Yoga therapy: A multidimensional approach to the experience of chronic pain

By Tina Paul

Globally, one in five people is impacted by chronic pain, and the number increases with age. That’s 1.5 billion of us—meaning you, me, and someone we love will likely be affected by chronic pain in the course of our lifetimes. Whereas acute pain from injuries like cuts and broken bones heals within a few months, chronic pain—like that from migraines or nonspecific lower back pain—affects our nervous systems for months or years, changing our relationship to ourselves, others, and our environment.

Pain is complex. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Pain affects us on multiple dimensions of the human experience including the physical, psychological, and social domains.

Where does yoga therapy fit in?

If you thought yoga was just a series of physical exercises or poses, you may be wondering how yoga therapy could help to support someone in chronic pain. Like pain, yoga therapy has multidimensional effects on the human system. Yoga therapists’ work is informed by a whole-person framework that views an individual’s experience as intrinsically interconnected. Our integrated layers include the physical, emotional, energy, higher mind, and connection to bliss or a sense of Awe—and these areas continuously inform one another. Yoga therapy’s multifaceted lens meets chronic pain on the many layers of being it touches.

A client may visit a yoga therapist with complaints of chronic pain resulting from a herniated disc or a symptom of neuropathy from cancer treatment. Chronic pain can show up physically as musculoskeletal imbalances, energetically as nervous system sensitization, emotionally as anxiety, and even spiritually or as increased social isolation. Yoga therapy offers a multipronged approach that meets clients in many ways.

A flexible toolbox

A yoga therapy session supports a safe container of tools to explore body awareness and cultivate mindfulness. We can use specific yoga postures to increase range of motion and strengthen muscles, but, remembering yoga’s interconnected whole-person view, the way in which we approach the poses is more important than their direct physical effects.

Through yogic breathing techniques, we can directly support nervous system regulation and changes in emotion, posture, and even measurable physiological signs like saliva proteins. Mantra, a sound or word imbued with meaning—like “let go” or “I am”—may be introduced to foster a sense of calm and peace. Cultivating a sense of connection to Awe or an inner resource can support human flourishing regardless of what might be objectively happening in the physical, mental, or emotional realms.

All of these components can be part of a single session of yoga therapy or offered during the course of a program of care, ultimately providing a whole-person approach to chronic pain.

Tina Paul, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500 is a certified yoga therapist based in New York City. She works with individual clients, university programs and organizations including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Read more about how yoga therapy can help to address chronic pain.