By: Alison Dunn Sep 03, 2010

Can yoga help relieve your chronic pain? The answer might surprise you.

If you're suffering from chronic pain – whether it's back pain, knee pain or some other type of persistent pain – you might have heard about the benefits of yoga to relieve those aches. But what you don't know about yoga might actually make your pain worse.

"There's a myth out there that if you do yoga, it's automatically good for you," says Eoin Finn, a Vancouver-based yoga instructor with a best-selling line of yoga DVDs. "But it can actually make your neck pain or back pain or other chronic pain worse."

Take someone with a herniated disc in the back, he says. Many yoga poses in bikram yoga, for example, involve bending forward, grabbing on to your feet and pulling hard. If you have a herniated disc, that's one of the worst things you can do.

Does that mean you shouldn't turn to yoga in an attempt to ease your pain? Not at all, says Finn. Yoga is a great way to relieve chronic pain without using drugs or painkillers. You just can't assume that every yoga class will automatically make it better.

The most important thing, Finn says, is choosing the right style of yoga that will alleviate your pain and the right instructor to meet your needs. Here are his tips for finding the right practice for you:

Don't go with the flow: Finn always likes to describe yoga as a type of music: all musicians use the same notes, but play them in very different ways. (There's a big difference between Metallica and Celine Dion, even though they use the same notes!) Yoga is similar to that. Like music notes, there are certain poses to choose from, but the pace at which you go through each pose can be drastically different. Finn recommends staying away from the faster-paced flow-style classes and look for a class that is more detailed, where you stop frequently and examine the poses to ensure you're doing each one correctly.

Talk to the instructor: A yoga instructor can't help you if he or she doesn't know you have any chronic pain issues. It's important you speak to any instructor before class and let him know of any issues you may have. That way, the instructor can ensure you don't do any poses that could aggravate the source of your pain.

Find the source: Yoga is great for helping relieve tension and improve alignment, all of which can help ease pain. But it's important to know what's causing the pain, Finn adds. For example, you may have a sore, tight neck and want to stretch that out in yoga to ease the pain. However, it could actually be the alignment of your chin or shoulders that's causing the pain in your neck, and you need poses that will help strengthen those areas.

Don't tune out: You can't expect yoga to help you if you tune out and don't connect properly with your body while you're practicing. "It's not something you do for an hour and a half once a week," Finn says. Instead, you need to be completely in tune with your body and engage your body and mind for the entire class (as well as for the remainder of your day). Become aware of your body and educate yourself as to how your mind and body are connected. "It's different than a step aerobics class where you just try and feel the burn," says Finn. "[Yoga] is more powerful if you educate yourself and become aware of what is under your skin."

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.