Pain Release Through Yoga
By Christopher Ken Baxter
man came to me a few months ago whose physician is a Yoga student
of mine. James, the 31-year-old man, came at her suggestion because
he was in chronic pain. He was an athlete, and within the past
15 years had suffered an eye injury, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS),
and spinal injuries. He was also in several traffic accidents,
the last one in August 1997. As a result of these injuries he
underwent two spinal surgeries, the last of which left him in
a neck-to-hip body cast for six months afterward.
Ann Mick, James' physician (and my Yoga student), reported that
James was unable to stay in any position for more than a few minutes
without experiencing discomfort. He had limited range of motion
in his neck, chronic left shoulder and neck pain, and an extensive
myofascial pain syndrome.
is also a certified massage and Trager therapist and she wanted
him to receive both traditional and complementary medical care.
received acupuncture, training in Yoga and meditation, physical
therapy, and massage therapy in addition to CTS release surgery.
After a year, however, he still had chronic pain in his neck,
shoulders, and wrists.
had done some Yoga prior to our meeting. He found that in trying
to follow the instructions and stay up with the class, he only
irritated his injuries. My goal with him was Yoga education: how
to heighten awareness of himself in order to develop internal
guidance, inner strength, and softness in his body. Patanjali
in his classic scripture the Yoga Sutras (sutra 2.46 sthira-sukham
asanam) describes this as a balance of steadiness, or sthira,
and comfort, or sukha.
the first session I was able to help James access sthira and sukha
through the release of some of the chronic tension in the foundation
of his body. He learned to find, feel, and relax his pelvic floor,
buttocks, belly, anal, and genital areas. He next learned to isolate
and lift the center of his pelvic floor, the perineum, while relaxing
the surrounding muscles. With patient coaching he was even able
to continue the lift through the center of his body, connecting
the perineal lift to a subtle lift in his abdomen, sternum, and
the crown of his head. This "core lift" gave him an internal strength
that his body could relax into.
further enhance the benefits, this practice of core lift was always
coordinated with dirgha and ujjayi pranayama-deep, three-part
sounding breaths. Finally he practiced how to breathe into the
pain, experience it as sensation, and release some of the emotional
armoring that added stress to his mind and body. This practice
was enhanced by learning to "talk" and "listen" to his body. This
helped him discover underlying negative attitudes, which he was
able to transform into compassionate intentions for healing.
the first session he practiced at home. He was able to go deeper
into the hurt without clenching, and became familiar enough with
his body to find and sustain the core lift without my assistance.
James experienced an increase in awareness, confidence, and muscle
tone in the core of his body.
Midway through his second session we combined a review of core
lift with pelvic mobility. Learning to level his pelvis, at the
same time as he brought both muscular and energetic lift through
the center of his body gave him the power to find and maintain
his own axis of alignment while standing, sitting, and walking.
this was combined with spontaneous, prana-directed movements.
This allowed his body, now supported by an inner strength, to
intuitively unwind some of its chronic tensions and holding patterns.
After a time he was able to move his head from left to right,
up and down, and ear to shoulder.
the end of the session James could sit on a meditation pillow
on the floor for a short time without fatigue. After
years of limited, painful movement, these dramatic developments
lifted his spirits and gave him inspiration to continue practicing.
the heart of James' improvements was his willingness to create
a new relationship with his painful body. The key I gave him was
a method of awareness that allowed his body to be so steady, so
comfortable, and so safe that it could release its old, painful
holding patterns. By practicing the core lift he learned to hold
himself from a stable and mobile center, rather than chronically
clench from fear and weakness.
you are injured the muscles and tissue that protect the moving
parts of your body-the joints-try to stabilize you by tightening
in spasm. Most treatments focus on releasing the spasm, but if
there's no core strength to rest on, the spasm may return. As
James learned to develop core strength, parts of his body that
were chronically contracted could finally relax into an internal
support. For the first time he was able to breathe into his pain
as sensation and release some of the emotional armor he was wearing.
is clear that Yoga can effectively release chronic pain. But like
James one must have a willingness to be in a new relationship
with the body and its pain, hold a compassionate and supportive
intention, and develop core strength. The following exercise is
based on the flow of work that James and I did together.
the body with conscious breathing
The following was prepared for Yoga teachers working with students
with chronic pain.)
first step is to establish full, deep breathing. Use ujjayi
(the sounding breath) and dirgha
(the three-part breath) pranayama in combination.
you have chronic pain breathing tends to be shallow and you frequently
hold your breath. With restricted breathing you're not exhaling
fully and can't remove from the lungs stale air and the residual
buildup of toxins. With chronic pain the muscles are cold and
contracted from poor circulation, so even less oxygen comes in
and fewer toxins are removed. When you breathe fully and deeply,
the lungs work more, the diaphragm moves, the intercostal, back,
and abdominal muscles work. This generates heat into the core
of the body.
positive result of conscious breathing is its calming effect on
the emotions, reducing fear and anxiety in the nervous system.
You feel safer emotionally as well as more at ease and relaxed
physically. Conscious breathing also helps diminish tension before
it accumulates around the areas where chronic pain exists.
a supportive mental attitude
The next step in releasing chronic pain involves changing the
person's attitude toward the part of the body in pain. Invite
the person you are working with (the student) to observe not only
what the pain feels like, but how they feel about the pain. The
intention is for your student to feel the emotions connected with
the part of the body that hurts. This important step connects
emotional pain with physical pain, and enables your student to
recognize the continuity between his or her body, mind, and feelings.
are many attitudes associated with chronic pain: suffering, anger,
despair, depression, loss, and helplessness, to name a few. These
attitudes exist when we hate, fear, or deny parts of our body
that hurt. Because we cannot remove the hurt, we shield ourselves
from it, denying it the very attention and love it needs to heal.
This of course adds to the stress because of the negative self-directed
energy required to deny parts of ourselves.
first step in changing the negative attitude is to create a feeling
of comfort and safety. Have your student come into a comfortable,
relaxed position, lying on the floor in the relaxation pose, or
perhaps in a restorative posture. Direct the student to communicate
with the pain by placing a hand on the part of the body that hurts.
Depending on what is appropriate, either the student can put his
or her hands on, or the teacher can, or both.
hands on the painful part of the body is soothing. It opens a
relationship to this part and brings a message of affection to
it: "I'm willing to make a different choice in my relationship
with you." It starts to send energy, heat, and fluid to this part
of the body, creating an overall feeling of well-being and nurturance.
It invites the traumatized part of the body to rejoin the rest
of the organism and helps move the student from denial to interest.
ask the student to breathe into the part of the body being touched,
feel what is going on, and ask if it has a voice. If so ask the
body to speak. I had asked this of James. He felt anger, despair,
and judged what was going on negatively. His whole self was in
denial physically, mentally, and emotionally. Negative statements
leaked through in his language: "My body betrayed me; I'm angry
with it", "I don't know why this happened to me ," and "I feel
like a failure because I cant figure it out and fix it."
this point in the process, there's often a release: the student
comes out of denial. There is a wide range of emotional releases,
from full expression to silence. Now is the time to use affirmations
because the student's habitual critical language keeps the pain
intact longer. I asked James to restate how he felt after the
release: "I am getting to know this part of my body", "I feel
safer in this part of the body", "I feel more loving toward this
part of the body,"etc., were the responses, indicating a shift
in relationship between mind and body.
Increasing Intimacy and Awareness of the Body
the student has released some of the emotional armor and moved
beyond denial, the next step is to release chronic tension substantially
using specific Yoga movements combined with breath.
culture tends to strengthen on top of unrecognized vulnerability
and helplessness; we go in quickly, name the pain, and get out.
But true strength runs deep and can only take root in the center
of vulnerability -- it is crucial that the student go to the center
of what is inside if he or she is truly going to heal. To do this
you need to help the student create a balance of steadiness and
comfort with core stability and strength.
build core strength a strong and mobile pelvic floor, a softly
engaged abdomen, an open, lifted heart, and an aligned spine are
essential. Pelvic floor work provides the foundation anatomically,
neurologically, structurally, and energetically.
pelvic floor relates to the muladhara or root chakra where basic
issues of survival and safety reside. If this part of the body
is frozen then the foundation of safety is locked and movement
is based in fear. When the student begins to stretch open the
pelvic floor, energy can move through and up this chakra, and
she or he can consciously act on issues of survival and fear,
thus building a strong foundation for living.
open, moving, and strengthening the pelvic floor is followed by
a unique movement, which I call the core lift, by which the center
of the pelvic floor, the perineum, is subtly lifted up into the
core of the body. In various yogic texts this is termed mulabandha.
(There are different schools of thought as to what does and does
not constitute mulabandha. For the purposes of this study, mulabandha
does not include the lifting and contraction of the genitals,
vajroli mudra, or the lifting and contracting of the anus, ashvini
mudra. It also is not the form of mulabandha that is only practiced
in a meditative sitting posture, such as siddhasana, with retention
of the breath, kumbhaka, and application of the throat lock, jalandhara
bandha. I refer to the variation of mulabandha I use in this approach
as core lift to avoid confusion.)
is important to note that the pelvic floor is not an easy part
of the body to access because our culture associates it with pain,
shame, inappropriateness, and sin. And for some of us there is
trauma in this area from surgery and/or sexual abuse. These issues
make it more difficult to bring to this part of the body an unfettered
curiosity. Most Yoga teachers are not experienced or trained to
relate in depth with this type of trauma, so as a Yoga teacher
you have to know your limits and be capable and confident, because
once you go there you'd better be prepared to stay with it and
bring in a professional or suggest professional therapy if appropriate.
core lift is accomplished by a subtle lifting or arching of the
pelvic floor into the core of the body. This is done by contracting
the muscles surrounding the perineum, the area between the genitals
and the anus. It's not difficult to do, yet because the lift is
subtle it requires as much attention and focus as any technique
in Yoga. The ability to focus, however, is of great benefit because
when our mind is strongly focused, we can begin to relax and feel
Christopher Ken Baxter is a founding member of
Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and is one of the original
developers of Kripalu Yoga. Out of his 30 years of experience
with Yoga, he has developed AtmaYoga, a form of Yoga that has
its origin in core strength of body and spirit. For more information
on AtmaYoga and the many offerings of AtmaYoga Educational Services,
call 413-528-6408, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Moe Clancy for her help with this article.
© Christopher Ken Baxter