero

This idea of relaxing is so central to the yogic practice itself, that I’m always amazed that students have trouble transferring this singular concept off the mat. Yet it’s almost THE most important message yoga can offer. Breath, center, prepare. The process of slowing down the breath, of taking a few moments to locate yourself in space and then slip into your own skin is profound and simple at the same time. I have seen students come into class tightly wound, frustrated from having to sprint to make their evening class or annoyed that they had to get up so… Read more »

najla

I love the detail of this post and i am often baffled by students who seem limited by their chronic pain, because when i am in pain i just want to MOVE and release and figure out how to undo it! but then i remember i only became this person after years of chronic orthopedic pain and injuries, and epidural shots and painkillers and surgeries that seemed to do NOTHING in the long term. When i started doing pilates 17 years ago, my hip bursitis went away, my body ached less and wanted to move more, and i became desperate… Read more »

Matt Sharpe

You can’t relax if you can’t release. Even if it’s not from injury, we’re all holding tension in the body. I look at stress as creating tension in the body…and therefore injury. Stress is also injury. The YTU balls have shown me such a deeper level of relaxation of tension – not to mention so much breathing to get through it – than as far back as I can remember.

Yelimar

In the past when students told me something hurt I would always encourage them to do poses at a slower pace, self- modify to diminish their discomfort, or in a group class had them skip the pose that caused pain. I would tell them bringing blood flow into the area with movement was important for their healing but had no idea of the existence of nociceptors and how they worked. This is great insight and info! Thanks for adding to my understanding and giving me a more powerful “why” to work with.

Global Warming or Global Cooling? How’s Your Pain Environment Trending? | Yoga Tune Up

[…] Read about deprogramming chronic pain. […]

brooke thomas

Physiology never was my strong suit, so thanks for this break down of how the body perceives pain! And thanks also for the reminder that while it’s tempting to hop into “fix it” mode with a client or student who is recovering from injury, slowing way down and teaching them to breathe and listen to their bodies will pay enormous dividends in healing their pain. One of the beautiful things about yoga is how it combines movement with down regulation of the nervous system, and your article has helped me to remember to nourish this aspect of it when working… Read more »

Allison McCready

This is such a great article. I have a new client with a long list of physical complaints and it’s been challenging to work with him. Everything we do seems to trigger old pain and it’s been difficult to gain any forward momentum. Last time we worked together I brought the YTU Therapy Balls and he was concerned that using them would make him ‘sore’ the next day. His word for pain is sore. He was pleasantly surprised when he not only did not feel sore, but actually felt better the next day! I remember learning about nociception and proprioception… Read more »

Allison

Sometimes the pain comes from the fear of movement itself. This can be so intense that it further restricts, contracts, inflames and irritates. When that happens the muscle, tissue, fascia, ligament, joint etc..becomes even more painful because it is oxygen starved! Breath into the place that is calling for breath! Yes – your body does know best. Is there ever a time when your body consciously holds back breath, as if there wasn’t enough breath to breathe so it had better ration it. Of course not!!! It all begins in the mind.

Theresa van Vugt

I can completely relate to this article. I had a bad cycling accident a couple of years ago that left me with many broken bones, muscle, and nerve damage. As I was rehabbing the injuries, my biggest hurdle was getting past identifying what was pain, discomfort, and the mental inhibitors, fear of causing new injuries as soon as I felt discomfort. That lesson also taught me to help my athletes identify and move beyond the mental triggers of pain. I like the idea of starting with breathing to relax introduce movement to the beginning of a session.It helps move the… Read more »

Jayme

I love and completely agree with this article. After working in a fitness facility in NYC for almost two years, I have heard almost every excuse in the book! There is a common thread in regards to “pain” and not being able to do the activity. Except for a student who actually has an injury or condition, pain is pretty much all in your head, right? Pain barriers have to be knocked down, but you have to WANT to get to the other side. Eventually the accomplishment feeling over takes the pain message and you want to push yourself to… Read more »

Michelle

I love the title of this article, and it rings true for so many people i know. Chronic pain being partially mental is obvious to me in some of them. As a teacher in training I will definitely remember that some people aren’t aware of how their mind can control/limit their body, and the key is to teach them how to RELAX. It just makes sense: relaxing the body with the breath not only clears the mental chatter or fear but also literally relaxes muscles so they’ll be able to progress.

Fariba

Very informative and practical article. It inspired me to research and study more about pain mechanism and managing the pain as well.
Overcoming the pain is one of the most important reasons that attracts people to yoga classes. It is yoga teacher’s responsibility to help them, and the suggestions in this artticle are uaefull. Thanks!

Claire Miller Murphy

At my studio, I am referred many clients who are healing from soft tissue and disk injuries. Often I find they are “Holding on” to the negative experience and sensations of those injuries. Understandably, there is also fear that they will re-injure or do something to make the injuries worse. I think the Yoga Tune Up therapy balls are great a “way in” for these clients to get relief and have a different physical experience with injured areas. In addition, connecting them to breath, prior to exploring the tissues with the Yoga Tune Up therapy balls, will allow them to… Read more »

Sharon Stockla

It’s great to hear that there is hope for relieving the pain from old injuries! Doctors often don’t know what to say when asked about these kinds of pains. I have found pressing on the painful muscle while allowing it to be part of a movement takes away the pain, your blog explains why. I’m going to try to start with relaxation in order to increase the healing.

Tiffani

Thank you! What a fantastic explanation of nociception in regards to Pain. I’m always looking for ways to relay that concept to clients well said. Also so important to start with the breath, it allow the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in bringing the healing.

Nicolette

I loooove love love this article!! I think it’s a good one to print and share with private clients for sure. I imagine many if us have had pain, and unfortunately lasting pain. I am RE-rehabilitating an old injury with a more Yoga Tune-Up-esque approach and I am stoked to start with the Belly Breathing. However, I’m even more thrilled to have more information about what and how my tissues are communicating. This is yet another opportunity to really tune in, study your body and the way the mind can sometimes trick us into thinking we can’t access injured tissues,… Read more »

kathy

I can totally relate to this article. Particularly as I am experiencing pain right now after doing a few pretty intense days of yoga tune up teacher training. It’s always the same pain, in only one shoulder and neck, and it always comes back when i get back into physical activity. One chronic annoyance is the feeling of a frankenstein bolt stabbing out from my neck (doesn’t help that I experienced a very traumatic neck adjustment by a chiropractor I went to when I started experiencing my shoulder pain) and I have intense pain in my rhomboid, trap, etc etc.… Read more »

Elissa Strutton

This is important information about how the brain processes pain! So even after an injury has mended, these nociceptors can send pain signals to the brain, making it think the area is still injured? Wow! And how cool that if we can relax and move and educate the musculature to stop holding, allowing for circulation to increase, we can clear inflammation and help reprogram our brain to let go of protecting tissues that no longer need it.

alysa farrell

Thanks for breaking down down the process of pain and how the body reacts and subsequently heals. For a lot of people, understanding this process takes away the fear of moving throught the pain to recovery. Once the brain is calm the breath comes with ease.

pete lee

Thank you for sharing this! I love the power of breath and stillness, especially with the support of a prop, such as a bolster. What a wonderful reminder that healing can begin with laying down, breathing, and simply allowing yourself to be held by the support of the universe. 🙂

Luke Sniewski

This is a great read. I highly recommend reading the book, Explain Pain, by David Butler. It coincides well with the things you say here.

Kirsten

Thank you so much for bringing this topic to light! So often my students simply refuse to move in any uncomfortable way, but when I encourage breath to the area, an ease of movement follows.