Yoga for Chronic Pain

"Doga" by fallsundermiscellaneous via Flickr (CC0)If you have a history of trauma or chronic pain, you may need to relearn the art of listening to your body in a safe and slow manner. This post explores the principles of embodiment and therapeutic yoga to working with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines, or back pain.

Embodiment is the practice of attending to your sensations. Awareness of your body serves as a guiding compass to help you feel more in charge of the course of your life. Embodiment in psychotherapy applies mindfulness and movement practices to awaken body awareness as a tool for healing. Yoga is a comprehensive and holistic approach to healing mind and body. The word yoga is translated as “union” or to join together the mind and body through disciplined self-awareness. Therapeutic yoga engages embodied awareness and personal inquiry for healing trauma or chronic pain.

Chronic pain experiences are often debilitating and can be life changing. It is common to feel powerless and overwhelmed. Chronic pain can become a trauma that triggers a vicious cycle of more pain. If you have ever had a migraine or back pain you will know what I am talking about. The slightest feeling of a headache or a twinge in your back causes a fear response. How bad will it be this time? Will I end up in bed for days? Tension builds and you start to avoid anything that might trigger your symptoms.

It is important to approach yoga carefully and listen to your body to avoid creating overwhelm or exacerbating chronic pain conditions. Consider three of Dr. Schwartz’s principles of therapeutic yoga for chronic pain when developing your practice:


  • Increase Embodied Awareness: Healing chronic pain requires that you increase somatic awareness. Yoga is a mindfulness practice that focuses on breathing into sensations and allowing somatic awareness to guide your movements. One of the common mindfulness myths is that you will feel relaxed as a result. Sometimes you will feel calmer, but not always. Actually, paying attention can increase your awareness of turbulent emotions or painful sensations that perhaps you were avoiding. However, mindfulness can give you the tools to work more consciously with difficult experiences. Develop your capacity to stay with painful emotions and sensations without judgment.


  • Focus on the Good: Attending to discomfort in the body needs to be balanced with attention to non-pain related stimulus in order to avoid flooding and overwhelm. In yoga, we practice the art of directing and focusing attention. Pain sensations can be overwhelming; therefore, we can alternate awareness of pain with awareness of pleasurable (or neutral) sensations. For example, you might sense the pain in your shoulder and then bring your attention to the tip of your nose attending to the movement of air as you breathe in and out. Or you might prefer to alternate between a pain sensation and an external observation such as gazing at a candle flame.


  • Find Healing Movements: Once you build tolerance for sensations you can use the physical yoga postures as an opportunity for self-discovery. Perhaps you stand up tall and reach your arms up to the sky. How good it can feel to expand and extend your limbs long and outstretched. Maybe you get low on your hands and knees and curl yourself up into a small, contracted shape. Your sensations are invitations for movement. Just like a full body yawn…imagine that you are your favorite animal just waking up from a nap. This process is called pandiculation, an alternation of stretches and contractions that are originate from within. Pandicular movements are deeply healing as they are the nervous system’s way of waking up sensory-motor system. These healing movements prevent the build-up of chronic muscular tension and increase voluntary control over your muscles.


When working with chronic pain, we recognize that there are some aspects of our experience that we can change, and some that we cannot. You can actively focus on decreasing the fear that amplifies pain. You can also focus on lifestyles changes that increase mind-body health such as healthy nutrition or focusing on getting better sleep. However, we must also accept that not all health challenges can be changed, no matter how hard you try. Here, you can focus on self-compassion and process your grief about living with pain.

Hopefully, by now you understand why I have not directed you into a specific sequence of physical yoga postures that will heal your fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, or back pain. Instead, I hope that I have inspired you to trust yourself and your body. Your sensations are your teacher–your yoga.


Click to Learn More about “Somatic EMDR Tools for Chronic Pain and Illness”


About Guest Blogger Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz, LP - EMDR Trainers

Dr. Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, EMDR Therapy consultant, and Certified Kripalu yoga teacher with a private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She earned her a Masters in Somatic Psychology through Naropa University and her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Fielding Graduate University. She is a core teacher with The Maiberger Institute offering therapist trainings in EMDR Therapy and Somatic psychology. She offers informational mental health and wellness updates through her heartfelt presentations, social media presence, and blog. She is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole.


Arielle Schwartz’s Website


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Image Source: “Doga” by fallsundermiscellaneous via Flickr (CC0)