A Little Yoga is All You Need
When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart. ~ Pema Chodron
Breathing in, there is only the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.
~ Thich Nhat Hahn
In addition to my own private therapeutic practice, I've recently begun to offer therapeutic yoga sessions at a physiotherapy clinic in Oakville, which I'm really excited about. It feels as if the benefits of therapeutic yoga are now being recognized by practitioners of more mainstream therapies, and this is an important step as we begin to bring the mind and body into a more healthy balance.
The International Association of Yoga Therapists defines yoga therapy as "the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga." "Empowering" is a key word here. As a yoga therapist and teacher, it's my role to be a guide for my clients, to offer them the tools they need to access their own inner awareness and resources to help themselves heal. Often in the very first session, one of the first tools a client needs is education about the pain system. Education alone has been shown to help relieve persistent pain.
Following are some simple guidelines to use when you've been struggling with coping with pain for a long time. These guidelines are designed to help build awareness, ease tension in the body and mind, and calm the nervous system - all very important to help with pain management.
· How does it feel to breathe? Is the breath soft or does it feel forced or rigid? Is jaw soft? As you exhale, invite the body to soften and release tension. Gradually lengthen the exhale by noticing the pause at the end. No forcing, just observe. Each breath will be different.
· Keep movements small and do not move into pain that feels unsafe or as if you will pay for it later. If this happens, ease out of movement. Watch for increase in pain, discomfort, feeling unsafe, or as if you will pay for it later. Continue to monitor your breath – are you able to breathe longer, smoother, softer?
· Notice where you're holding tension, clenching, or gripping. Keep coming back to the breath, softening your jaw and your gaze.
· Notice your thoughts. Living with chronic pain can be very discouraging, and your thoughts may reflect this. When you notice a hopeless or helpless thought, become aware of the thought. Does it trigger any sensations in the body? Notice this. Bring awareness back to the breath. Is the breath calm, or does it feel shallow and rapid? Can you invite the breath to soften?
Breath, movement, body and mind awareness all work together. As you develop more awareness, you may begin to notice shifts in your pain, in the level of tension you hold. Any pose or movement can be therapeutic if done with easy breath and ease in the body. And any pose or movement can create more pain if you are pushing through, gritting your teeth, or increasing tension/pain. Stay with the breath, and ask three questions throughout practise:
1. Is my breath easy?
2. Does this feel safe?
3. Will I pay for this later?
Keep monitoring throughout your practise. If a pose or movement does not feel safe or you are gritting your teeth and your breath feels hard, forced or pushed, ease out slightly until it feels good, or forego it altogether. You might find that a pose that feels good today does not tomorrow, and vice versa.
Experiment within these safe guidelines and allow your body to release gently. You are reprogramming the nervous system and it takes time for this to happen. The more ease and the more often you can practise, the faster you will get out of pain.
As often as possible, practise:
1. Respite – find activities that you enjoy, even if you can only do a few minutes at a time, to increase the flow of natural pain-killing endorphins in the body
2. Relax – practise a calming activity such as meditation or restorative yoga to calm and rebalance the nervous system
3. Gentle challenge – gentle yet challenging movement that stays within the guidelines above – easy breath, movement feels safe, you won’t pay for it later; to increase the pain threshold.
Begin to notice when your body starts to tighten during the day. Practise taking a few breaths at these times, and consciously bring your awareness to the area. Imagine sending your breath to the area, breathing in relaxation and breathing out tension. Notice any subtle shifts in sensation as you do this. The brain gets good at what it practices, so more you practise this, the better you will get at getting out of pain.
I'd love to hear from you. Have you tried, or would you like to try any of these practices? Do you have any practices that have helped you in the management of pain? Please leave a comment below.
Donna offers a holistic perspective on the relationship and healing of physical and emotional pain.