By Tori Etheridge, BKin, MPT, CN-NINM Therapist, Lead Research Physiotherapist, Healthtech Connex. Originally posted on Pain BC.
You may have heard of the numerous health benefits associated with yoga, and perhaps you’re open to trying a class but not sure where to start. Not all types of yoga are beneficial for people living with chronic pain. Getting started with the right type of class, and setting realistic expectations will ensure you reap the intended benefits of yoga for chronic pain and its connection to the brain.
If you’ve never been to a yoga class before, feel inexperienced or are worried about what to expect, you may find the following tips helpful:
Find yoga classes that work for you.
Classes such as “restorative yoga”, “chair yoga” or “gentle yoga” are usually low impact and are often more appropriate for people living with chronic pain. Some people in pain find it beneficial to avoid high-intensity and mainstream yoga classes such as hot yoga and power yoga. Find the classes and instructor(s) that best work for your needs. You are in control of your body, so do not feel pressured to stay in a class that forces you to hold uncomfortable positions or encourages that you “push past your pain.” Go slowly and take breaks as needed until you become comfortable with the postures.
Start slow and set realistic goals.
Patients often say to their providers, “I should be able to” or “I used to be able to do more than this and be fine.” Letting go of these expectations and setting realistic goals for yourself is essential for pain management. You may initially experience a low tolerance with the various yoga postures, and that’s completely OK. The key is to build a strong foundation upon which you can build your tolerance over time.
Check in with your body every few poses to determine what is manageable on any given day. Take breaks as often as you need to.
Modify exercises and postures as needed.
All poses can be done while sitting or standing and can be modified to meet your individual needs and limits. Choose the position that works best for you. If a pose still causes flare-ups after modifications, consider a different exercise all together.
You will have good days and bad days. Create a ‘good day’ plan and a ‘bad day’ plan within your program. On a good day (when the pain seems more manageable), you may be able to tolerate a few more poses. On a bad day (when you experience a pain flare-up) you may need to shorten your session or avoid certain poses all together. Make sure to listen to your body.
Increased pain doesn’t always translate into increased injury.
If you’re experiencing a pain flare-up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have caused additional harm to your body. Instead, your body’s pain response system may have become hyper-responsive and overactive as a result of your existing condition. Take a step back and modify the exercise the next time you return, but do not stop moving altogether. During the class, you may experience a slightly elevated level of pain, and this is usually ok. The key is to continually check in with yourself and ask, “am I safe?” and “will I pay for this later?” By being more aware of your body’s responses to certain exercises, you will learn to better gauge your tolerance and limits on any given day.
Talk to the instructor before class.
The pressures of being in a group exercise class can cause us to extend past our abilities, which in turn can result in pain flare-ups or even potential injury. It may take some pressure off by speaking to the instructor before class to let them know about your chronic pain condition, and that you may be adapting poses and taking breaks as needed. If you are uncomfortable with getting hands-on assistance (for example, if you are sensitive to touch), this would provide an opportunity to discuss that as well. You may also consider joining a regular class over drop-in sessions, as familiarity may help in making you feel more comfortable.
Online and Community Classes
Below are some additional resources if you’re thinking about trying yoga.
Online and free
- Overcome pain with gentle yoga DVDs by Neil Pearson. Steps 1-5 include free articles and videos.
- Follow the free yoga-inspired gentle movement programs from Naomi Biggin-Pound, Physiotherapist in Revelstoke, BC. There are three, 21-day programs that focus on the knees, back and pelvis.
In your community
- Look for ‘restorative yoga’, ‘chair yoga’ or ‘yoga for pain’ classes in your local recreation and leisure guide. These community classes are usually low-cost and offered regularly.
If you’re curious about yoga but not sure if you’re quite ready to take the plunge, you can start by taking the Ready for Change Quiz on Live Plan Be.
Or, if you’re feeling ready and want to ensure you’re off to a good start, use the Action Plan to set yourself a SMART goal. By making your yoga goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely, you’ll increase your confidence in being able to achieve your goal of trying yoga.