For decades, scientists and doctors thought that pain could be caused only by damage to the structure of the body. They looked for the source of chronic pain in bulging spinal discs, muscle injuries, and infections. More recent research, however, points to a second source of chronic pain: the very real biology of your thoughts, emotions, expectations, and memories. Most chronic pain has its roots in a physical injury or illness, but it is sustained by how that initial trauma changes not just the body but also the mind-body relationship. However, there is good news! Using yoga’s toolbox of healing practices—including breathing exercises and restorative poses—you can find true relief from pain and begin to reclaim your life.
Unlearning Pain Through Relaxation
The best way to unlearn chronic stress and pain responses is to give the mind and body healthier responses to practice. Relaxation specifically has been shown to be healing for chronic pain. It turns off the stress response and directs the body’s energy to growth, repair, immune function, digestion, and other self-nurturing processes. Yoga is a practice of connection and centering. Included in this intention are many approaches to relaxation three of which are Pranayama (or yogic breathing), Yoga Nidra (or yogic sleep), and Restorative Yoga.
Breathing the Whole Body
Breathing the body is a visualization practice adapted from the traditional practice of yoga nidra (yogic sleep) and the body-scan practice taught in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program for people with chronic pain.
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Restorative yoga turns on the healing relaxation response by combining gentle yoga poses with conscious breathing. Below you will learn four restorative yoga poses that may be practiced on their own or in a sequence.
There are several factors that make restorative yoga so relaxing. First, each pose is held for longer than a few breaths. You can stay in a restorative pose for 5-20 minutes. The stillness allows the body to drop even the deepest layers of tension. Second, restorative poses use props to support your body. Props can include the wall, a chair, a couch, pillows, blankets, towels, or bolsters designed especially for restorative yoga practice. The right support in a pose will make it feel effortless, so your body can fully let go of tension and stress. Here are some examples of Restorative Yoga poses: