Got chronic pain or illness? Want to try yoga but don't know where to start?

Guidelines for choosing an appropriate Yoga Class for people living in chronic pain…

Mindful yoga can be a very therapeutic practice for people living with chronic pain. It can help you remain or become more grounded in your body which can be especially difficult with chronic body issues such as chronic pain or illness. I wrote this blog post to reduce the intimidation of starting a new practice. While styles of yoga are important, I think the most important aspect is choosing a teacher that resonates with you. Someone who can guide you as the expert of your own body. 

What is hatha yoga? Most yoga classes are listed as “hatha” yoga. Hatha is a general term that encompasses many styles of physical yoga that includes asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), relaxation and meditation. There are many popular styles of hatha yoga that are taught at many studios, hospitals, and community centers. 

Where can I get more information? I recommend visiting local studios in your area online or in person to find out more. Search their website for styles that sound good and/or read the teachers' bios. You can also visit the Yoga Alliance website (www.yogaalliance.org) to search for teachers of a specific style. ALWAYS feel free to call the teacher or studio in advance for advice about classes or to ask about a specific teacher’s training. Below are some basic definitions and information about different styles of yoga and suggestions as to which styles tend to be most appropriate for those living with chronic pain or injuries:

STYLES THAT ARE USUALLY APPROPRIATE FOR INDIVIDUALS IN CHRONIC PAIN:

  1. Gentle or ultra gentle yoga: just as the name implies this style moves at a slower pace and is appropriate for most students.
  2. Integrated Yoga Therapy: A therapeutic style that is usually gentle and focuses on the connection of the body, mind and spirit.
  3. Restorative Yoga: A restful and rejuvenative style that makes use of props and blankets to allow for passive stretching and deep relaxation. Wonderful stuff!
  4. Yoga Nidra: “Yogic sleep”. Not hatha (does not involve asanas). The teacher guides students through a relaxation focusing on the body and imagery and leads students into a state of conscious deep sleep & relaxation.
  5. Chair Yoga: Excellent style for anyone who is comfortable in a chair or who cannot comfortably get onto the floor.
  6. Viniyoga: a very comprehensive style that often includes asana, pranayama, bandha, sound, meditation, chanting, and more.

STYLES THAT MAY BE APPROPRIATE (CALL IN ADVANCE AND TALK TO THE TEACHER):

  1. Iyengar: this style may be appropriate – check with the teacher. Focus is on precise alignment and often uses props to achieve this, which can be a challenge. In general, I prefer to modify the pose to work for the body over using props. 
  2. Beginner/Level 1: may be appropriate, discuss with the teacher. These classes generally stick to basic poses and alignment. This can be a great place to begin. 
  3. Anusara: Heart centered style based in the Iyengar tradition.
  4. Integral Yoga: A meditative style consisting of a sequence of poses with occasional variations.
  5. Kirpalu: A flowing style that concentrates on the interplay of “effort and surrender”.
  6. Kundalini: Energetic style involving a lot of movement using the “fire breath”.
  7. Aerial Yoga: A yoga style that uses a soft fabric as a prop to support the body. It can be very gentle or highly athletic -- ask the teacher if you can't tell from the description. 

STYLES THAT ARE PROBABLY BEST TO AVOID:

  1. Ashtanga: an intense aerobic workout. Most appropriate for athletic types.
  2. Bikram: athletic style done in a room at very high temperatures. 
  3. Power yoga: generic term for athletic styles of yoga.
  4. Vinyasa flow: Students flow from one pose to the next, often quite strenuous.
  5. Sivananda: Like Integral yoga, this style follows a sequence of asanas, but is often more physically challenging.

You may find other names of classes like 'mindful yoga' or 'yoga for stress reduction' or other creative names that give you an idea of the practice. These could be great classes too. 

REMEMBER: When in a yoga asana, do your best to steady the mind and ALWAYS keep yourself comfortable. And breathe.  That’s all you have to remember! Always take a break if you feel any pain or discomfort beyond a stretch. YOU are in charge of your body, not the teacher. I recommend going to class early to speak with the teacher about any specific concerns, fears, etc. A good teacher will gently guide you, never forcefully. Your #1 priority is to take care of yourself, not the feelings of the teacher. If the class doesn't work for you, leave.