Yoga and Chronic Pain - A Personal Journey
As a yoga teacher and counsellor, I love helping other people in their journeys towards health. I’m not talking about the health in terms of the images of incredibly strong and bizarrely flexible people that saturate the media, I’m speaking of the health of mind, body and spirit that I believe we can all achieve.
As part of my teaching, it’s important for me to have an intellectual understanding of how the body and mind react to pain and how to guide people safely into postures that are suitable for their own unique bodies. My understanding of chronic pain isn’t just an intellectual one however as my own journey into yoga originated from many years of chronic pain.
Having no medical diagnosis of anything other than hyper-mobility and then, much later, fibromyalgia, I have spent many years trying to find the ‘perfect treatment’ that would make my pain go away. I developed an undeniable feeling that not only was my body not my friend, it was also not ‘in my control’. I found myself continually looking to outside sources to try to gain some brief sense of peace, comfort and relief from my pain.
The emotional, psychological and physical impact of pain is often underestimated. Chronic pain is incredibly disempowering and a vicious cycle frequently develops whereby the body hurts so much that we know we need to stretch it out, move around and strengthen it, yet we feel unable to do so precisely because the body hurts so much!
Breaking the cycle often feels impossible; especially as we are often told that our symptoms won’t just go away. Chronic pain means ‘persistent’ pain that lasts over 12 weeks and for some, a lifetime. Chronic pain in particular is often thought to be linked to mind and emotions which can make it all the more overwhelming. Certain chronic pain conditions come with ‘labels’ of being ‘made-up’ or are considered to have no significant physical basis so we may wonder if we will be ridiculed, misunderstood or accused of over-dramatising’ our symptoms.
Having had counselling myself which then inspired me to train as a counsellor to help others, I have a great deal of experience in working with emotional pain and feelings of vulnerability. I have learned from my own experience that where chronic pain concerned, relief isn’t always possible through talking alone. I frequently discuss with clients how ‘holding onto’ things in the mind and not expressing our needs and feelings to others not only creates problems with our mental health but with the health of our bodies too. Some chronic pain sufferers may have experienced early childhood trauma (in fact trauma at any stage) which can get ‘locked’ in the body as ongoing pain.
So how does yoga help?!
I'm sure that anyone with any access to media nowadays at all must have heard of the incredible health benefits of yoga and of the peace it can create in mind as well as our body. Yoga isn’t just about the asana (the postures that come to mind when we think of yoga). In fact, the postures were created primarily to bring strength and flexibility to the body so we can sit still comfortably to meditate…this is where the ‘real’ benefits lie. For many people they can work towards sitting meditation with few challenges except the quieting of the mind that meditation requires. For someone with chronic pain however, the very thought of sitting still may create much fear of pain. There will be many thoughts of how impossible this is likely to be for them.
I know this because I clearly remember in the beginning of my yoga teacher training course how very worried I was about sitting still and how awful it would be to really ‘feel’ my pain in that stillness. I won’t say it was easy because it wasn’t but with appropriate props and the use of a wall I learned to come to a seated position to meditate. I struggled with the overwhelming thoughts about the pain sensations in my body. It was hard and I didn’t manage long before I had to shift this way and that to alleviate some of the feelings.
What I also remember incredibly clearly was how very excited and amazed I was the first the time I was able to ‘let go’ of my pain while sitting still. I was able to disassociate from those overwhelming thoughts and sensations just long enough to be ‘free’ of them. They didn’t really go anywhere though, it’s just that I went somewhere else; somewhere that pain didn’t control. I went into a place somewhere deep inside me where a calm and peace prevails. We all have this place inside…we just have to find it.
In the Bhagavad Gita (a well-known and influential Hindu text) it is said that yoga is ‘the journey of the self, through the self, to the self’. That day, in my seated meditation, I journeyed through myself and made beautiful contact with a very different ‘self’ inside. This self was able to let go of pain and find a deeply peaceful place within.
So is this one of those amazing stories where I let go of my pain and have never hurt since? No, it’s not. But it’s still a beautiful and much happier story. I do still experience pain in my body; often my own yoga practise is focused on releasing and relieving that pain. Yet I have developed much strength, increased my flexibility and my body has created shapes I never thought it could. Most importantly though, I have learned that I can be at peace and free from pain.
I don’t always get there day to day but I generally carry less tension and have a sense of being in control of my own body rather than at the mercy of my pain. I look to my yoga mat for help instead of looking outside (though at times a treatment of some sort is just right!)
On days when I struggle more, I come to my yoga mat and I feel better, the postures help relieve some of the pain through stretching and strengthening and my meditation reminds me I can leave the pain behind for a time and enjoy that place much deeper within which holds such wondrous calm.
Currently teaching Very Gentle Yoga for Chronic Pain and Relaxation on Tuesday morning 10:45am at Halo's Clinic, 17B Bluehouse Lane, Oxted, Surrey, RH8 0AA
Classes also available:
Dynamic Yoga Flow at Halo's Clinic Tuesday mornings, 9:30am
Mindful Yoga at Ingledale Therapy Centre, Friday morning, 11:30am
Mixed Ability Yoga at Oxted Library
Saturday mornings, 9:45am