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Yoga strengthens mind, body; ousts pain

Published On: Aug 23 2012 01:58:01 PM CDT   Updated On: Jul 30 2010 05:41:11 AM CDT

When people are in pain, the last thing they may think to do is exercise; however, health and lasting relief come from fixing or maintaining the root cause of pain. Building strength and maintaining flexibility will help keep even progressive conditions manageable.

Still, no one wants to make pain worse, so a gentle approach is the most logical. Yoga is type of low-intensity exercise that uses stretching poses and focused breathing and can be done almost anywhere.

Yoga may have gotten a new-agey sort of rap, but it's no passing trend. Nearly 11 million Americans practice yoga, and the effects it has on the mind and body have been documented.

Yoga doesn't just stretch muscles. It also stretches all the soft tissues in the body, including ligaments and tendons, increasing range of motion and improving posture. Yoga can also provide benefits for those suffering from chronic medical conditions, from asthma to arthritis.

The meditative aspect of practice helps train the mind to focus on the body and be more aware, while the physical poses help to build strength, flexibility and balance.

Breath To Relax, Refocus

The human body has what's called a sympathetic nervous system, which fires up in response to stress and can create tension and intensify pain. Natural instincts stimulate fight-or-flight survival modes, which respond to pain by taking short, rapid breaths that create more stress for the body and can actually irritate inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.

"The best way to unlearn chronic stress and pain responses is to give the mind and body new, healthier responses to practice," wrote Dr. Kelly McGonigal, in her book "Yoga For Pain Relief."

The cornerstone of yoga is slow, focused breathing. Mastering controlled breathing can calm the natural nervous response, breaking the destructive pattern and relaxing the mind and body while inputting fresh oxygen into the blood.

Boost Body Awareness, Focus

Yoga practice also helps discipline the mind, as meditation is part of the process. The beginning of any yoga practice starts with clearing the mind, focusing only on steady breath.

These concentration techniques help raise body awareness and help teach how to push stressors -- like the busy work day coming at the end of the week -- out of the mind. With practice, that clarity can transcend a yoga session and be incorporated into daily life.

Instructors will often use imagery to draw the mind into focusing on certain emotions or parts of the body. Unless an area is in pain or feels different, it's easy not to focus on it and think about something else. Frequent yoga practice helps the mind to understand how muscles and different parts of the body feel regularly, making it easier to detect changes quickly.

The self-discipline and awareness can also change the way the body experiences and responds to pain, and has even been known to help ease labor pains.

Choose The Right Practice

Yoga comes in many shapes and sizes. Some forms are fast-paced while others are slow, involving poses held for minutes at a time.

"There are yoga practices for relaxation, reducing stress, dealing with difficult emotions, examining your thoughts and beliefs about pain, and training the mind to be less reactive to painful sensations," McGonigal wrote.

Some styles, like ashtanga or power yoga, are vigorous and help build muscle tone. Iyengar yoga, however, focuses on precise alignment and helps improve posture.

Yoga is accessible to nearly everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. Even for those with limited mobility or health risks, learning tools like blocks and blankets can be used to introduce the newcomer to poses. Certified Yoga instructors can also help design a custom routine.

Any yoga practice will develop over time. As you get used to the poses and flexibility increases, the poses can be adapted or the stretches deepened to develop and advance the practice.

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