By Shannon Sexton, Yoga+
Do you have pain in your neck, back, or shoulders? Do you suffer from a repetitive stress injury, fibromyalgia, migraines, or osteoarthritis? According to recent national studies sponsored by Partners in Pain, at least one person in almost half of America’s households suffers from chronic pain. Of these, 78 percent are so dissatisfied with their conventional pain-control medications that they are willing to try new treatments, and 43 percent would spend more money on such a treatment if they knew it would work. Over half report that pain affects their overall mood and disturbs their sleep, and 80 percent believe their pain is something they just have to live with. Ayurveda has a different point of view.
According to Robert E. Svoboda, “Ayurveda welcomes and accepts pain, even while trying to relieve it, for Nature intends pain to be a multi-layered message to us. Underlying the immediate directive–stop using that body part!–lies a request to look into our lives and see what we are doing to create this misery.”
If you tend to ignore your body’s messages until pain overwhelms you, try to catch the problem earlier. Certain unconscious habits–holding your breath, chronically tensing your muscles, suppressing your emotions, eating overprocessed, refined food, ingesting too much caffeine or not enough water–make us more susceptible to pain because they aggravate vata, the dosha that is always involved when there is pain. If you can step back and observe which of your activities and habits contribute to the problem, you can start to undo your pain naturally.
Next: 6 ways to help relieve pain
Since everyone is different, it’s best to find an ayurvedic practitioner who can tailor a program to your individual needs. In the meantime, here are a few remedies that anyone with chronic pain can try.
Systematic relaxation — The next time you’re inclined to pop a pill for your symptoms, spend 10 minutes doing a systematic relaxation in shavasana (corpse pose) instead. This practice can reduce muscle spasms, relieve tension, and calm the mind naturally.
Massage — In the ayurvedic tradition, regular oil massage, or snehana, is revered as a highly effective form of therapy for all sorts of ailments. Massage helps reduce pain because it tames vata, allays joint and muscle stiffness, increases circulation, mobilizes toxins, and relaxes the body. Find a qualified therapist to work with once a month. (Once a week would be even better.) Or, for a more inexpensive alternative, simply give yourself an oil massage daily.
Diet — Food is a powerful healer, too. Follow a vata-pacifying diet of warm, moist, mildly spiced, nourishing foods for a month and see if it makes a difference. The sweet, salty, and sour tastes are all vata pacifying–just make sure you find natural, healthy sources of sweets (like ripe plums, pears, or dates) and don’t overdo. Overeating aggravates vata.
Gentle asana — Pain can discourage us from stretching and moving the way we normally do, but restricting your movement will only compound the problem. Toxins accumulate where there is stagnation and congestion in the body, and this causes pain. Contracting and relaxing our muscles with gentle asanas relieves the stagnation by mobilizing blood, lymph, and synovial fluid. Even 15 minutes of stretching every morning or evening will make a world of difference.
Aromatherapy — Studies show that the essential oils of rosemary and thyme increase blood flow to muscles and create warmth, while peppermint and myrtle have temporary painkilling effects. Sprinkle a few drops into an aromatherapy diffuser, a hot bath, or your massage oil–and enjoy. (If you’re using essential oils on your skin, test first before applying broadly.)
Herbs — Turmeric and ginger help reduce inflammatory pain, while valerian, kava kava, chamomile, skullcap, passionflower, hops, and jatamansi (the “Indian valerian”) help combat tension-related pain. And since chronic pain is often a combination of inflammation and tension, these herbs are often sold in combination formulas. They’re available online and at many health-food stores.
What Causes Pain?
Whenever the flow of energy (prana) or physical fluids like blood or lymph is obstructed, we experience pain. Pain can be caused by spasm (vata), inflammation (pitta), congestion (kapha), or toxin accumulation (ama). But because they all block movement, the vata dosha is always involved.
Shannon Sexton is the Editor at Large of Yoga+ Magazine