Yoga therapy + neurobiology = Less pain?

By Ganesh Mohan

A combined neurobiology and yoga perspective offers an innovative way of addressing chronic pain, which affects an estimated 50 million U.S. adults. Because many people experience debilitating consequences from their pain and medication alone doesn’t afford relief (and comes with unwanted side-effects), broader methods for dealing with the problem are clearly needed.

Pain is subjective and is generated by your nervous system. It is not an input the nervous system receives, but rather an output the system calculates depending on numerous factors—this is why when you’re in acute danger you can ignore an injury that would cause severe pain at any other time.

We believe yoga therapists’ work affects four broad pain pathways in the body-mind system:

  1. Reducing irritation to the pain-sensing nerves in the tissues (nociceptors)—function-oriented asana, or yoga poses, promote better movement and posture.
  2. Rewiring the nervous system’s perception and prediction of pain (the map of pain)—mindfulness, breathing, visualizations, and movement explorations are all possible yogic tools that function through top-down and bottom-up mechanisms.
  3. Managing the stress response*—under chronic stress, the brain constantly anticipates danger and injury, so you may become increasingly sensitive to pain. We can teach relaxation, empowerment, feelings of safety, and more through yoga.
  4. Reducing inflammation—under stress, danger, or injury the immune system is primed to tackle any invaders or physical damage to the body. This feeds into the danger signaling that the nervous system receives, amplifying pain perception. Look to your food and your gut health! Yoga practice has been shown to reduce inflammatory markers (see, e.g., these studies on breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis*) and promotes mindful lifestyle choices.

Chronic pain is one of the most widespread health problems today. Unaddressed, it can limit mobility and participation in life activities, increase mental health concerns, and decrease quality of life. Therapeutically oriented yoga provides an empirical and scientifically valid foundation to manage chronic pain. In fact, chronic pain is a health issue for which therapeutic yoga can be maximally effective in terms of both cost and results because the multifactorial nature of the problem is most amenable to an inherently holistic approach.

Ganesh Mohan, MBBS, C-IAYT, is trained in both Western medicine and ayurveda, and in yoga from childhood. He directs the Svastha Yoga Therapy and Teacher Training programs worldwide and has authored numerous publications on yoga and yoga therapy.


*Subscription required to view the full article.