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Yoga Asana and its Benefits for Those Living with Chronic Pain

 - by James Lovette-Black PhD, RN, RYT

Asana is the physical practice of yoga and is one of the Eight Limbs (aspects) of Yoga. For those living with chronic pain, yoga offers numerous benefits, including mindfulness and a different sense of the body (“bodyfulness”), along with improved flexibility, lessened pain, better tolerance of chronic pain. Safety in asana practice is paramount for those who have chronic pain.

Self-Judgment and Leaving One’s Ego at the Door

As a yoga teacher, we encourage those who practice asana (the physical aspect of yoga) to “leave their egos at the door”. This means learning and practicing asana necessitates the opening of one’s body and mind to all kinds of learning, including embracing failures, mistakes, feelings, and thoughts about one’s body, how we move, and how we value and judge ourselves and others. It also means yoga asana is not a competition. The learner does not need to compare their practice to anyone else, outside of the yoga teacher’s taught form. It further redirects those who practice asana toward attitudes that naturally generate optimal health and wellness behaviors and outcomes.

The yogi (term used gender-inclusively for all who practice yoga) becomes less negatively self-judgmental, learns more effectively, and begins to notice differences in how they think and move throughout daily activities, all naturally rising from asana practice.

Embracing Limitation as Challenge and as an Adaptable Reality

After an introduction to yoga asana in the early 1980s, I returned to a regular practice a little over seven years ago. At nearly 65 years of age and after 22 years of living with the daily challenge of chronic pain, there are some intermediate and advanced asanas that I cannot do. My attitude is to continue to learn them or to accept that there are some asanas that I may not be able to ever practice. However, there are so very many others that I can do, so I choose to focus on them.

As a teacher living with chronic pain, yoga asana or the physical practice and most visible of the eight aspects of yoga called “limbs”, keeps me in balance, focused on life-affirming thoughts, attitudes, and practices, and strengthens my health and wellness. This balance and wellness arises from persistent practice which is based on safety and which embraces errors, mistakes, and self-judgments as simply part of the process of learning.

Yoga Asana’s Natural Benefit is Mindfulness and Bodyfulness

The other way we benefit from yoga is that asana, even while learning, readily generates mindfulness as a natural outcome. The physicality of asana similarly generates a different sense of the body, a “bodyfulness”, that emerges along with mindfulness. For many who live with chronic pain or other somatic symptoms, after distancing ourselves from our bodies and mentally compartmentalizing to cope and adapt, our learning to approach and eventually re-embrace our bodies and physicality returns a sense of wholeness, strengthening and expanding our innate resilience.

On balance, when safely and mindfully practiced regularly – or even semi-regularly – yoga asana can make significant and lasting changes to one’s life quality, health, and wellness.