Moving Beyond Pain: A Mindful Journey
“Life is painful. Suffering is optional.” As Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein wonderfully puts it.
If you are in pain right now, you know how draining it can be on your vitality. It may be headaches and migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, sciatica, back or neck pain, pain associated with cancer, or many other reasons. You can choose to ignore it so it just becomes your ‘new normal’, or you can push through it with the help of painkillers and a crooked smile. Then, before you know it, it has become chronic, with associated anxiety and depression.
The third option involves a lot more determination and willpower, but can be highly transforming. Mindful movement.
In my Yoga Therapy practice, where the majority come to seek pain relief, we work together with gentle movement and touch to meet the pain itself and greet it like an old friend who simply needs a different kind of attention. When pain is met with compassion, more often than not the perception of pain transforms into something less debilitating.
Body listening; paying attention in the now
Mindfulness practices are becoming popular because it is the act of breaking down our busy lives into a clear, simple process of seeing things as they are. It’s a bit like stretching out those moments where you are immersed in doing something and everything else ceases to exist. Sounds simple, but it requires a different mindset and loads of practice.
The constant need to achieve can leave you bypassing the very loud call to attention from your body. “I need attention, I am sharp and compressed, I feel sad and sore, I am anxious and tight.” Perhaps a stiff neck that creates pain when turning your head? Mindfulness meditation – focusing on your breath and each present moment – can lessen cancer pain, low back pain, and migraine headaches. Researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found that when women with chronic pelvic pain participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program, their pain decreased and their mood improved.
Relaxing from the source
Relaxation is not simply the act of putting your feet up, watching TV, reading a book or even sleeping. Something very profound has to take place. Your body, breath, and mind have to unite to spark a sense of ease, clarity, and calm. If you have experienced the relaxation effect of a Reflexology session then you need no further explanation. If you’re not good at relaxing, you’re probably ready to discover something quite profound.
During treatments, you can experience areas of the body where sensory-motor amnesia and tension stop the flow of prana (life force). Experiencing this can be a surprise as over time you can regain control of movement free from pain. When stimulated through Reflexology and breathwork, this energy begins to flow again. Your nervous system, after learning to react to pain cycles, forgets how to relax and operates from the sympathetic nervous system in fight, flight and freeze mode. The problem lies with the fact you may be unaware of this stiffening and tension until you regain a connection with the relaxation response.
That’s when the yoga practice of Pratyahara, the process of withdrawing the sensory responses, begins the introspective process. Pratyahara is the 5th limb of the 8 limbs of yoga. Verse 2.54 in the Yoga Sutras describes pratyahara as:
sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah
“When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara.” Swami Jnaneshvara
This limb of yoga teaches the mind to withdraw from external stimulus, and it is through these senses that we absorb the world around us. A human being as a whole is a combination of body, mind, and spirit. When we ignore our connection with the last two dimensions and just think of ourselves as a physical body, we are primarily acting through our five senses. This limited approach restricts our ability to heal through pain. Practicing pratyahara does not mean running away from a situation or suppressing the pain. Rather, it means being present in the middle of it, being aware of what it is and consciously not reacting but instead choosing how to respond.
In a private Yoga Therapy session we practice Yoga Nidra, a powerful yet simple guided relaxation and meditation technique derived from an ancient tantric practice known as nyasa. It involves a systematic relaxation and purification at the physical, mental and emotional levels.
Yoga nidra can easily deepen into a blissful experience where the body sleeps but the awareness remains active as it descends through the layers of the mind. Swami Satyananda
Contentment and relaxation are our natural state of being. Just as pain, thoughts, and emotions affect breathing patterns, our breathing patterns can reverse stressful feelings and change our physiology.
Dysfunctional breathing can contribute to a range of medically unexplained symptoms and inhibit the healing process and the response to treatment or therapy. Tess Graham, BreathAbility.com Canberra
Many if not most of us are chest breathers, sipping air because we may feel rushed or anxious, or unable to take a deep breath because we feel uninspired or depressed. In chronic pain states, breathing can be strained, shallow and mainly higher into the thoracic region. Experts agree that individuals with tensed muscles and in an anxious state of mind are generally known to breathe through their chest.
When we are feeling content and relaxed we are drinking deeply from the lower part of our lungs around the diaphragm, a skill that needs to be re-learned, particularly because it switches us into the parasympathetic nervous system where we find a relaxed state of mind. Yogic breathing with prolonged exhalation relaxes most skeletal muscles and calms the mind.
Yoga for mindful movements
Having a home yoga practice helps you to tune into a feeling state that’s intuitive and present. It changes the way you move and awakens a new level of self-awareness. Posture changes and your breathing becomes a main focus, as it bridges the gap between the mind and the body.
Yoga Therapy helps to refine your self-awareness and cultivate more presence in your life beyond the yoga mat. Emphasis is on the natural and fluctuating breath, and seeing how our breath and mind are intimately related. So much of our thoughts and actions are conditioned and habitual. The mindfulness helps us to see this conditioning, and in seeing this we can begin the process of freely choosing how to respond, rather than blindly react.
The culturing of the body and mind that happens through regular yoga inputs brings about an equanimity of perception, which makes conventional inputs including analgesics more effective in controlling the distress of chronic pain. Quality of life has been described through the ‘gap theory’ as the discrepancy between an individual’s expectations and perceptions of a given situation – the smaller the gap, greater the quality of life.
Yoga is one input which effectively brings down this gap by influencing both the components of the ratio. Nandini Vallath
Embracing your individual needs
If you are suffering from chronic pain, you will benefit from Yoga Therapy individually tailored to your needs. Yoga Therapy treats the underlying cause of health balances, which in turn reduces the symptoms, reawakening a sense of peace and spiritual connection to the self that often gets lost in the busyness of life. Your initial assessment is to discover your individual needs and responses, and will be followed through with a personally designed practice and reviews. You can even do this online via Zoom from anywhere in the world. Even from the comfort of your home.
Yoga Therapy Programs are ideal if you are looking for a yoga practice that targets your individual pain needs or have a chronic health issue that doesn’t allow you to get to a class.
Please consult your medical practitioner for advice on your pain relief. The recommendations above are giving you a choice in your Complementary Health Care Plan.
Simply take the first mindful step.
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