Doing Yoga Changes the Way Your Brain Handles Pain

Doing Yoga Changes the Way Your Brain Handles Pain

Jacob Devaney
Jacob Devaney

A New Study shows link between Yoga Practice and increased Pain Tolerance

Sometimes, after spending hours at the computer, I have a deep resistance to doing yoga or any kind of stretching. Mainly because my body hurts from sitting. That’s why doing a little yoga is exactly what my body is crying out for. I can’t go from the office to the yoga mat right away; I need to go on a walk preferably in nature, but sometimes to a local pastry shop. Regardless, just getting out and walking helps me re-inhabit my body after being immersed in work that emphasizes mental focus and a certain level of dissociation from my physical body. Yoga practitioners have known all along but finally science is recognizing that a body-centered practice reduces pain and increases overall health.

At the annual meeting of the American Pain Society M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD, scientific director, Division of Intramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institute of Health, explained in a plenary session address the ways that yoga helps people cope with chronic pain. The press release titled, Yoga and Chronic Pain Have Opposite Effects on Brain Gray Matter, highlights these major findings.

Mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can counteract the brain anatomy effects of chronic pain. “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain,” said Bushnell.

Based in Chicago, the American Pain Society (APS) is a multidisciplinary community that brings together a diverse group of scientists, clinicians and other professionals to increase the knowledge of pain and transform public policy and clinical practice to reduce pain-related suffering. It is communities like this that create a support network and valuable educational resources to help people learn better ways of coping with pain. Pain and suffering are universal, today we are lucky enough to draw on ancient practices like yoga and meditation as well as modern clinical research.

Yoga and meditation increase your brain’s pain tolerance.

The studies correlate reduced gray matter and depression with increased physical pain. Though yoga is a great thing to do by yourself, there is something really special about surrounding yourself with others who have chosen to be on a healing journey. Going to a yoga class can be a great way to feel the contagious feelings that life is beautiful, that there are others who are experiencing life’s challenges and meeting them with a sun salutation or a downward dog!

“Insula gray matter size correlates with pain tolerance, and increases in insula gray matter can result from ongoing yoga practice. The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain”
- M. Catherine Bushnell, PhD

There is much research about pain in the body like this helpful article. Though our first instinct is often to ignore or numb the pain, it is important to remember that pain is the body’s way of communicating to us that we need to take action. If we do take action by being present in our bodies, exercising, stretching or doing yoga, we may reduce the pain and develop more healthy patterns in our lives. Aside from the above solutions don’t underestimate the power of a hug, cuddling with your pet, or a good belly laugh to reduce pain in your body. Another incentive for taking charge and developing better coping mechanisms for pain is that you will be in a much better place to help those around you in doing the same.

Learn more about the power of Yoga at the FREE online Yoga Day Summit on June 21.

Jacob Devaney, Culture Collective Founder and Director, is a contributing writer at UPLIFT, a blogger at The Huffington Post and works with youth and art through his company, Living Folklore, based in Arizona.