In past posts, I’ve considered how having rheumatoid arthritis mixes with doing yoga. Since that time, as my practice has shifted and I have been focused more on the philosophical and spiritual elements of yoga, I haven’t so much changed my mind about what I said, but I have added some additional understandings to my perspective.
Chronic pain is what it is. We all end up with some sort of chronic pain at one time of life or another. Even people who believe themselves to be very healthy and well may have “tennis elbow” or a “bad knee” that presents issues regularly or periodically. This is an important concept for us to understand as yoga practitioners or as teachers. Knowledge about the relationships between chronic pain and yoga is not just applicable to a few students.
While acute/sharp pain should be avoided in yoga (for anyone, including those experiencing chronic pain during the practice), some degree of pain or discomfort is common. Individuals with current chronic pain may find that it is always present during practice, and may be felt as more intense during some poses. Though that is the case, the practice of yoga can make the experience of that pain shift in a helpful way.
When I am having a flare of pain, as I am currently, it becomes harder for me to go to yoga, because my body hurts and I feel so stiff and frozen up from clenching all of my muscles against the pain. But, when I get there, something interesting happens. Some poses are not accessible during a flare, because they do produce a searing and acute pain; since that makes it difficult to ascertain when I’ve moved past the edge, I avoid those poses or try to make adjustments to them. In other poses, the pose may intensify the feeling, but as I get into the practice, breathing steadily and focusing attention on all of the body sensations (are those toes spread? am I pressing into the space between my fingers and thumb? is my back leg active?), the feeling of pain becomes just another sensory experience, rather than something to draw away from or struggle with. In effect, I ease into the pain instead of withdrawing from it (a natural but not always useful protective response of the body). As a consequence, the muscles around the affected joint, even while warming and contracting/extending in poses, unclench themselves. This resonates through my body to the extent that I can feel the muscles of my face and skull begin to ease – even while I’m ostensibly experiencing “more” pain. When a practice is over, though I have worked the joints and muscles that are bothering me quite hard, I feel much better, more myself, and more ready to face the day without feeling traumatized or paralyzed by chronic pain.
I still believe that yoga has made real physical changes to my body that make my condition more manageable. My muscles are stronger, providing extra support to damaged joints. I oxygenate more efficiently, reducing the fatigue caused by the condition. It has made me more calm in general, which assists me in coping with the ramifications of RA. But, it’s also this easing into pain that brings me to a better place with my practice.
While these positive outcomes of yoga on my chronic pain are “mine,” they make me a different person. I bring a different self to my interactions and I put a different energy out into the world. Thus, the ripple effect goes much beyond my own experience. Given that close to 80,000,000 adults in the U.S. experience what can be labeled as chronic pain in each year, imagine how much change can be brought to the overall through yoga.