Research shows yoga helps with fibromyalgia, so why isn’t everyone doing it?

Research demonstrates that yoga can help people with pain to reduce symptoms, lower cortisol and safely resume exercise. So why doesn’t everyone who tries yoga get these amazing results?

1. There are many ways to learn yoga. Not all are right for you.
Most available yoga in the west is a modern, postural style.  Classes may be gentle, strong, relaxing or acrobatic. The style that is best for you depends on your personal interest, physical fitness and psychological readiness.

If you have persistent pain, don’t make your first yoga class an intensive early morning session. Even if you have a fabulous time while you’re there you may crash later, experience a pain flare, and decide never to do yoga again.

Instead, choose a class that suits your body right now and offers an environment you feel at home in. You can always change later as you get stronger and more confident.

2. Read between the lines when research says yoga is good for pain
In a controlled trial an 8-week yoga course was shown to help women with fibromyalgia improve function, reduce pain and experience less fatigue. Three months later the improvements were still there. Other research reinforces these benefit.

But when a research article tells you that yoga helps (for example) women with fibromyalgia, it’s important to read between the lines to understand what kind of yoga they actually did, how it was taught and the teaching environment.

Participants in this study didn’t attend just any yoga class. They participated in a term of tailored, ‘yoga of awareness’ classes. The classes included time for discussion and information about pain care. These added extras would have given the women a better chance at making sense of what they were learning, and how their pain affected their practice.

3. Choose a class environment that offers the right pace of learning
Whether you choose yoga, croquet or roller-skating, the pedagogy (principles and methods of teaching) impact your progress.  Through five years of running Yoga for Pain programs we have found better results when you have time to share experiences (without wallowing), learn the theory behind your practice, and set meaningful goals that you are held accountable to.

4. Even beginners classes can be challenging when your nervous system is sensitised
For many people with persistent pain, even very gentle exercise can lead to a pain flare (extra pain, fatigue and other symptoms seemingly disproportionate to the amount of activity). This is because your nervous system is sensitised and is signalling you to be careful. While you should rule out any injury or illness you are worried about, pain flares are generally not a sign of tissue damage. Rather, they are the result of new pathways your brain has temporarily set up to try to keep you safe after a period of pain.

The good news is that you can change this response.

When taught appropriately, yoga helps with pain and other symptoms by retraining your nervous system. Over time you reduce your body’s fear of sensation and movement, which lets you gradually do more. The Yoga for Pain program begins very gently; more gently than most people think is possible.  While it feels slow initially, you actually make faster progress in the long run.

5. You have to do it regularly to get the benefits
Like most things, yoga makes a difference if you actually do it. Dr Kelly McGonigal, author of Yoga for Pain Relief, explains that the benefits of yoga come only with regular practice. The yogi word for this is tapas. This doesn’t mean that you push through to get your practice “done”. It means cultivating the gentle discipline of learning how to practice yoga without a pain flare so you persist – and continue long enough to experience the benefits for your body and mind.

6. Yoga is not for everyone
Don’t feel like you “should” be doing yoga. If yoga doesn’t float your boat, try another practice that includes mindful movement, reflection and meditation skills.

We run Yoga for Pain training for yoga teachers and health professionals. If you have persistent pain or fibromyalgia check out the events page for workshops, or the practitioner register for teachers in your area.

3 Comments
  • Bev scrutton
    Posted at 14:50h, 17 February Reply

    How can I enroll in Yoga for Pain, please?

    • rachaelwest
      Posted at 18:39h, 17 February Reply

      Hi Bev, we have new Yoga for Pain workshops coming up in April. Please see the contact page and get in touch by phone or email to reserve a place.

  • Andrew Outhwaite
    Posted at 20:54h, 02 March Reply

    Thankyou for sharing that principles and guidelines that raise our awareness of context for enabling the benefits of Yoga. In doing so, you seem to have revealed principles relevant that could enable the benefits of many other practices. I’ll use this understanding in my own teaching and learning.

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