Yoga therapy for chronic and persistent pain

By Asya Haikin

Chronic and persistent pain is one of the main reasons people seek out a yoga therapist. When I talk to prospective clients with chronic pain, they often tell me that they’ve tried many approaches from complementary as well as Western medicine but haven’t been able to find something that worked consistently. What does yoga therapy have to offer them that is unique? 

First, we need to understand how pain can become chronic. Pain often becomes a vicious circle: We are in pain, so we start moving less. With decreased activity, we lose mobility and strength, and then we aren’t able to do things we enjoy. This increases stress, which, in turn, creates even more tension and pain in the body. A yoga therapist can help break this cycle, addressing the physical, emotional, and lifestyle aspects of pain holistically. 

When we experience pain over a long period of time, the brain becomes better and better at sending signals of pain to the body. Fascinating research in this area has been done by Australian scientist Lorimer Moseley. Ideally, pain is just a useful way for our nervous system to signal that we are in danger. (If you accidentally touch the hot stove, pain will make you quickly remove your hand, before you burn yourself too badly.) But when we are in pain for a long time, signals of pain become a kind of “short circuit”—our brain continues to send danger signals, even though there is no apparent danger. This is where yoga can be very effective: Working with the mind and the nervous system, practices such as yoga nidra, other kinds of guided meditation, and pranayama (breathing practices) can increase messages of safety. Working with the body through gentle movement (asana), yoga can begin to change patterns of physical movement from painful to non-painful.

When experiencing pain, people often end up either avoiding activities altogether or pushing through the pain. Yoga therapy offers a different approach. Working together with clients, I help them find movement that is not painful and refocus their attention from painful to non-painful, or even enjoyable, sensations in the body. They’re relieved to realize that movement doesn’t have to be painful! Small, manageable practices, incorporated throughout the day, gradually work to retrain the body and the nervous system.

Asya Haikin, MA, C-IAYT, practices yoga therapy in Northern Virginia (and anywhere over Zoom). She helps people with pain and anxiety connect to their bodies in a meaningful way.