Instead of reaching for that bottle of painkillers in your medicine cabinet the next time you experience a headache or back pain, try channeling your inner yogi. Why? While 11.5 million Americans living with chronic pain misuse prescription opioids, there are alternative treatment options available — like yoga — that are effective and come with zero risk of side effects.
“One of the main reasons I believe yoga for pain is such a hot topic right now is that there’s still a lot of unknowns in the world of pain science and our understanding of the nervous system,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, LAc, MAOM, RYT, an internationally renowned yoga instructor, holistic health practitioner, acupuncturist, sports-medicine expert and founder of Yoga Medicine. “This question mark leaves behind a void that our health-care systems haven’t been able to solve yet. Plus, the current solutions have way too many side effects and drawbacks. We’re in desperate need of a better strategy, and yoga practices can be an effective, cost-efficient solution.”
Yoga is a great tool to help people:
- Self-soothe with stress-reducing techniques
- Down-regulate the stress response and, in effect, increase the relaxation response
- Create body awareness, which acts as an internal monitoring system to help the nervous system recalibrate
Putting Yoga Into Practice
The next time you experience one of the five common painful conditions listed below, Yoga Medicine instructor Marnie Hartman, DPT, CSCS, RYT, suggests practicing its corresponding yoga pose. “It’s important to note that it’s not actually about the ‘pose’ itself but the ‘practice,’” she says. “Mindfulness, awareness of breath and reactions during the positions or movements are just as important as the posture themselves.”
Lie on your back with your hips up against a wall and stretch your legs straight up the wall. Place a cold pack on the back of your neck. With one hand on your belly and the other over your heart region, begin to focus on your breath.
Without straining, attempt to make each inhale and exhale longer and fuller. Allow your conscious thoughts to begin to slow while you keep your awareness on the breath and away from the conversation that occurs in your head. Hold this position and breath awareness for at least eight minutes or as long as 20 minutes.
Note: Studies show that keeping a regular yoga practice of 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week — one that includes lengthening and strengthening the cervical spine and shoulders as well as regulating breath and emotional/stress responses — may be helpful in reducing and preventing chronic headaches.
Move: Upper-Trap Stretch
Sit with your spine erect and your chin drawn slightly back so your ears are in line with your shoulders. Reach your right arm straight out to the side (about 30 degrees). Press your palm down and away, tipping your fingers up. Lean your left ear toward your left shoulder. Hold and breathe long, slow, deep breaths for 30 seconds. Repeat on the left side. Perform this stretch two to three times per day.
“Studies show that mindfulness and meditation may serve as a way to improve the effectiveness of our natural pain inhibitory system,” Hartman says. “Yoga movements and postures can be vehicles to help us get there.”
Move: Psoas Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Push into your feet to lift your hips and slide a block under your pelvis. The block should be placed so that you feel well-balanced and supported. Draw both knees into your chest. Hold your right leg, anchoring your pelvis and lower back.
Stretch your left leg straight to the sky and slowly lower it toward the floor. Your heel may or may not touch the floor. It’s more important to keep your pelvis in place. (Make your tailbone look toward the sky, not into the block.) Hold this position while maintaining a long, even breath for 60 seconds. Repeat with your other leg. Perform one or two times per day.
Move: Sun Salutation
Begin in Mountain Pose. Raise your arms straight overhead and bend forward with a flat back, hinging at your hips. Step your right foot back. Place your right knee on the floor. Lift your chest, keeping your fingers on the ground. Step your left foot back to meet the right. Hold a plank on your knees or toes. Place your knees, chest and chin on the floor. Draw your chest forward to Cobra. Press your hips up and back to Downward-Facing Dog. Step your right foot forward, left knee on the floor. Lift your chest, fingers down. Step your left foot up to meet the right. Rise all the way up, arms reaching high. Bring your hands down into a Prayer Pose at your chest.
Repeat leading with your left foot. Practice one breath for each movement. Go through four to 12 rounds total each day during your cycle.
Move: Hamstring Stretch With Nerve Glide
Lie flat on your back. Place a strap around the ball of your right foot. Raise it toward the ceiling just until you feel a slight pull down the back of your leg. Pull your toes toward your head in a flexed position, then point your toes away from you. Continue to glide your toes back and forth slowly but without holding either position. Perform 20 to 30 glides, then switch legs. Repeat two to three times per day.