Breath control for pain control
Pranayama, or yogic breathing exercise, is a tool for working with the energies of the body-mind-spirit. As described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other historical texts, pranayama is part of a method for progressively balancing and transforming the human system.
Today, as noted in this article from TheHealthy.com,
“Medical professionals and yoga therapists swear by simple breathing practices, such as mindfully observing inhales and exhales and then gradually lengthening the exhales, for decreasing pain and distress in people in chronic pain.”
The piece offers ideas from three IAYT-certified yoga therapists, including Shailla Vaidya, MD, C-IAYT. Although yoga therapy may not be able to make the pain go away, she says, through the practices “we can learn to work with it and to start to reduce our stress signals.” As Dr. Vaidya explains, breathwork is one of the effective tools yoga therapy has for changing the cycle of chronic pain and stress. Importantly, she says, it’s also a “treatment” people can give themselves:
“Fighting pain is so much worse. We tense up more and go into a stress feedback loop, which increases pain signals. Working with the breath is a way to bring us out of that stress response so we can build new patterns of function and gain a sense of agency back.”
Marlysa Sullivan, PT, C-IAYT, explains how the multidimensional practice of yoga therapy addresses long-term pain’s complex interactions in our systems:
“[Y]ou may have lots of added things going on physically and psychologically that are amping [up the pain] and making the situation worse. You have the pain, but you also have all the muscular tension that results from the pain and all the anxiety and fear and frustration. Breath practices can help alleviate those other pieces to bring more ease to the pain or diminish it.”
To work with the breath, one might begin with basic awareness exercises, gently lengthen the exhalation relative to the inhalation, breathe alternately through one nostril and then the other in specific patterns, and more.
“The simple practice of observing your breath is a mindful technique that allows you to cue into something outside of your physical pain,” explains Priya Verma, PAC, C-IAYT.
Work with a yoga therapist to learn which methods may be appropriate for you; struggling with or forcing pranayama or other yogic techniques is counterproductive, especially when you’re dealing with chronic pain!