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Manage Chronic Pain with Physiyoga
The human experience of chronic pain and illness is non-binary. There is no clean drawing of lines. It doesn’t fit into a neat box of research and evidence. Nor does it fit into a fixed protocol or set of guidelines. It doesn’t even fit into one provider. We are so much more beautifully complex and layered than that. We are a mix of past, present, and future: our genetic makeup, our diet, movement, emotions, sleep, work, family, community, where we live, and on and on. And the way we care for people who aren’t feeling well should directly reflect these many singular facets.
Integrating a mind, body, and spirit approach to addressing chronic pain is not just words. It’s how we see and explore every patient and student we treat as physiyoga practitioners. What does that person think, feel, and believe? Where do they see themselves in the world and society? Do they live in connection to themselves and others? The answers to all of these questions influence how a person feels, for better or worse.
Chronic Pain is an Output
It can often be difficult to separate our bodies’ stories from reality. In many instances of pain, the stories we tell ourselves create and maintain the pain sensations—not the actual pathology or damage.
Pain is a byproduct of inputs that include:
What we’ve heard from doctors
How much sleep we get
Our diet and hydration
Our coping abilities
Whether we have self-efficacy
How we breathe, and more
Pain that lasts longer than tissue healing requirements (six weeks to three months) is considered persistent and chronic. It is, therefore, most likely not due to tissue damage, but rather a brain output. It’s the brain’s way of trying to keep us safe and protected. Pain is created from the above collective inputs. If the inputs are sending signals that we aren’t safe, the brain responds with pain.
How Do We Stop the Story Cycle?
For one thing, it isn’t by pushing through the pain. It isn’t by focusing on what we can’t do. We stop the story by paying attention, finding meaning, using awareness and interoception, our body’s lesser-known sense that helps us understand how we feel internally: tired, hot, hungry, tense, etc.
Following the story, believing it, and then holding tight to it is actually easier for most people. We are creatures of habit; familiarity leads to comfort. But getting to the truth—what is really inside us—is where we need to go. It can be uncomfortable work. It starts by going inward and feeling our feelings without judgment. We place no value on them. We just observe and accept them with softness and maybe some compassion. It’s about giving some air time to what’s really there.
Otherwise, as the old wise saying goes, what we resist, persists. We can’t fool our bodies into thinking they’re something they’re not, or that they’re not something they are. And if that last sentence was confusing (read it again), you can imagine how confusingly this dynamic must play out in our bodies.
We, physiyoga practitioners, use yoga in one of the most powerful ways: to help people discover and heal. It’s simple, which is not the same as easy. It’s accessible to all, it’s life-affirming, and it even makes scientific sense.
Unpacking Chronic Pain from a Physiyoga Perspective
Our experience with movement, pain, and wellness is layered and complex. We lean in with curiosity, attempting to understand how the puzzle pieces fit together. When evaluating factors that may be contributing to a feeling of pain (or decreased movement performance) in our clients, we consider pain science, polyvagal theory, motor control matters, the way(s) they move, kinesiology and joint mechanics (arthrokinematics).
For example, shoulder pain can be a layered experience, a brain output, based on history, emotions, and stress, accompanied by physiological changes in movement, muscle tone, and breath.
Or, it can be purely from dysfunctional mechanics during an overweighted shoulder press. Maybe the shoulder just needs to calm down and get stronger, in which case we need to teach load progressions and sometimes different mechanics.
Remember: How we think, how we perceive, our movement history, the way we move, our trauma—all are pieces of the movement and experience puzzle.
4 Ways to Apply Physiyoga Principles to Chronic Pain Management
As a teacher or practitioner, determining how to use pain science on the spot with a real person is hard. We get it. We’ve been there. Interestingly enough, however, many of the ways you can use pain science are consistent with the ways of being a good human being. Here are four:
Through your relationship, ask what brings them joy and make it part of their movement practice. Let’s say they love cycling. Have them visualize riding a bike while slowly bending their knee toward their chest.
Encourage them to talk about something that makes them happy when reintroducing “scary” movements. This can help them stay present in the moment and prevent overthinking and buying into their pain narrative.
Try a small range of motion and celebrate it as if they just won the lottery.
Tie the movement back to their larger goals and explain how this smaller movement gets them one step closer to achieving them. One eye is on the here and now, and the other is on the prize.
Be Creative, Keep Learning
Many of these principles are also aligned with what we do in yoga, connecting mind and body, regulating and creating flexible nervous systems: being present. So don’t get bogged down by a specific plan you can’t deviate from. Try different tools based on the person in front of you.
Whether you’re the one dealing with chronic pain, or whether you’re assisting someone suffering from it, the most important thing you can do is disrupt the narrative around pain and start exploring its true sources. Once you do that, a holistic approach to managing it will allow you to move past the fear and into a place of real and sustainable healing.
Reprinted with permission from Threesphysiyoga.
Diana Zotos Florio is a physical therapist, yoga teacher, certified strength and conditioning specialist, mother of three, and the cofounder of Threes Physiyoga Method. A constant mover, she loves all forms of exercise and considers movement to truly be medicine.
Prior to founding TPM, Diana spent seven years working as a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery treating anyone from inpatient joint replacement patients to professional marathon runners. She’s been practicing yoga for over 20 years and has always treated her patients through the lens of yoga. Diana completed yoga teacher training at OM Yoga in NYC in 2010.