“My doctor couldn’t find anything on the MRI, so he suggested I try yoga. He’s heard it helps.” This has been a common refrain from new clients with old injuries who have come to work with me. They are in pain, lots of it, and have been for quite some time. And yet, these students, who have turned to yoga, desperately seeking relief, back away from the work when they start to get uncomfortable, saying, "I’m not doing that. It hurts. I’m just going to listen to my body." As a yoga teacher, I can foster a safe haven for my students to deal with their pain, but to be effective, I must help them decode what their body is telling them—and if what their body is telling them is true! Understanding the science of how the brain processes pain can help.
When we get injured, our tissues often require stillness to heal. Our muscles instinctively immobilize tissues by tensing around them, and we also impose stillness with slings, casts and braces. Over some period of time (a doctor can tell you how long given the specific injury) tissues mend. However, a period of no movement means no circulation. No circulation means chemical waste builds up around the injury and inflames the tissues. Inflammation triggers nociception (the body’s warning system of imminent injury)—and the brain senses pain.
Nociceptors possess an interesting behavioral trait. Immediately following an injury, their sphere of influence spreads beyond the injury site and they respond with greater amplitude every time they are stimulated. So, with time, nociceptors need less stimulation to scream louder from father away. The brain gets bombarded with pain warnings long after the tissues have healed, and now can’t figure out how to break the cycle.
Here’s where yoga comes in: get your students relaxing then moving. Relaxation encourages muscles to stop holding, which allows circulation to increase. Increased circulation clears inflammation; less inflammation means less nociception.
As nociception decreases, you can approach tissues with pressure (I use the Yoga Tune Up® therapy ball program). Have you ever noticed that when we get hurt, we intuitively hold or rub the injury? Pressure sends proprioceptive information (location, pressure) to the brain. Like a Royal Flush beats Four of a Kind in poker, proprioceptive input to the brain trumps nociceptive input, which overrides the pain response. Looked at another way, our bodies love compression—that’s why hugs and massages feel so good—they soothe. When we are soothed, our breath deepens, circulation improves and muscles relax, all of which facilitate healing.
Now for movement—yes, when tissues begin moving again after a long time of stillness, the brain will perceive discomfort. Encouraging students to stick with a movement program is not an attempt to deny their pain, but to turn the pain mechanism off and train the brain to stop protecting tissues that no longer need protection.
My first step in working with clients overly familiar with pain is to get them breathing, then onto the therapy balls, then into movement. I always start with the Belly Breath Primer (shown below and on the 5 Minute Quick Fix Stress Relief video). Once they start breathing they start unwinding the chronic pain state their brain perceives, then they really can start listening to their body.
Re-posted from the original Yes it IS All in Your Client's Head with permission from Yoga Tune Up
Photo by gavinrobinson
About the Author
I believe most people who end up in the fitness profession are trying to heal themselves. Fifteen years ago I sought out SPIN to rehabilitate a full knee reconstruction. Ten years ago I started Pilates to help me recover from a horseback riding accident. More recently, as still-young age and old injuries caught up with me, I began a restorative and Kripalu yoga practice. In every instance, with every discipline, I've experienced a moment of “ahhh....I want to make everyone feel this good.” And so began my path toward fitness studio ownership where I could keep my classes small and focused on my client's journeys from injury, through healing, and on to strength. In addition to figuring out how my clients and I could feel even better (as well as look better in our jeans), curiosity about human biomechanics led me to study with Helena Collins of Life in Synergy, Sadie Nardini of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, and of course, Jill Miller. Combing the knowledge from these tremendous teachers with my strong Pilates background has enabled me to create exceptionally effective programs for my clients, who range from joint replacement patients needing post-physical therapy help to the “uninjured” wanting stronger, better aligned bodies so they can experience life to the fullest. I teach at Quiet Corner Body Studio in Connecticut.
About Yoga Tune Up®
Yoga Tune Up® is a therapeutic conscious corrective exercise format that strikes a balance between the worlds of yoga, fitness, and myofascial self-care, attracting students of all ages and body types. It breaks down the nuts and bolts of human movement and provides therapeutic strategies that create balance and flexibility in the body, while helping to relieve painful injuries, improve coordination, and reduce stress. It interweaves precise anatomy with a yogic lens of awareness, conscious relaxation, and self massage to help every student live better in their body – no matter what form of movement you practice. The study of Yoga Tune Up® delves you deeply into integrated anatomy and body mechanics while helping you discover a fresh approach to asana.