What is a chronic pain? This term is tossed around so freely nowadays. I don’t think there is one person who isn’t either affected themselves or knows someone who uses this term regularly in describing themselves or their situation. It seems like the pain is all around us!
According to Neil Pearson, who teaches at UBC, lectures worldwide, and has been working exclusively with patients who suffer from chronic pain for over 20 years, “Scientists explain aspects of chronic pain through explanations of neuro-immune plasticity. They are able to show that when pain persists there are relatively permanent changes in neural and immune systems and cells. The problem is that attempting to change these back takes effort, practice, and patience. Our efforts are required, to rewrite this story and to create lasting ‘positive’ neuro-immune changes…and most include disruptions of breathing and muscle tension. For many of us when the story has continued to play for some time, it includes changes in our feelings of competence, difficulties in letting go of tension, being out of balance in life, being disconnected from our life’s purpose, and as such, if we direct our yoga practices (or any contemplative movement practice) towards these, we can rewrite the story.” Persistent, chronic pain requires a different approach for healing than acute pain which usually goes away eventually on its own.
What Yoga Therapy provides is an individualized practice specifically aimed at your needs. This is why it’s important to view yoga therapy as a physical and/or rehabilitation process, not a studio style practice, and also includes integration of practices for mind and breath. We teach students to experience their practice from the inside out. It’s not about how it looks on the outside, it’s about how it feels on the inside.
Viniyoga™ methodology specialist Gary Kraftsow is part of the lineage that I am practicing under. There are several principles that separate this method from others and create its effectiveness in the healing process, and these include:
- Somatic Experience – practicing and feeling from the inside out, not focusing on what you look like on the outside, and befriending your body
- Moving with your breath – allowing your body and breath to move in unison, learning to follow your breath
- Repetition and Stay – the choice to move in and out of a shape or pose, or hold it for several breaths depending on your comfort level
- Individual Sequencing – a collaborative approach where you and your teacher create a practice that is unique to your needs and makes appropriate changes as you progress.
The physical part, called asana, a portion of your practice uses a technique to empower you to check in with your body before and during a posture. First, by going to the edge of pain, that is your baseline, or where you start from. This prevents the sympathetic nervous system [SNS] from firing up, thinking you are going to a place of pain or danger and tightening up even more. You will find yourself forming new habits such as asking yourself, “Is this safe, am I going to increase pain, is this working for me, am I ok here?” By always starting from a place of comfort, listening to your body rather than to generalized cues, and by working through a complete practice in this way, you will begin to change your perceptions of your pain, and notice as it decreases. You will learn breathing practices to integrate relaxation and create the space for your body to move into. Your movement will eventually follow your breath and you will practice breath awareness, noticing the quality of your breath. Your thoughts are reflected in the quality of your breath and your breath is a reflection of the quality of your thoughts.
You will also learn positive mindfulness techniques to change how you perceive your pain and start to work from a place of comfort. This allows you to move away from the painful story toward a place of feeling comfortable in your body again and reconnecting with your true self. This part of the learning may also involve surrounding yourself with positive minded friends and supportive people, or be joining a group of others who also want to play a meaningful role in their personal healing.
Restorative Yoga poses are vital to bringing the body into the Relaxation Response, where the parasympathetic nervous system [PNS] replaces the fight, flight or freeze state of the SNS, taking you to a place of deeper relaxation where healing of the body and mind can take place.
There are many studies that are ongoing in support of evidence-based knowledge regarding Therapeutic Yoga. In the International Journal of Yoga Therapy [IJYT], No.26, 2016, Mindful Yoga Pilot Study Shows Modulation of Abnormal Pain Processing in Fibromyalgia Patients, J.W. Carson et al. report that their, “program showed significantly greater improvements on standardized measures of fibromyalgia symptoms and functioning, including pain, fatigue, stiffness, poor sleep, depression anxiety as well as improvements in measure of relaxation, acceptance, and vigor.”
In my teaching of therapeutic yoga, I have witnessed the physical and lifestyle benefits for my clients. I am currently midway through my Certification of 1000 hours as a Yoga Therapist, (CYT) with Maggie Reagh, founder of Yoga Therapy International, and look forward to many years of service to those who are searching for a path to healing. With loving self-awareness and compassion for yourself, learning to listen to your body’s whispers so that it won’t need to scream, and letting your body know it’s OK to let go and breathe, you will come to know that you are not your pain! Listen to your body more than you listen to your pain.
I’ll be away in India for further training through January and February but I look forward to reconnecting with clients in March. We have brought on another colleague to provide therapeutic yoga in my place while I’m away, Janet Richardson, and I’m excited for you to meet her! Please look for the announcement on our website and social media soon! Until March, may peace be with you and your families through the holiday season, and I’ll be sending warm thoughts from the warmth of India!