14 Feb Research shows yoga helps with fibromyalgia, so why isn’t everyone doing it?
Our 12-week Yoga for Pain Program has been running since 2012 and we have seen great results. I catch myself charming dinner guests with detailed explanations of how the world would be a better place if only doctors prescribed yoga for everyone with fibromyalgia! But, I know that yoga isn’t for everyone and the most important thing is that you have a practice that makes you feel better and gets you where you want to be.
For those who are curious about yoga here are key things to know about when yoga works, and when it doesn’t. You should find that the principles apply to other activities too. (Point 2 is my personal favourite.)
Let’s begin with a bit about the research. 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 this, 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 of us know yoga as the modern postural style taught in most yoga schools in the west. Even within this one style of yoga there are many variations. Classes may be gentle, strong, relaxing or acrobatic.
It’s best not to begin your relationship with yoga with a hard-core, drop-in early morning session attended by gym junkies. Even if you have a fabulous time while you’re there you may crash later, experience a pain flare up, and decide yoga isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Be realistic, choose a class that suits your body and offers an environment you feel at home in.
2. The way yoga is taught is probably more important than what you do
When a research article cites evidence that yoga helps women with fibromyalgia, it’s important to read between the lines to understand how that yoga was taught. Participants in the study mentioned above didn’t attend just any yoga class. They participated in a term of tailored yoga of awareness classes that included discussion and information about pain management. These additions would have helped them make sense of what they were learning and get better results.
Whether you choose yoga, tai chi, croquet or roller-skating, the pedagogy (teaching principles) impact your progress as much as, and probably more than, ‘what’ you are doing. We have found through Yoga for Pain that there are better results when people have time to share experiences (without wallowing), learn the theory behind their practice, and set meaningful goals that they are held accountable to.
3. Even beginners classes can be challenging when your nervous system is sensitised
For many, even simple movements lead to a pain flare up. This is because your nervous system is sensitised and is warning you not to overdo it. The good news: you can change this response.
When taught appropriately, yoga helps with pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia by calming the nervous system. You thereby reduce the body’s fear of sensations. Yoga for Pain begins more gently than most people think possible. This provides time to soothe the nervous system, and build confidence in the body. While it feels slow initially, you actually make faster progress in the long run.
4. 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 the evidence that 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 flareup so you persist in order to experience long term benefits for your body and mind.
Yoga for Pain Care Australia runs training for yoga teachers and health professionals. For those with pain and fibromyalgia Yoga for Pain programs are offered in person and online.