Pain relief and balance through yoga

Arlene Wellemeyer was looking to relax and unwind after decades at a demanding job.

“When I retired, I thought I could finally move on and do whatever I wanted to do,” says the Hastings, Minnesota resident, who retired in 2013. “But retirement ended by being more stressful than my working years.”

Shortly after retiring, Arlene transitioned into the role of carer, first for a disabled family member and then for her husband after surgery. Meanwhile, Arlene’s body began to break down. She began experiencing severe pain in her lower back and was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in her lumbar spine. Her primary care provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing, Minnesota, recommended physical therapy.

Arlene has had 12 physiotherapy sessions and found it helpful. However, she still had pain in her lower back after the treatment ended, so she started looking for a solution that could help her physically and emotionally during this stressful time.

“My doctor told me that yoga works well for people looking to reduce anxiety and stress,” she says. “So I looked on the Mayo Clinic Health System website and read about private yoga therapy sessions.”

yoga therapy

While all yoga is potentially healing, most yoga in the United States is exercise-focused, says Michele Hoffman, yoga therapist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.

“Yoga therapy is the specific application of yoga practices and teachings to meet people’s physical, mental, and emotional needs,” says Michele. “We study chronic health conditions and learn what yoga practices can help or hurt.”

Yoga therapists have training in anatomy, physiology, and psychology, and they have skills of observation and evaluation.

“Yoga therapy does not replace Western medicine, but it is an effective complementary therapy for treating and managing many health conditions, including chronic pain,” says Michele. “Breathing practices, meditation, and other yoga practices work on the autonomic nervous system. These practices can change a person’s relationship to pain and how they feel about it.”

Other health conditions that may benefit from yoga therapy include:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer — during and after treatment
  • The Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • High blood pressure and other heart diseases
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • post-traumatic stress disorder

“In yoga therapy, our goals are to strengthen what is weak, release what is tense, and bring balance to an individual’s body and life,” says Michele. “A patient’s main goal may be to reduce back pain, but if they also have anxiety or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I can also design a yoga practice to address those issues.”

During a private therapeutic yoga session, the yoga therapist observes a person’s structure, posture, movement patterns, breathing, attitudes and behaviors. Over several sessions, the therapist can design a therapeutic yoga practice to meet goals and needs while respecting their limitations.

Arlene, who describes herself as a perfectionist, says Michele was excellent at dispelling any feelings of awkwardness or apprehension during her individual yoga therapy sessions.

“Michele spoke with me for long enough to find out who I was and what my issues were, then we started with very simple poses and breathing practices which she demonstrated by getting right on the mat with me” , says Arlene. “She was patient and went slow.”

After starting yoga, Arlene quickly found relief from her pain.

“Physiotherapy was necessary in the beginning as it gave me back most of my functionality, but I am convinced that yoga is what helped me get healthy and maintain it,” says Arlene. “I felt an improvement within a week.”

Promising self-care practice

Arlene completed eight one-on-one therapeutic yoga sessions and then felt comfortable enough to join a weekly group therapeutic yoga class and continue practicing from home.

“Yoga requires long-term practice,” she says. “It’s a physical skill as well as a mental intention. You learn it gradually and it just becomes a habit.”

And it is a habit that has remained.

Several years later, Arlene regularly attends a weekly yoga class. She also continues to practice at home, usually two to three times a week, with routines that Michele has created especially for her.

“Besides helping with my pain, yoga has improved my focus and concentration. I’m a yoga devotee. I really like it.”

Check the Classes and Events page for more information on upcoming yoga opportunities.