I have taken a story I heard and made it my own. The story begins with the concept of energy as marbles.
My last blog post generated questions about the chronic pain video that was attached. What kind of yoga did Linda do? How much did she practice? Here is some context for her remarkable story.
Linda has been a yoga student in one of my weekly classes for quite a number of years. As she describes in the video, she arrived in pain and usually felt better when she left – the pain was eased physically and she was also more relaxed. The benefit, however, was not sustained, and she was plagued by chronic pain in multiple joints as well as neck and spine pain. This led her to be concerned about her condition as well as fatigued from managing her life with pain as a constant companion.
In the summer of 2012, I challenged the students in one of my classes to start a brief (and I really mean brief) daily home practice. I created what we affectionately called the "10-Minute Practice" because I assured them they could do it in 10 minutes or less. I created a stick-figure diagram with breathing instructions so they would have a guide to practice with at home and we reviewed it in class. It has 3 postures! A video version is below.
A number of students began to practice it daily and Linda was among them. She noticed that it helped diminish her morning stiffness and it also helped her feel centered to start her day. Interestingly, within a couple of months Linda decided to go on a diet, something she had not been considering previously. Over the next 20 weeks, she lost 25 pounds and she has kept them off ever since! The combination of daily yoga practice and weight loss seems to have markedly changed Linda's pain.
As Linda and I were talking about this blog, we both wondered if it was her daily yoga practice that created the right environment for her to embark on her diet. Her successful discipline in doing this 10-Minute Practice helped build her will and remind her that she could take on and follow through with new activities for self-care!
Pain has been my regular companion for most of the past 12 years and for the past few days it has been pretty noisy. It continues to require both my energy and focus to establish and re-establish a sense of well-being as pain makes me tired and worn out and distracts both my thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you know the feeling.
There are a number of things that I know to be true for me:
-- First, there is the source of pain (the particulars in my body).
-- Second, there is my reaction to the pain.
The source of the pain might be known -- an injury, a surgical incision, a mouth sore (my current issue) -- or it might not be. As part of the normal physical response to pain, other parts of the body are activated -- muscles tense to guard and protect against further aggravation, complex nerve signals are triggered from the brain.
Sometimes I am able to change the pain -- either diminishing it or completely eliminating it. At other times, I cannot do anything about the pain. I should add that there is definitely a role for drugs in pain management. The worse the pain gets, the harder it is to manage it. So I have learned when it is time for me to haul out the pharmaceuticals. I know where that threshold is for me. Do you know where yours is?
Even if I cannot change the pain itself, I can almost always change my reaction to it. That reaction is characterized by fear (How long is this going to last? What does it mean?), anxiety (Will I be able to sleep? Can I work today? Is it time for drugs?), self-pity (This is not going away. Poor me!), and a deep sense of denial/rejection -- not wanting this pain in my body, wanting things to be different. When I change how I respond, I can often relieve the secondary physical symptoms and almost always ease both my emotional and mental state.
There are many techniques for managing your reaction to your pain. My impulse is mostly to reject it, ignore it, or want the pain to be different. For me, the place to start is to look straight at what is happening now -- the physical sensation, the emotions, and the things I am saying to myself. What helps me most is practicing -- really practicing! -- wanting what is present in any moment. That trains me not to direct my energy at rejecting the current reality, and it also prepares me to face the more challenging difficulties in my life. This kind of practice can and should occur even when there is no pain present, and we can all benefit. There is no way to avoid pain in this life.
Below is one woman's story of how yoga helped her with chronic, debilitating pain.
In addition to yoga, I have also found mindfulness-based meditation, systematic body scans, and guided imagery extremely helpful. If the pain is severe and compelling, I have a small library of MP3 files I can call upon: When it is just too hard to wade up thru the haze of pain and to focus, another voice can really help.
What techniques have you tried? What didn't work? What does? What have you learned?
I know from painful personal experience that I can be overwhelmed and frightened by the circumstances of my life. It took the illness and death of my husband and my own brush with life-threatening illness for me to learn the most basic lesson of self-care:
If I control my breathing, I shift my emotions and the sensations in my body.
Science has shown over and over again that we quite literally change the autonomic nervous system when we relax with the change in our breathing. What does that mean in real terms?
- Lower your blood pressure
- Decrease your heart rate
- Improve your digestion
- Improve the efficacy of your immune system
- Decrease stress hormones
All this (and more) just by changing your breath? Yes, this really works. There are many ways to do this and each of us needs to discover a technique that works for us personally.
One simple breathing practice:
- Bring your awareness to your breathing.
- Notice the breath and how you experience it. Do you feel the temperature at the openings of your nostrils, cool as you breathe in and warm as you breathe out? What parts of your body are moving? Does your abdomen expand on inhale and relax on exhale? Are your ribs perhaps moving out as you breathe in and letting go as you breathe out? Are you breathing through your nose, your mouth, or some combination of the two?
- Intentionally slow down your breath, exerting as little effort as possible.
- Take 5 slow and easy breaths.
When you have completed 5 breaths, allow your breathing to return to normal and notice how