Pain is important: it tells us that something is wrong. As I discussed in my last post, however, many of us live with chronic pain that is not a danger signal, but rather a pattern in the brain that is connected with stress. Managing stress, for example through Restorative yoga, has been shown to be very helpful for chronic pain sufferers.
Of course, if the only solution to dealing with chronic pain was eradicating stress, we’d all be in trouble. Stress is a fact of life, and we need it in balance with rest to survive and thrive. Ideally, we slide between the parasympathetic (relaxed, rest) and sympathetic (active, stress) nervous system states. What may be most important for chronic pain sufferers is learning what triggers each state so that we have some tools at the ready when pain flares up.
As discussed in Part 1, some triggers for the rest state are a warm, dark, quiet environment, slowness, focusing on the exhale, and gentle flexion (forward folding) of the joints. The active state is stimulated by bright light, quick movements, focusing on the inhale, and extension of the joints (such as backbending). A rounded yoga practice includes both stimulating and calming postures to tone and rebalance the nervous system.
The following sequence will mildly stimulate the active state. As you try it, work within a place where there is no real danger (check with your doctor if you are unsure), and observe your body’s responses. You may activate your pain as you experiment, which is totally normal, and why we learn tools that will calm us down when it happens. Feel free to return to the Restorative practice in Part 1 at any time. Be willing to poke at your edge, but don’t force yourself through pain.
Come to hands and knees, fingers spread under your shoulders, knees under your hips. As you inhale, backbend gently, opening up the front side of your body from pubic bone to chin. As you exhale, round your spine, curling your tailbone and chin in towards each other.
Connecting movement with a smooth, slow breath can be very calming as we explore both flexion and extension of the spine.
2. Flowing Warrior
Stand with your feet 3-4 feet apart, right foot pointing towards the short edge of your mat, left foot towards the long edge. As you inhale, reach both arms up, both legs straight. Exhale to Warrior 2, bending your right knee in line with your ankle, lowering your arms to parallel with the earth. Inhale back to the starting position, and repeat 3-5 times, then switch legs.
Lifting the arms above the head can be a great mood-lifter: yoga teacher B.K.S Iyengar has famously said, “Open your armpits, and you will never be depressed!”
3. Standing Forward Bend
Stand with your feet parallel, about hips distance apart. Fold over your legs and let your hands and head hang down, relaxed, towards the earth. Knees should never be locked; bend them until there is no discomfort in your lower back.
If the Flowing Warrior was stimulating, the flexion and inversion aspects of this pose should calm the nervous system again.
After the sequence, take a moment to sit or lie down quietly and reflect. Try to focus on what felt good. As you explore triggers for both rest and stress with mindfulness, you empower yourself with tools to rewire your brain and manage your pain.