This article was first published in Optimyz Magazine‘s Aug/Sept 2018 edition
This article is not about how you can heal your pain through yoga. I think one of the worst things we can tell people with chronic pain is, “I have the solution” “I can fix you” because you’ve heard it a million times. You’ve probably tried a million different things too from diet, exercise, this doctor, this clinic, my friends brother said etc…
What I can share with you is perhaps a tool that you can use to help deal with pain. Gentle movement patterns for the good days to keep the blood flowing, your joints moving. The mindfulness techniques for when the pain takes over and it seems to be all you can think about.
Chronic pain no matter where it is experienced is debilitating. The physical is obvious, but what about the other areas of our lives that are impacted. We are in pain, struggle to find a comfortable position to sleep and so sleep becomes compromised. We are tired all day which accelerates the pain and so we crave caffeine and sugar that furthers the inflammation in our body. Then on top of this we become easily irritated by everyday tasks, a shortened fuse at work or home causing unnecessary arguments and furthering the stress still. Our bodies become tense, adding more pain and we are caught in this horrible vicious cycle where we feel we can’t catch a break on any side. Sound familiar? I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture, but this is the reality for millions of people every day and I think something we need to understand when we look at how we approach and treat those that are suffering.
So where do we start? First, we need to deal with what is happening physically, we have to get to the source of the pain and do what work we can for rehabilitation or at least for it not to get worse. Ignoring this I promise you, will not make it go away. Then, we can do yoga.
How do I do yoga when it hurts to move? The good news is yoga is so much more then how we perceive it to be. To say “do yoga” refers to get my mat out and do a bunch of poses. However what yoga really is, is so much more. Yoga teaches us how to reconnect to self. To honor and accept ourselves for who we are today. Yoga as it’s understood through yoga philosophy is science of the mind. Yoga teaches us how to calm our monkey minds so that we can be present, centered and calm. How do we get there? Through the eight limbs of yoga. These are the yamas and niyamas which are both how we interact with the world and also how we take care of ourselves including non-violence, acceptance, discipline and surrender. The following limb is asana or the poses, we then move to pranayama or breathing techniques (of equal value to the poses) the last four limbs are all connected to meditation: pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses, dharana or concentration, dyana the meditative mind and finally samadhi or bliss body.
When we begin to see and understand the full expanse of Yoga, the power of its healing benefits becomes more apparent. When we start to practice these different layers, this experience is felt. The following are different exercises to try, some will come easier than others but remember we call it yoga practice not yoga perfect.
Breathing is the only function that we have that crosses both our somatic nervous system (movements we control: like typing, scratching our nose) and our autonomic nervous system (movements we don’t control: heartbeat, digestion) Our breath is always present as we require oxygen to stay alive, however we generally only use 10-20% of our lung capacity. On top of this, in times of pain (both physical and emotional) our breath becomes even more shallow or we may even hold our breath. By focusing on deep and full diaphragmatic breathing, we feed our body oxygen rich blood giving it more sustenance and thereby energy. By somatically controlling our breath, we are also able to cross over into our parasympathetic nervous system, an autonomic function responsible for calming us. Parasympathetic is also known as rest or digest, the only place that healing can occur. In addition to all this, the simple act of following our breath in and out is a meditation of its own, allowing us to step away from pain, or breathe through it, if only for a moment.
Breathing practices for chronic pain should include:
Three-part breath:with one hand on belly and one hand on chest, feel the breath move from belly through rib cage to chest and back again with each inhale and exhale
Alternate nostril breathing:covering the right nostril, inhale through the left nostril. Then covering the left nostril exhale through the right. From here, inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this 6-8 times.
Equal ration breathing:using three-part breath, equally count inhales to exhales so they match in duration. Practice this for 3-5 minutes
Tips for Poses:
- Move the spine in all directions, pain free and do what you can.
- Practice modifications, if you aren’t sure, ask your yoga teacher to show you some.
- Chair Yoga provides many options for those recovering from surgery, unstable with balance or needing a cane or walker, or for those that use a wheelchair.
- Remember movement is good for you, once again movement that is pain free. If you are experiencing shoulder pain, standing poses with hands on hips is a great option. If you are experiencing knee pain, using a chair and stretching and flowing through your spine and arms will help the rest of you feel good.
- With arthritis and fibromyalgia, yoga as exercise has been proven to help. Move on days with less pain, rest on the days with more. Always move in a pain free range of movement (have I said this before!) gentle stretching in the morning and evening can go such a long way in daily pain management.
This one is huge! Mind over matter. A regular meditation practice will give us clarity of mind, reduced stress (thereby reduced tension and reduction in pain) and the ability to be present. Presence is an interesting concept when dealing with pain as we spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid the present and current pain. What we do want to work with is the ability to sit with the pain and be okay. To notice the other areas of our body that aren’t in pain and to sit in that space. Gratitude meditations are very powerful here.
Through meditation we can also begin to follow the pain and if needed isolate its source. It also allows us to contemplate what might be feeding the pain. Is the stress we are carrying from a toxic work environment or negative relationship feeding the tension in our back and intensifying an old injury? Are there opportunities for more self-care or better sleep habits? Perhaps even examining what is preventing us from simply sitting and quietly following our breath? If the answer is, I can’t sit still – why? and journaling on this. Chairs and props can be used to meditate in a position that is comfortable, soft music or guided meditations can provide a focus for a wandering mind. Start with 5 minutes and slowly build up to 10 or even 20 minutes a day. Try to practice at the same time each day. It won’t be long until you begin to crave this time of stillness and reflection.
Yoga Nidra, also known as yoga of sleep, is a guided meditation practice centred around the body. It is extremely helpful with insomnia as it keeps the mind focused gently drawing you down into an alpha brain wave state where rest can occur. It is said that 30min. of Yoga Nidra is equal to 2.5 hours of sleep. Yoga Nidra can be practiced anytime and virtually anywhere. There are many free resources online available. Richard Miller is my go to source, though there are many. Try a few until you find the one that suits you best.
There are so many layers to chronic pain that quickly become a spider web of frustration. Though there may not be a solution to your pain, daily self-care involving yoga will help. Mood management and better sleep go a very long way in our overall outlook and quality of life. You might not be able to change what happened, or the daily reminders but you can change your perspective. Yoga inspires us to change what we can and be okay with what we can’t. It teaches us to re-connect to self and most importantly to accept ourselves for who we are. A powerful message indeed. Namasté
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