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How Yoga Helps Relieve Pain

Quiet Your Mind, Soothe Your Body
  -- By Stepfanie Romine, Certified Yoga Teacher

My mom used to love aerobics. Back in the '80s, she had an electric blue workout outfit that I liked to wear when I played dress up. She did Jane Fonda's toning tapes in front of the TV, walked (with her Walkman) in the mornings with a friend, and looked much younger than her age thanks to a generally healthy diet and active lifestyle.

Then, when I was 8, she was in a car accident. It was nothing major. Someone rear-ended her. She was sore from whiplash, and her station wagon was totaled, yet she still made it to my dance recital that night. But, she never fully healed from that accident, despite physical therapy, rest, and plenty of visits to the chiropractor.

A few years later, she was in another seemingly minor accident that left her with back pain: herniated discs in the lumbar (lower back) region of her spine, which later ruptured and required two surgeries. She's had two spinal fusions, a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease, and almost two decades of pain. As I write this article, she's preparing for her fourth spinal surgery, this time in her neck (cervical spine). Numbness in her fingers and some uncharacteristic clumsiness led her doctor to find that three of her vertebrae are collapsing and pinching her spinal column.

My mother lives in constant pain, and her fitness routine has changed drastically. When the weather is nice, she walks with a friend to stay in shape. But cold, damp weather makes her back stiffen, and some days it's hard for her to even go about her usual routine. As someone who spent her childhood and early adulthood being fairly active, it's hard for her to accept that pain puts limitations on what she can do.

My mother is not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 76 million Americans live in chronic pain, yet less than half receive treatment. In the last decade, however, we've seen more emphasis and research placed on treating pain not with medications, but with mind-body therapies, such as yoga.

Yoga can be a great activity for people dealing with chronic pain. Think of it as therapeutic exercise. Not only can yoga's mind-body connection help students learn to control pain, but its gentle movements can help alleviate certain types of pain as well.  Researchers have also found that meditation can help reduce chronic pain. And when combined with yoga, it may be more effective than standard medical treatment alone.

The ancient yogis were just like us: They had aches and pains both acute and chronic that distracted them as they tried to rest or meditate. Thus, hatha yoga was created, to help people sit quietly and comfortably.

<pagebreak> In addition, a regular yoga practice may lead to:

<pagebreak> But exactly how does yoga help?
Gentle yoga is low impact and helps to strengthen the muscles around joints, which can alleviate discomfort. It helps increase circulation, which can facilitate healing. And yoga's focus on deep breathing assists in delivering much-needed oxygen throughout the body, and helps relax tense muscles that can contribute to pain. Plus, because yoga links this deep breathing with movement, which requires concentration and focus "in the moment," it can take the mind's focus away from pain, helping diminish its affects.  So unlike other therapies that concentrate solely on the physical discomfort associated with pain, yoga can also ameliorate accompanying emotional distress, which at times can be equally debilitating.

When you're ready to give yoga a try, talk to your health-care provider, and keep these guidelines in mind:

<pagebreak> Beneficial Yoga Techniques to Help You Cope with Pain
When a traditional practice is out of the question physically, I recommend these relaxation techniques to help cope with pain.

Gratitude Practice
When pain takes over, loving and appreciating your body can be a difficult task. Find a comfortable position, either seated or reclined, supported with props as needed. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Take long, slow breaths, aiming to match the length of the inhalation to the length of the exhalation. After a few breaths, shift your focus to a specific area of the body, such as the one causing you pain. Send healing thoughts and offer gratitude for that body part. Maybe it's the back that has carried so much proverbial weight through life and now suffers from a herniated disc. Maybe it's the ankle that allowed you to walk your first 5K but is now plagued by osteoarthritis. Rather than fall into a pattern of resentment with the areas of that body where you feel physical pain, offer gratitude and healing energy instead.

Guided Savasana
Lie down, either on the floor (if possible) or in bed. Use props as needed to make yourself feel comfortable. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. After 10 breaths, start to focus on your toes. Imagine them relaxing as you exhale and receiving fresh, new energy as you inhale. Move your way up your body, stopping on every body part and breathing as long as necessary. With each inhale, send healing energy and breath to that body part, and with each exhale, send the pain and negative energy away from your body. Once you've reached your head, remain in savasana for as long as desired, keeping the eyes closed and focusing on the breath. You can also do this practice sitting up or with a focus on a specific area of the body

Alternate Nostril Breathing
Use alternate nostril breathing to divert attention from pain and create a feeling of calmness in the body. Find a comfortable seated position. Place your left hand in your lap and take your right hand and bend in your index and middle fingers, keeping your pinkie, ring finger and thumb extended. Place your thumb on the right side of your nose, pressing to close off the nostril. Close your eyes. Take a long, slow inhale through your left nostril. Pause, holding that inhale, as you use your pinkie and ring fingers to close the left nostril and exhale slowly through the right nostril. Next, take a long, slow inhale on the right side, then close off the right side and slowly exhale through your left nostril. Switch: Inhale on the left, closing the right. Exhale on the right and then inhale on the right, keeping the left side closed. Then switch sides and exhale on the left. Repeat for 10 breaths, focusing on the rhythm of your breath. Keeping your eyes closed, place your hands in your lap and continue to breathe slowly, evenly and deeply for another 5-10 breaths. Slowly open your eyes.

Whether you choose to focus on the physical poses or the breathing exercises of yoga, integrating the practice into your pain treatment plan can yield real results. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program, and always respect your body's limits.
This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness expert Nicole Nichols, certified personal trainer.

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