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Pain tolerance and yoga

I recently found a research study focusing on pain tolerance and yoga that I found quite interesting. The study measured tolerance to cold and heat pain in control and yoga-practicing subjects and saw yoga practitioners were able to sustain pain twice as long as controls. Using MR imaging they also reported increased insular cortex volume in the yogis’ brains, which was positively correlated to the number of years the subject had practiced yoga.

The discussion addresses some thought-provoking concepts regarding possible mechanisms underlying the effects they observed and the perception of pain in general. They pointed out the possible confounds involving the placebo effect in pain research, as the expectation of pain lessening is actually quite effective in easing the pain. They also discussed with the subjects their mental strategies to deal with the pain and suggest that strategies used by yogis that “increase their parasympathetic activation and interoceptive awareness” may have strengthened (and enlarged!) the brain’s pain processing center. Some of these strategies such as focusing on the sensation and accepting the painful sensation may seem counter intuitive, as they were the exact opposite method of the control subjects, who mainly chose to ignore the pain or distract themselves.

Although I am still learning a lot about the pain modulating system in the brain, this study highlights the distinction that pain is a subjective experience. Are the yoga practitioners actually feeling less pain, or they are feeling it and accepting it? It would be fascinating to run a study like this using PET imaging or fMRI to see real-time brain dynamics in yoga practitioners with enlarged insula.  ~Misha

Check out the article here:


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