When you’re in pain, when your body feels broken, it’s tempting to think that there’s nothing you can do to make things better. You may be surprised to discover that even when you can’t do anything physically, there are still yoga practises that have the potential to help your body to heal.
I was sitting in my physiotherapist’s office, more comfortably than I had been in some time. She was busy drawing some stick figures and talking through the three exercises she wanted me to do. They were incredibly gentle. I was frustrated.
‘What are your thoughts about me doing some yoga again?’ I asked.
She paused and her face scrunched a little. ‘I’d rather you just…’
‘What about poses that are balanced? So no twisting? I was thinking an up-down dog flow, maybe? Maybe some planks?’
‘I’d like you to just stick with these three exercises for now,’ she said. ‘We need to train the right muscles to turn on at the right time. Then we can build in some stronger core work again, and re-introduce yoga.’
How did I get here anyway?
I feel stupid. Frustrated. Although I’ve not actually been teaching, I am a qualified yoga teacher and I should know better. Nearly two years into motherhood and my body is broken.
I can’t sit without pain. I can’t stand up with feeling even more pain. I can’t get out of a car without feeling like a weight is painfully dragging my lower spine.
A pre-existing coccyx problem re-triggered by backing into a chair six months ago, the osteopath had thought. Once she’d treated that, she thought sacrococcygeal compression seemed more likely. Could be related to my son’s quick birth 20 months back, thought the doctor. Take these anti-inflammatories before we go down the MRI route, she said. Twisted pelvis, said the physiotherapist. Muscle spasms refusing to let go. Tendons so tight they make me feel sick when touched.
Is it because I barely moved off the couch for the first three months of nursing my son? Isn’t that just what happens to all new mums? Because of broken sleep that barely made the hour mark in that first year? Of night after night sleeping awkwardly next to my son on a sofa-bed because the alternative meant even worse sleep? Of walking around holding bub in one arm, jutting my hips forward in what my osteo calls the lazy-man pose?
Is it because I’m an older mum and my body just can’t handle this all?
It’s true that even holding my body upright these last two years has been an effort. Curling up in the foetal position has been all I’ve wanted to do at times.
I am bone tired, and it seems my body is too.
I keep fantasising about feeling strong and vibrant again, about headstands and twists and a body that looks and feels like mine.
But for now, it seems, it’s still time to go slowly.
Learning to be patient when your body is in pain
If you’re experiencing any physical setbacks or even permanent changes, it is hard. Whatever you are dealing with, I’m sorry. When you don’t feel physically healthy, it can undoubtedly have knock-on effects on your mental health and overall wellbeing.
If you’re anything like me, you’re solutions driven. You want to figure out a way to get better or feel better. And quickly.
But because we all experience such different physical conditions, it’s safest to say don’t do any yoga asanas without first consulting a yoga therapist and/or medical professional.
It’s not worth going backwards or doing more damage.
Interestingly, the master yoga practitioner and teacher BKS Iyengar, made better health the focus of this teachings. His book The Path to Holistic Health is a useful manual to tap into for different mental and physical ailments, but again is something that should be consulted in combination with expert advice.
I learnt this the hard way. I didn’t first check-in with any experts.
Why it’s so important to check in with the experts
Because I recognised some of the pain I felt some months back to be linked to piriformis pain, I did regular pigeon poses (Kapotasana) to help ease that. What I didn’t know was that my pelvis was twisted and my sacroiliac area compromised, and that doing this sort of pose could exacerbate the problems.
Similarly, after months of breastfeeding and carrying a baby around I was desperate to open up my shoulder and chest and so started working on a lot of poses to help with this, including upward facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana) and camel pose (Ustrasana). Totally not what was needed for the lower back compression that was later diagnosed.
I should have really pressed pause and checked in with some medical professionals first, but when you’re in those early days of parenthood and any spare time is taken up by a new business, self-care and related appointments unfortunately aren’t prioritised.
The fact I was even doing some yoga poses at all felt like a great achievement at the time.
But not checking in with anyone was a bad move, of course.
Yoga asana for when your body is broken
That being said, there are some ‘postures’ that I have still been practising, ones that aren’t going to get me in trouble with my physiotherapist. (These may very well not work for you, and as mentioned above,the safest thing to do if you’re in pain is to not practise any yoga asanas without first checking in with a medical professional.)1,2,3,4
Tadasana – mountain pose, for example – has been my refuge. When I stand tall and my shoulders are rolled back, I feel my breath flow more naturally. Holding this helps to remind my body of strength and energy that still exists within me.
Although you might not consider it a pose, Savasana – the corpse pose – is something I’m comfortable doing within the context of my current body pains. While I was pregnant and not allowed to lie on my back, I fantasised about doing Savasana, about my feet gently tipping outwards, about rolling my shoulders back and closing my eyes and feeling myself sink into the floor.
With even weight distribution across the body, I now find this to be the deeply restorative pose I’d dreamt of back then. I often deepen the impact of this relaxing posture by placing a weighted eye pillow over my eyes and a heavy zafu (a meditation cushion) on my belly. I often combine this with yoga nidra (see below).
One last posture I am doing is interestingly also one of the physio exercises I’ve been given, a gentle bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvāṅgāsana) designed to get my glute muscles working properly again.
The challenge for me – in my desire to feel strong and healthy again – is to not push up and extend it too much. To build up bit by bit.
Patience and positivity are a big part of the healing puzzle, I’m realising.
Yoga practises to help improve your focus and mindset
It’s easy to forget that yoga is actually part of a far bigger framework than just the poses.
We might automatically think of poses when we hear the word yoga, but if we expand our understanding of yoga to include all eight limbs of yoga, we quickly realise that the physical part is but one eighth of what we can work with.
So when we’re in pain, focusing on some of these other parts of yoga can actually help us to recover and restore in different ways.
For example, through the yamas we can focus our energies on being decent human beings in the world, and develop better connections and relationships with others.
Through the niyamas we can tap into our own internal powers by simplifying our life, practising acceptance, educating ourselves, setting goals and persevering on a path to reach those goals.
These lifestyle practises help us to work with pain from a different angle.
How am I incorporating these practises?
I’ve committed to doing my exercises daily, of working towards improved health. I’ve looked at anatomy books to try and understand what’s going on and get to grips with what the osteo and physio have told me.
I’m trying to not let my physical state and pain impact how I behave to others. I’m learning to be mindful of how I move in the world, how long I sit down for, how I sit.
I’m amping up my gratitude efforts and mentally noting all the many truly wonderful things I see, hear, taste, smell and feel every day.
And I’m sharing this with you in the hope it helps someone out there deal with their own physical pains.
Yoga practises to help rest and restore
Alongside ways we can behave in the world – towards ourselves and towards others – some of the eight limbs of yoga have a more internal focus.
Breathwork for better health
One practise that branches both the physical and mental space is pranayama – breathwork – which is shown to be beneficial in helping with a number of physical and mental conditions, including pain management. A 2019 systematic review, for example, discussed a controlled study where:
Pranayama or yogic breathing practices were found to influence the neurocognitive abilities, autonomic and pulmonary functions as well as the biochemical and metabolic activities in the body. The studies in the clinical populations, show the effects of yogic breathing… …to modulate the pain perception…5
But they add that although breathing practises are generally deemed to be safe and there seem to be some promising outcomes, ‘further large scale studies with better methodological designs to understand the mechanisms involved with yogic breathing are warranted’. 5
In the Iyengar tradition that I follow, pranayama is not seen as an entry level practise and in my experience, is best learnt directly from a teacher before you go it alone.
Yogic meditation to activate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system
Another of the eight limbs is dhyana, which is meditation.
Although I predominantly practise the insight (Vipassana) style of meditation, there are many different types of concentration exercises and meditation practises – including visualisation and breath based and mantra meditations – within the yogic tradition that are interesting to explore.
Sound and mantra meditation, for example, might not initially seem to offer benefits to pain management, but you might be surprised at the potential that sound has as it vibrates through your body.
Before I was signed off yoga (that is yoga asana), I attended a class with one of my fabulous teachers, senior yoga teacher and yoga therapist Celia Roberts of BioMedical Institute of Yoga and Meditation (BIOME). The entire focus of the class was on vagus nerve stimulation and vagal tone. Alongside postures, we also explored the impact of sound.
Repeatedly singing Om or hum is a recognised and scientifically proven way to activate the vagus nerve, which in turn activates your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest state). The breathing aspect of this – with a naturally extended out breath – is also a key part of why this helps to calm us down and better manage pain and stress.6,7,8,9
Although I’ve historically been one of those people who’s a little hung up on being overly vocal, since feeling the benefits from that one class alone I’ve well and truly incorporated it into my daily routine.
When I’m feeling frustrated by my physical pain and slow healing progress, I belt out a series of Oms. And every time I feel grouchy or a bit low, I give it a go too.
Hacking the healing powers of sleep with yoga nidra
Another yoga meditation practise that’s had increasing scientific interest is yoga nidra, a relaxation practise that has been shown to bring your brain and body into a deep state of consciousness, which in turn provides the conditions that allow your body and immune system to repair.10, 11,12
As mum to a toddler who’s rarely slept more than two hours in a row, yoga nidra has been a lifesaver. As I deal with my current pains and am still not getting the sleep time I need to give my body a fair chance to repair itself, yoga nidra is again proving its effectiveness.
One Yoga Journal article even suggested that ‘45 minutes of yogic sleep [yoga nidra] feels like 3 hours of regular sleep’. A HuffPost article says ‘one 30-minute yoga [nidra] session—feel like you’ve slept for two hours’.11,12
Tell me that doesn’t sound magical.
Of course you shouldn’t substitute sleep for yoga nidra, but imagine what a generous opportunity you give your body to repair if you find time to incorporate both sleep and yoga nidra into your life?
Here’s wishing you a speedy journey back to optimal health!
UPDATE: In terms of my pain, MRI and X-ray scans have since shown a herniated disc in my lumber region, as well as Tarlov cysts on my lower spine. Either could be the cause of my pain. Having now seen a muscular-skeletal specialist and also a yoga therapist, the consensus seems to be that the next step of this journey is around pain management/learning to live with discomfort, but also getting my body moving again. Healthily.
References and further resources
- Yoga for pain relief. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/yoga-for-pain-relief. Published April 2015. Accessed 26 June 2020.
- Vallath N. Perspectives on yoga inputs in the management of chronic pain. Indian J Palliat Care. 2010;16(1):1-7. doi:10.4103/0973-1075.63127
- Yoga and pain. painHEALTH. Department of Health, Government of Western Australia. https://painhealth.csse.uwa.edu.au/pain-module/yoga. Accessed 26 June 2020.
- McGonigal K. Restorative Yoga for Chronic Pain. Yoga International. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/restorative-yoga-for-chronic-pain. Accessed 26 June 2020.
- Saoji AA, Raghavendra BR and N.K. Manjunath NK. Effects of yogic breath regulation: A narrative review of scientific evidence. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. Volume 10, Issue 1, 2019,p50-58.
- Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:397. Published 2018 Oct 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
- This Might Be the Simplest Scientific Way to Get Rid of Stress You’ve Ever Heard Of. Inc.com https://www.inc.com/wanda-thibodeaux/this-might-be-simplest-scientific-way-to-get-rid-of-stress-youve-ever-heard-of.html. Published 2018. Accessed 28 June 2020.
- Fallis J. How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health. https://www.optimallivingdynamics.com/blog/how-to-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve-for-better-mental-health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction. Published Mar 2020. Accessed 28 June 2020.
- Thibodeaux W. Natural Ways of Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Wim Hoff Method. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/vagus-nerve-stimulation. Accessed 28 June 2020.
- Livingston E and Collette-Merrill K. Effectiveness of Integrative Restoration (iRest) Yoga Nidra on Mindfulness, Sleep, and Pain in Health Care Workers. Holistic Nursing Practice, Volume 32, Number 3, May/June 2018, pp. 160-166(7)
- Brody K. How Yoga Nidra Can Help You Get More Sleep. Yoga Journal. https://www.yogajournal.com/meditation/your-brain-on-yoga-nidra. Published 2017. Accessed 28 June 2020.
- Hill E. How ‘Yoga Nidra’ Works. HuffPost https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-yoga-nidra-works_b_58efcea5e4b048372700d692. Published 2017. Accessed 28 Jun 2020