Research summary: How does yoga change the way we think about pain and what we do when we experience it?

This is one of few studies that examine the personal experience of pain, rather than clinical symptoms and function. Seven adults with pain for over a year participated in a specially-designed 8-week Hatha yoga program that included home practice. Researchers uncovered three main ways yoga appeared to change participants’ experience of pain: renewed awareness of the body; transformed relationship with the body in pain; and acceptance of the body in pain.

Name of paper Yoga for Chronic Pain Management: A Qualitative Exploration. Abstract available here
Authors Yvonne Tul, Anita Unruh, and Bruce D. Dick.
Journal Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences; 2011; Volume 25.

What the researchers wanted to find out
To explore perceptions of pain during a weekly yoga program.

How they did it
Group classes included opening and closing breathing exercises, five to twelve postures, and a guided deep relaxation exercise. Participants also practiced at home daily using audio CDs. Researchers observed participants during group classes and conducted in-depth interviews.

What they found
Participants said practicing yoga made them more aware of how habitual thoughts and behaviours made their pain worse. They could then choose to do something different to reduce it (such as stretch, or breathe) rather than avoiding.

This increase in control enabled them to accept their pain, and realise they had the capacity to change their relationship to pain.

Almost all reported greater physical confidence with more options to reduce pain or continue with tasks despite some pain.

The researchers ultimately found yoga can be used to rediscover parts of the body that aren’t in pain, and as a way to rebuild a meaningful and harmonious relationship with the body despite pain.

Practical pointers for working with people with pain

  • Mindful breathing or movement can interrupt attention to pain and reduce its interference.
  • For some, focusing on breath made them more aware of pain. Teachers should be aware not everyone is ready to “go into the pain”.
  • Focusing on breath also helped participants notice other sensations in the body, including body parts that weren’t in pain.
  • While postures were adapted for each participant’s health conditions, the benefits they describe are not about healing injury or getting a stronger body. Yoga’s benefit seems to be more about how you experience your body, than as a physiotherapy-equivalent.


  • Study sample was very small (not uncommon for qualitative studies).
  • Interviews were conducted 4 weeks after the last yoga session. This means they were relying on memory, which is inherently unreliable.

Of note
As time between yoga classes and reflection increased, participants were more likely to give generalisations and interpretations (stay outside the experience), rather than describe the experience from an internal perspective (i.e. their true feelings and sensations). The program taught participants to pay attention to body and mind during yoga, without concern for a desired physical or mental outcome.


This research summary was produced by Georgia Smith, research assistant intern, and Rachael West, Yoga for Pain teacher and trainer. It is provided for information and shouldn’t be regarded as medical advice. Please read the full paper in the link above for a full understanding of the topic.

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