This post is excerpted from the new book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain.
1. Balance Effort and Ease
You may have approached other forms of exercise or stretching with an attitude of 100 percent effort—go all out, push yourself to your limits. This approach is more likely to cause chronic pain than cure it, and in yoga, it is a guaranteed one-way ticket to injury.
Instead of pushing to your limits, think about staying in a 50 to 60 percent effort zone. You should be able to breathe smoothly, maintain the integrity of your form, and even put a smile on your face in any yoga movement or pose. Exert yourself just enough to meet the demands of a movement or pose, with the least amount of tension in your body or mind.
If you find yourself holding your breath or straining to breathe, you are pushing harder than you need to. If it feels like you are fighting the pose rather than enjoying it, take the effort down a notch or rest.
2. Pay Attention
Yoga is healing because it reunites mind and body. Yoga is not something the body can do while the mind is otherwise occupied. Mindfulness—paying attention to what you are doing as you do it and how it feels to do it—unlocks the full benefits of a movement or pose.
As you practice a movement or pose, really pay attention to what you are doing and how it feels. This is especially important when a pose creates strong sensations in the body, like the sensation of a deep stretch or the sensation of muscles working to support you.
It is tempting to block these sensations out, especially if you have learned to do this with pain. If you aren’t really paying attention to how a pose feels, safe and healthy sensations can be misinterpreted by the mind as pain. This will trigger a stress response that increases tension and pain.
On the other hand, if you ignore sensations that are true warning signs, you are at risk of injuring yourself. If a pose is painful, come out of the pose and rest.
3. Follow the Law of Karma
In yoga, karma simply means that every action has consequences. This is true for all yoga poses, but the effects of a pose will differ from person to person and even from day to day.
To keep your yoga practice healing and not harmful, you need to become a student of cause and effect. As you pay attention to the consequences of your practice, you will learn how to stick with what is most healing and avoid poses or movements that are not as helpful for you.
As you practice, notice the effect each movement or pose has on your body. Do you feel comfortable? Are you straining to breathe or breathing easily? Are there any new sensations in the body—and if so, are they painful or pleasant? If you change something about the way you are doing the pose, does it change how the pose feels? After the pose, is there more or less pain? Did the pose increase or release tension in the body?
Pay attention to how you feel later in the day and even the following day. Are you in more or less pain? Do you feel more or less stressed? How is your energy? How is your mood? How did you sleep?
4. Make Yoga a Part of Your Life
Don’t make yoga so complicated or time consuming that you have to force yourself to do it. You don’t need to go to a class or do an entire yoga DVD to receive benefits. Doing a little bit of movement every day is better than doing one hour once a week. Doing a few minutes several times throughout the day is even better.
Once you know a few breathing exercises and poses, look for five to ten minutes here and there to move, breathe, and stretch. When you are experiencing greater pain or stress than usual, take the time to practice your favorite relaxation pose or breathing exercise.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a yoga instructor and health psychologist at Stanford University, as well a sthe author of Yoga for Pain Relief.